I am a white, upper class American man. I won the lucky sperm sweepstakes. I’ve done my share of hard work, but so have many others. I’m where I am by providence, a random twist of fate. I was also fortunate to grow up in the 70’s and 80’s in Berkeley, California in a racially mixed cultural environment due to public school integration.
As a result of this background my closest friends are African American. Nearly fifty years later, we still congregate (physically and, more recently, virtually) and share stories of our youth, our common experiences growing up, and the many wonderful times we have shared over the years. The notion of racism didn’t become a reality for me personally until I went to college. I acknowledge I have white privilege, but I also relate to the experience of my African American friends. I have never been able to comprehend the deep seated racism that has become so commonly expressed in our society of late.
Like many, many others in our country, I am incensed by the events of the past week as it pertains to the brutal murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin. I’m disgusted, furious, heartbroken, disturbed, and hopeless. Institutional racism in our country is nothing new, but the brazen disregard for life that is exhibited by far too many of our public servants is unacceptable and we must do better. Much, much better.
I’ve worked in the private sector for my entire professional life and even at the worst managed companies in the world, such racist, inhumane behavior would never be accepted. It would simply be too risky to tolerate. I recognize that corporations have plenty of problems when it comes to human rights, worker safety, economic disparity, and environmental degradation. Yet there is no example in modern society of a private company tolerating such hatred, violence, and disregard for the rule of law as we find in public law enforcement.
I’m no expert on law enforcement nor social and restorative justice. That said, I can imagine several things we could implement moving forward to avoid the senseless death of people of color at the hands of law enforcement officers.
- Zero-tolerance for racist, homophobic, or sexist behavior among law enforcement:
Many corporations have such policies and there is every reason to implement similar measures in law enforcement. If a report of any police officer exhibiting behaviors that meet clear standard violations is verified, they are immediately terminated and their pension is forfeited. This is just common sense and would lead to modified behavior very, very quickly.
- Senior responsibility for subordinate misbehavior:
If any police officer is found responsible for excessive use of force against any member of the public, not only is that member of the force terminated, but their highest ranking superior is also terminated without pension. This will immediately reinforce the zero-tolerance policy and send a crystal clear message that racist or violent behavior will be dealt with swiftly and permanently. Do you think a Chief of Police will tolerate inappropriate behavior from a member of their team if their own livelihood is at stake?
- Peer responsibility for colleague behavior:
Any officer who is known to have assisted or otherwise facilitated or endorsed inappropriate violent behavior will be immediately suspended for one year without pay. In the case of George Floyd there were several other officers on the scene that could have intervened to save his life and they chose not to. They may not be legally culpable for his death, but they should also be held accountable. It must be clear that everyone has a responsibility to stand up for the rights and liberty of all citizens.
- Strict officer screening requirements:
Detailed background checks must be a part of hiring any law enforcement officer and strict disqualification criteria should be put in place to keep violent, racist, homophobic, and mysoginistic individuals out of the force. If anyone has a history of violence, hate speech, or association with white supremacy or otherwise racist groups they should be immediately disqualified from consideration for any job in law enforcement whether it be local, state, or federal.
- Remuneration to impacted families:
Any individual or family who is impacted by the inappropriate use of force on the part of law enforcement should receive substantial financial remuneration paid directly from the offending organization. These payments should come directly from the paychecks of every member of the organization on a proportional basis based on their pay scale. Just as in the military if one member of a unit misbehaves, all members of the unit pay the price in the form of longer runs, more pushups, or additional KP duty, there must be a self-policing mechanism within law enforcement organizations to keep inappropriate behavior at bay.
I can imagine the riotus response to these proposals. Some will say that by implementing such draconian measures we will drive away hard working, qualified, and good meaning members of the force as well as qualified future candidates. Others will say that these measures go way too far and are disproportionate to the harm done. Yet others will claim that the nature of police work is highly dangerous and that the occasional overreaction of a given police officer is understandable and to be expected. They may even argue it is a fair tradeoff for the largely positive benefit that is provided by community law enforcement.
Of course there is also the political reality of trying to make such drastic changes. In all likelihood it will be nearly impossible to implement the types of measures needed to prevent these incidents from occurring in the future due to the political strength of interests that protect the institutions that continue to benefit from the structural racism in our culture.
I also recognize that the devil is in the details and it is entirely likely that the changes I propose could result in a law enforcement officer being unfairly accused of misconduct. It could even result in a significant economic loss for someone who did nothing wrong. But I strongly believe that risk is an acceptable trade-off to protect lives. We must find a balance between protecting the innocent and restoring justice to communities of color.
To live up to our ideals as a country and to protect the rights of all our citizens, bold, imaginative, and controversial approaches need to be considered. I don’t know exactly what will work, but I certainly know what won’t work. We cannot go on as before. Change must come. When we allow our institutions to continue to compromise the safety and liberty of the most vulnerable in our society, we exacerbate the underlying conditions which lead to the inequity in the first place which perpetuates violence, poverty, disparity, hopelessness, and fear.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not just platitudes from the Declaration of Independence. These are bedrock, progressive values that underpin the most integrated and prosperous country in the history of the world. Yet we are not acting in our own best interests. We are not fulfilling our obligation as a model for the rest of the world. We are failing. We are failing ourselves, our fellow citizens, our children, and our global reputation.
It is time to stop this downward spiral. We have the tools at our disposal, if only we can look past our fear of each other and recognize the immeasurable benefits to all humanity if we improve. We have a choice to make and I, for one, am choosing hope and progress. I hope you will all join me.