This week, the country has been saddened and outraged by the death of Daunte Wright, shot by former police officer Kim Potter. Even more grave is knowing his story is just one in a thousand: over the past year, over 990 people have been fatally shot by the police. While people are generally united by the idea that a 20 year-old father having his life cut short is a tragedy, they are highly divided by the question of what caused his death — a fleeing suspect with an outstanding warrant? A police vetern unable to distinguish between her taser and her gun, and in general, incapable of diffusing a situation without resorting to force?
I would offer a third interpretation, with broader implications: a system of policing in America that leads to never-ending cycles of criminalization of Black men, and abuses of police power that are unchecked by government authority, spurred on by the promise of economic gain.
Former Officer Potter was charged on April 14th with second degree manslaughter, as Derek Chauvin currently sits trial for the murder of George Floyd in the third degree. The nation may see some rare justice (less than 2% of officer-involved shootings result in criminal convictions) served by the courts, but the courts can’t bring these men back home to their families. What we can do while these trials run their course is further focus on prevention: the policies and practices that would minimize police shootings and their disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Behind the specific acts of Kim Potter and Derek Chauvin is an entire system of policing that creates the circumstances under which Black Americans are killed by the police at over three times the rate of White Americans. Irrespective of race, too often officers face minimal accountability measures for fatal shootings.
In a country equally driven by its politics and its economy, there’s always a money story behind the story. So what does money have to do with effective policing and police accountability?
That’s the story I sought to unpack in connecting with civil rights attorney S. Lee Merritt, Esq., who spoke to me from Minnesota where he has been working on the ground to support the family of Daunte Wright. As the attorney for the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, he has been a critical, national voice in the conversation about not only justice for the families of these victims, but also, the reenvisioning of community safety overall.
Q: You’ve spoken about how police departments tend to outcompete other public services like mental health and drug treatment when it comes to community budgeting — can you share more about how this impacts local police departments and their relationships with their communities?
A: Urban communities are currently facing major issues in quality of life. Record unemployment rates, mounting wealth inequality, gun violence and a health crisis are just a few of the issues disproportionately black and brown urban populations are grappling with. Public officials have limited resources to address these issues and most dedicate between 15% and 45% of their budget to policing. Other public services are left to compete for shares of the remaining funds and often go unfunded/underfunded.
Consequently, police are required to take on tasks that law enforcement officers were never intended to perform. Instead of reducing police budgets and funding the appropriate services— police advocates demand more money, training, personnel and equipment in order to absorb tasks their training simply cannot prepare them for. On average police spend 73% of their training on militarization (firearm skills, self defense, physical fitness). As a result, citizens in crisis are often confronted with overly militarized officers trained primarily to identify crime and use various levels of force to take citizens into custody—exacerbating their issues. This reality has diminished the relationship between police and inner-city residents.
Q: Efforts to devalue Daunte Wright’s life have centered on the fact that he had outstanding warrants, two of which were unpaid fines for minor misdemeanors totaling $346. Such fines have been proven to be a revenue-generating mechanism within Black communities across America, and can serve to escalate what could otherwise be a routine traffic stop into a potentially violent situation.
For instance, in the case of Ferguson, Missouri, a 2015 Department of Justice investigation found that 16,000 people had existing warrants despite a population of only 21,000 (the warrants include visitors). Given some people have multiple warrants, overall in 2013 there were 32,975 warrants total. As HuffPo contributor Nathan Robinson noted, “the city of Ferguson quite literally has more crimes than people.” Over 90% of these warrants were given to African-Americans, which led the DOJ investigation to conclude, “Ferguson law enforcement practices are directly shaped and perpetuated by racial bias.”
In Minnesota, can you speak more to the incentive of government revenue and how it might intersect with racially-biased policing?
A: In Minnesota traffic fines and court fees represent a significant revenue generator that often burden citizens with suspensions and associated fees that turn into criminal warrants when they go unpaid. In fact, in Minnesota, 19 of every 1000 drivers have unresolved suspensions. These suspensions burden economically vulnerable Minnesotans. Like most of the country— black residents in Minnesota are disproportionately confronted with police encounters resulting in the inordinate criminalization of black residents. As of March 11, Minnesota Troopers have issued 15,400 citations. That’s about 2,700 more than the same time last year— a 21% increase according to the department of public safety (DPS).
