White people have hit the streets in masses in every state to condemn police brutality against African Americans. Confederate monuments are coming down in the staunchest pro-Confederate states and cities. Police officers are taking a knee. Companies like Peloton are declaring that “Black Lives Matter" and throwing money at civil rights organizations. The NFL has even in its own lackluster way sort of admitted that Colin Kaepernick had a point.
The senseless death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis officer by a nearly 9-minute knee to the neck has raised a long-needed consciousness in people. A consciousness black people have been trying to arouse in others for decades.
But all the protesting and calls for action will prove nil if something isn’t done to hold bad cops as accountable as average citizens accused of committing crimes.
Bad cops are too often given the benefit of the doubt and sent home while investigations are conducted, even when crimes are caught on video. If Officer Derek Chauvin, the police officer at the center of Floyd’s deaths, had been a young black man he would surely have been arrested on the spot. Average citizens end up behind bars for far less.
Officials used kid gloves and extra caution in determining whether the other officers present when Floyd died — J. Alexander Kueng, Thomas Lane and Tou Thao — would be charged. They finally were this week after public pressure. How many young lives have been ruined by criminal records because they were associated with a crime but not the main perpetrators?
Recall last year when three Baltimore teenagers were sentenced to 30 years in prison for murdering Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio when they weren’t even present when she was killed. They were burglarizing homes in the area when a fourth teen who was serving as the lookout ran over Ms. Caprio with a stolen Jeep. Because the three teens were involved in a felony crime that results in murder they were deemed responsible as well. Why aren’t cops held to the same standard?
In Baltimore, police records often make many black men unemployable, sometimes for crimes committed during youth. Expungement initiatives and ban the box laws that prevent companies from initially asking about criminal backgrounds have tried to open up job opportunities. But unemployment in this population still remains a problem. Police officers accused of assaults and other crimes, which would end in arrest for any other citizen, too often have their cases settled — at taxpayer expense — and go on to work in different departments.
A Maryland police officer involved in the death of 19-year-old Anton Black in Greensboro on the Eastern Shore in 2018 had been indicted for kicking a black man in the head and breaking his jaw at a previous job in Delaware. Thomas Webster IV was later found not guilty of a crime, but the local government paid a large settlement to the victim.
The USA TODAY Network in an investigation last year found 32 people around the country who were hired as police chiefs or sheriffs even though they were found to have committed serious misconduct, often at other departments. At least eight of them were found guilty of a crime, the news network reported.
If bad cops aren’t held responsible for their actions, they will continue to commit bad acts. If we are to prevent another death like that of Floyd, the country needs to adopt true police reform that no longer allows cops to use violence and inhumane policing tactics with impunity.
At the congressional level House Democrats say they plan to announce sweeping police reform legislation in wake of Floyd’s death. In Maryland, state Sen. William C. Smith Jr., chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, has also announced legislation to put police officer’s feet to the fire when they misbehave.
That leaves me some hope. But we have all been here before. Reform was promised after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. There were efforts, but black deaths in the hands of police have continued.
In Baltimore, the unrest after the death of Freddie Gray was to have sparked an urban renewal in Baltimore. A federal consent decree has forced the department into a slow cultural change, but relations with the community still need work. And may I remind everyone no one was ever held accountable in Gray’s death.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that this time is different and that the country has reached an inflection point. "This was like a tinder box. It has changed everything.”
I certainly hope so. If black lives truly matter, lawmakers need to follow this time of reckoning through with meaningful change. And make sure the protests and show of unity are not in vain.
Police brutality has existed for a long time and technology and video has helped bring it to the spotlight. That technology is useless if nobody acts on it.