Policing in America

Policing in America

In EJI’s work representing people who are vulnerable, marginalized, and condemned, we directly witness and confront biased and violent policing that has targeted Black communities for generations. We have long believed that poverty is criminalized in America, where the justice system treats you better if you are rich and guilty than if you are poor and innocent.

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Over the last five decades, our country has criminalized an increasing number of behaviors and targeted Black communities and communities of color for over-policing and aggressive prosecution. We treat people who are suffering from drug addiction and mental illness as criminals instead of recognizing that such problems require a healthcare response. Our country incarcerates hundreds of thousands of people who are not a threat to public safety and who should be released so that the billions of dollars spent on jails and prisons can be redirected to actually improving community health and enhancing public safety by addressing the conditions that create harm. Currently, the entire system of policing, prosecution, punishment, and incarceration is a barrier to creating a just and safe society.

People living in poverty, the marginalized, and communities of color want and deserve effective strategies that reduce crime and provide support and hope to residents. EJI has previously supported proposals for incremental steps that could be taken. For over 30 years, we have represented society’s most vulnerable people, including people sentenced to execution and children sentenced to die in prison, and we have seen even incremental changes make life or death differences. In advocating for these clients, we have embraced a range of interventions that reduce harm, while always believing in the need for broader, systemic change to how we approach public safety. And the momentum of today’s movement has opened a window of possibility for deeper change in many communities. Law enforcement agencies have outsized budgets while other vital community services are underfunded. In too many places, police engage in patterns and practices that undermine public safety and create harm. Police officers are asked to respond to issues that they are not equipped or trained to address. Approaching health care emergencies, substance abuse issues, mental illness and homelessness with a “law and order” orientation is ineffective and too frequently results in police violence and avoidable injury and death. As even some law enforcement officers acknowledge, we must reimagine public safety and community health, reallocate funds from traditional policing to services that promote public safety and more effectively address the conditions that create poverty, inequality, and community distress.

But to meaningfully reduce the role of police we must also confront the central problem of racial inequality in America. The presumption of dangerousness and guilt that has been assigned to Black people as a result of our long history of racial inequality must be uprooted in order to address the horrific acts of racial violence we have recently witnessed. Mary Turner was eight months pregnant when she was lynched by white men in Georgia because she had complained about her husband’s murder. The spectacle of her body hanging from a tree while the bloody corpse of her unborn child lay on the ground was insufficient to cause this nation to hold people accountable for her murder because she was Black. Thousands of Black people were lynched by white mobs, often with the support and involvement of local police, and our government did nothing. A half century after Emmett Till was killed by white men who grinned and bragged about his murder with impunity, we have not effectively addressed the racism that feeds this violence.

Trayvon Martin and Ahmaud Arbery were not killed by the police but their deaths reveal the threat posed by unaddressed racism. America has been acculturated to accept racially motivated, lethal violence against Black people and that must end. The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd make clear that when racism is shielded with a badge and immunity, made more dangerous with a gun and the authority to kill, policing becomes a source of danger and threat rather than a solution. But there can be no effective strategy to address policing without a broader reckoning with our history of racial injustice and white supremacy. This will mean systemic changes in many spheres. People of color are often mistreated by health care professionals, subjected to discrimination by social service agencies, and menaced by neighborhood groups. Black children are unfairly targeted and punished by teachers and school administrators resulting in suspensions and expulsions that create despair and trauma.

The system of policing and incarceration evolved as a way to maintain racial hierarchy after the Civil War. We will eliminate the scourge of police violence and abuse only if we address the centrality of racial injustice and inequality in America. Because the United States did not commit to racial equality, slavery did not end in 1865; it evolved into convict leasing and de​​cades of racial terror lynchings. Without an explicit commitment to ending racial injustice and the narratives that sustain it, law enforcement and other forms of racial control and mistreatment will continue. Many existing social service institutions already operate in ways that perpetuate racial inequality. Eliminating racism, rooting out white supremacy, and dismantling the racial hierarchy that persists as a legacy of our history must be an explicit and central goal of any meaningful conversation about policing and the treatment of Black people in this country. Public safety and public health in America cannot be advanced without confronting racism.

Our nation is burdened with a history of racial injustice that must be acknowledged and addressed. EJI believes that this moment requires nothing less than a new era of Truth and Justice.