By: Manny Arora
After the tragedies in Brunswick, GA, Louisville, KY and Minneapolis, lawyers, politicians and commentators have blamed “systemic racism” in our criminal justice system for repeated misconduct and now activists are calling to defund the police.
No matter how many Black men are killed, convictions reversed, or protests staged, the clarion call of ending racism in the criminal justice system and defunding the police remains constant with justifiable outrage, but never resulting in meaningful reforms. While race and financial status play a part in how one is treated within the criminal justice system, the issue runs far deeper and well beyond the color of one’s skin. In order to effect serious change we must invest more in training our officers while holding those at the executive level accountable for misconduct.
This month marks the start of my 27th year as a trial lawyer. I’ve worked for 20 years as a prosecutor (in a district attorney’s office and in the military) and 14 years as a criminal defense attorney in my own practice. Most importantly, I’ve represented a White police officer charged with shooting a Black teenager and a Black police officer charged with shooting a Black man amongst other crimes.
Racism in criminal justice is undeniable, but the larger issue stems from a common mindset of law enforcement and prosecutors taking on the social identity of “Team America” propagating the “us versus them” mentality. It doesn’t matter if you’re famous, rich, poor, Black or White. If you are accused, you become the enemy. Justice is only served if those who wear the badge win.
To reform the criminal justice system, we must first be partners to the system. We cannot paint institutions with a toxic paint brush and expect our adversary to then become our partner in fostering change.
Police officers are an essential component to a free society. They function to protect and serve the public. When educated, trained and supported properly, police officers become advocates and not adversaries.
Education is the key to changing perspective. While about one-third of police officers in the U.S. have a four year degree, only about 1 percent of police departments require officers to have a four year degree. A recent study at Michigan State University showed conclusively that officers with a college degree are less likely to use force against citizens and have greater levels of creativity and problem solving skills.
More robust programming in partnership with neighborhoods is also crucial to improving police-community relations. A revolutionary study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found friendly door-to-door visits by officers not only reduces tensions, but builds trust and partnership between citizens and law enforcement. Furthermore, if officers live in the communities they patrol they will have more of an invested interest in the people they serve.
Funding things like college tuition for police recruits and community policing programs is imperative for success. It is the responsibility of both the federal and state government to fund programs that improve community policing and the education of our police officers. The U.S. Department of Justice office of Community Oriented Policing Services doles out billions of dollars to support these programs. States should follow suit and allocate grant money as well.
Additionally, the federal government needs to demilitarize the police. The Department of Defense gives billions of dollars worth of military equipment to law enforcement agencies including tactical gear and tanks through its 1033 program. If the federal government insists in continuing this practice, it should require local law enforcement to allocate more funds to community policing as well as setting higher standards before one can become a police officer.
More support for police officers will enhance community policing, but it won’t reform the system alone. We also must hold the executive level – the district attorneys and judges – accountable for misconduct.
It is our civic duty to educate ourselves on the daily impact the district attorney and judges have on our lives and our community. The district attorney influences law enforcement procedures including who gets charged for crimes. Not one, but two district attorneys in Georgia found no grounds to arrest Ahmaud Arbery’s killers before recusing themselves from the case. It took a public uproar for Georgia’s attorney general to intervene. It took three months for a fourth and final district attorney to be assigned to Arbery’s case.
Further, citizens need to insist upon their right to exert their voices as to who we allow to sit in judgement. Thirty nine states have some form of judicial elections. However, many of these judges are initially appointed to their first term; thereby, making political connections more valuable than experience. In order to be free of political influence and capital cronyism, we must mandate trial judges to be elected, even when a judicial seat is open during non-election years.
Today we are hearing calls to defund the police and some political leaders are acquiescing. Spending less isn’t the answer. Allocating the proper resources and attention to our criminal justice system will foster better community policing and hold our law enforcement more accountable.
There is no excuse for the incidents that happened in Minnesota, Georgia and Kentucky, but the root of the problem is much deeper than race. It is up to us to work together as an entire community to empower leaders with moral fortitude and who will do what is right rather than stand idly by in the face of misconduct.