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IN SEARCH OF BALANCE: POLICING, JUSTICE, AND THE PATH FORWARD

an officer and a man on a seesaw, representing trying to find the right balance between good and bad policing

Two recent studies shed light on the complex landscape of police violence and the judicial system's response to it, particularly in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020. A national movement for police reform promised sweeping changes but, according to the New York Times, the outcomes of police prosecutions have been inconsistent, with a mix of convictions, acquittals, and mistrials.

 

According to the Times, legal experts and civil rights activists note that prosecutors have been increasingly willing to charge police officers, yet juries often hesitate to convict, especially in cases involving split-second decisions in violent encounters. Data compiled by criminal justice professor Philip Stinson shows a rise in officers charged with murder or manslaughter from on-duty shootings, from 43 between 2016-2019 to 71 between 2020-2023. However, this data does not include non-shooting deaths like those of George Floyd, Elijah McClain, and Manuel Ellis, indicating a broader scope of police-related fatalities.

 

At the same time, a disturbing study from MappingPoliceViolence.us found that police killed at least 1,213 people in 2023, more than any year in the last decade. The study doesn’t distinguish between those killings that were “justified” versus those that were not, to the extent that any killing is justified.

 

Not surprisingly, the killings disproportionately affect working-class and poor individuals. Certainly, the racial aspect of police violence is complex; while black people are killed at a disproportionate rate, the majority of victims in 2023 were white.

 

No question… being a cop is hard, but it doesn’t excuse behaviors that go beyond legal and ethical boundaries. And certainly the line between appropriate and inappropriate behavior can be fuzzy.

 

Still, the ongoing issue of police violence in the United States continues to underscore the need for a comprehensive societal and systemic overhaul. To address this, a multifaceted approach is required, encompassing not only internal law enforcement reforms but also broader societal changes.

 

Here are some of the key changes suggested by experts, and of course not a single one of them will be easy to achieve:

 

  • Comprehensive Police Training and Community Policing: Enhance police training with a focus on de-escalation, mental health crisis intervention, cultural competency, and community engagement. Shift towards a community policing model to foster collaboration and trust between police and communities.

  • Accountability, Transparency, and Legal Reform: Implement strict accountability measures for police misconduct, including independent oversight and transparent investigation processes. Too many investigations of police misconduct are conducted by those who have a vested interest in not finding any.

  • Mental Health Support and Diversification: Increase the availability of mental health professionals for crisis situations and encourage diversity in police departments to reflect community demographics.

  • Community Investment and Criminal Justice Reform: Invest in essential community services like education, healthcare, and housing to address social disparities. Overhaul the criminal justice system to eliminate systemic biases and ensure fair treatment for all.

  • National Standards and Data Management: Establish national policing standards and create a comprehensive database for tracking misconduct and use-of-force incidents.

  • Judicial System Changes: Ensure independent investigations and prosecutions of police misconduct, reform bail systems, and enhance public defender systems for fair representation.

  • Public Engagement and Reimagining Public Safety: Foster public dialogue and education about law enforcement and judicial processes, and explore alternative public safety models, including non-police response teams for specific situations.

 

These changes require collaboration from government, law enforcement, community leaders, and citizens. They aim to not only reform police operations but also to transform the broader criminal justice system and to address societal factors contributing to crime and unrest.

 

The overarching question is whether our ability to make these changes has slipped out of reach. Has the political system become too polarized to take on these challenges? For some, promoting social justice and equity doesn’t even appear to be a priority.

 

Still, whenever the challenges appear daunting, we try to take the long view. In the words of Dr. King, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Every little step that those of us who care about these issues can take bends the arc just a little bit more. Keep up the good work!

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