Police abuse of African Americans – the spark for this weekend’s protests – has a long, ugly history in our country and right here in our community. The City of Rochester took a step forward this year with the creation of a Police Accountability Board with independent authority to investigate complaints of misconduct. But what will it take to end police brutality?
Nationally, police violence is a leading cause of death for young men, and black men are at highest risk, with a 1 in 1,000 chance of being killed by an officer over the course of their lives, compared with a 1 in 33,000 chance for women.1 Structural racism allows this to persist.
As a white woman, mother and organizational leader, I cannot relate to the terror and pain I have heard African Americans express when discussing the police. I don’t know what it’s like to put car keys in a son’s hands, and tremble with fear that they might be pulled over and have an encounter with police that ends in his death. But I have heard this expressed, and I empathize and I want better for our community and nation.
A national tracking project shows the number of police killings has hovered around 1,000 for the last several years2 Some reforms, such as police body cameras, seem to have fallen short of hopes. While some studies suggest that officers wearing cameras may be less likely to use force3 others have found no significant effect.4
But there are many important steps communities can take to reduce and ultimately end police abuses:
- Use data to identify and address police misconduct: Tracking emerging patterns of misconduct by officers provides an opportunity to stop it before it becomes abuse. This was a finding when CGR studied police accountability mechanisms in 2017 for the City of Rochester, as City Council was weighing the creation of the Police Accountability Board.5 Data on traffic stops can be used to stop racial profiling. Using data to measure and manage police behavior is part of the five-point plan outlined by the Center for Policing Equity in advance of the 2020 presidential election.
- Diversify the police force: Although evidence on the impact is mixed, a 2017 study found that once departments reach a “tipping point” of 25% African American officers, fatal encounters level off, and at 40%, they begin to decline6 In the Rochester Police Department, about 12% of officers are African American7
- Adopt policies that restrict use of force: Data suggests that police departments with more restrictive policies on use of force tend to have fewer killings.8 These range from milder steps, such as requiring all uses of force to be reported, to stronger ones, for example, requiring police to use all other means before shooting. Rochester has a policy requiring that officers only use the level of physical force necessary9 – could this policy be strengthened or better monitored and enforced? Do other area police departments have and enforce similar or stronger policies?
- Addressing mental health: About a quarter of people fatally shot by police in 2018 had mental illness. 10 Increasing supports and interventions in the community can play a role in preventing fatal police encounters. Rochester has an Emotionally Disturbed Persons Response Team of officers that have been specifically trained to de-escalate, and the University of Rochester has a response team that will assist in mitigating these situations. Are these resources sufficient, or are more or different approaches needed?
- De-militarization of police departments: Research points to a connection between departments receiving surplus military equipment and shootings.11 To the extent local departments have received any of this equipment, it is worth considering if it should be deployed.
The answer to the protests is not curfews or harsh imposition of law and order – it’s change. Every local community can commit to steps like these and others suggested by the African American community to improve policing and end injustice.