Why Police Shootings Are a Federal Problem
It’s a story we’ve heard countless times before: an unarmed person of color, killed by a police officer. The only difference between the case of Walter Scott and so many others, like Tamir Rice and Eric Garner, is that this time there have been consequences for the perpetrator. After an onlooker recorded the shooting, the police officer who killed Scott in North Charleston, S.C., Michael Slager, was stripped of his badge, arrested and charged with murder.
But Slager’s guilt, if it is established in court, will not bring back Walter Scott’s life. Acts of police brutality are symptomatic of larger issues—the lack of police accountability and transparency, as well as broader racial biases—that extend far beyond the pull of a trigger.
And it’s time for government at every level—but especially the federal government—to address them.
It is unfair and insufficient that, when black and brown people are assaulted by police, we have the slimmest chance of justice only if the assault is captured on camera. We need systemic change at the local, state and federal levels to start shifting this unsettling power dynamic. Consider that in 2005, the U.S. Senate approved a resolution apologizing for Congress’ failure to enact a federal anti-lynching law. This history is stained with the blood of more than 4,700 people, mostly black men, who were lynched. To avoid another much-too-late apology to the families of those who are wrongly killed, immediate reforms should happen now to end police harassment and brutality.
One crucial change that must happen at the federal level is amending the standard for bringing civil rights charges against police. Communities of color don’t trust local law enforcement to investigate themselves—and that mistrust is validated, time and time again, by the lack of accountability when most police shootings take place. While the federal government can serve as a more neutral party, the bar for officials to actually bring charges is too high. For example, the Department of Justice closed its investigation into the actions of Darren Wilson, the police officer who gunned down 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., citing “insufficient evidence” to pursue charges because the bar for proof makes it nearly impossible. The statute that the Department of Justice currently uses for prosecutions requires a finding that the police officer willfully deprived someone of their rights. A more suitable standard would be recklessness.
In a recent POLITICO interview, Attorney General Eric Holder also suggested the bar for bringing federal charges is too high. “I think that if we adjust those standards,” he said, “We can make the federal government a better backstop—make us more a part of the process in an appropriate way to reassure the American people that decisions are made by people who are really disinterested.”
Another alarming policy shortfall is the lack of local, state and national data on police stops and use of force, and how those practices pertain to race. Unfortunately, without the data that indicates what some of us know is an extensive problem, some Americans and policymakers remain in denial and refuse to truly tackle police brutality. Without such data, we also can’t fully understand whether Officer Slager was a so-called “bad apple” in a North Charleston Police Department with a sound record, or whether his actions illuminate a larger pattern of racial profiling in that department.
We know compiling this information is achievable, but there is a lack of political will to take on the police lobby and actually mandate it. For instance, the FBI has been required to collect national data on police misconduct since 1994, but local agencies are not required to report. In contrast, the Department of Justice already collects data from school districts around the country on suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests, and that data is broken down by race. This information has been vital to advocates working to address racial discrimination, and holding local officials accountable to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Along the same line, we need to keep track of police stops, excessive force and killings to properly hold local law enforcement accountable to these civil rights abuses.
Such reforms represent positive steps toward the systemic and substantive change we need, but they are not complete solutions. Justice by the notion of a guilty verdict is only one element of a just society.
These issues are embedded within a larger system of structural racism, intrinsic to our nation’s past and present today. We see it in the countless, and important-to-remember, names of unarmed African Americans and Latinos who have been confronted and assaulted instead of protected and served. Only when our nation can face and challenge the ills of racial bias in our society—in addition to acknowledging them in law enforcement and our courtrooms—can we truly claim a free, safe and just democracy.
Judith Browne Dianis is an attorney and co-director of Advancement Project, a national racial justice organization based in Washington, D.C.
This article originally appeared on politico.com.