Q: Police officers tend to receive a high level of protection when facing a criminal conviction, through practices like qualified immunity and limited personal liability for actions taken. In other words, communities are often the ones footing the bill for police misconduct. How does the financial power of police unions fit into this story?
A: Police unions enjoy a well-documented influence over governmental functions due to their acumen in political lobbying. Police unions often hire attorneys to represent officers involved in misconduct and negotiate collective bargaining agreements that make it difficult to punish malfeasance and track bad behavior. Many police unions advocate for municipal indemnification of union members from civil judgments. As a part of their collective bargaining agreements, unions require local governments to foot the bill for civil judgments obtained against police officers—except in rare instances when police are convicted of a crime. In those cases municipalities are allowed to cut ties with officers, and often families are left without any legitimate avenue for civil accountability. This dynamic creates an unstated incentive for families to not seek criminal accountability for police officers—understanding that criminal convictions often foreclose the possibility of recovery in a civil suit.
Q: You’ve mentioned economic boycotts and sanctions, both domestic and international, as possible ways to address police abuse in the US. Can you explain more about how boycotts and sanctions would work?
A: The era of police militarization and mass incarceration/supervision has been ushered in as a specific government strategy for the abuse of black and brown communities. Boycotts and sanctions are effective historical tools used to disrupt governments found abusing ethnic groups in such specific and targeted ways. This has clearly been the case in the United States for decades.
For example, in the 1980s governmental policy began to shift toward an increasingly militarized strategy in responding to issues facing black and brown communities. These policies—inaccurately labeled a “war on drugs”—criminalized the use and trafficking of the new drug called “crack,” heavily associated with inner city communities. Labeling these policies a war on drugs represents a major misnomer, as the policies from the era showed a much stronger correlation to the criminalization, abuse and disenfranchisement of black people than it did the drug itself, which continued to be used and distributed by white citizens (under the name “cocaine”) at similar rates as their black counterparts but without similar criminal consequences. This “war” continues in the mountain of policies, laws and enforcement strategies which plague black communities in the United States.
Boycotts and sanctions are people-centered tools used to disincentive governmental abuse. Individuals, businesses and international allies are encouraged to disrupt normal governmental functions by disrupting the flow of commerce. People, businesses and allied nations are encouraged to not patronize police services and call out and sanction state sponsored abuse. For example, the University of Minnesota concluded it would no longer contract with the Minneapolis Police Department for support services following the death of George Floyd. Other businesses in the Minneapolis area followed suit. Further, in January of 2021 my office presented cases to a United Nations International Commission of Inquiry on systemic racist police violence against people of African descent in the United States. This commission will make policy recommendations to the American government, as well as present a report to the UN High Commissioner later this month in hopes of securing international sanctions against the US for abuses identified in the report.
Q: The Washington Post has tracked fatal shootings committed by police officers for the past five years, and has found the rate to consistently hover around 1,000 per year. They noted, “The quantity of rare events in huge populations tends to remain stable absent major societal changes, such as a fundamental shift in police culture.” What sort of shifts in police culture do you think would help address the rate of fatal shootings?
A: American police forces represent the deadliest police culture in the industrialized world. No nation kills and incarcerates more of its citizens per capita than the United States. This is a result of a militarized and racist police culture that has its inception in America’s unique chattle slave trade. American policing entities came into being during a brutal period of slavery in American history where the African American population was considered property. A primary function of police units was to serve as slave catchers and overseers as America experienced unprecedented growth and an economic boom owing largely to the free labor provided by the system of chattel slavery. With racism, violence and human trafficking at the core of American policing, no wonder America boast a prison industrial complex unparalelled in human history and disproportionately black. Changing police culture in the US will require difficult work in dismantling decades of policies intended to further white supremacist thinking and ideology. We have been trickling out criminal justice reform policies, whereas we really need a flood of them and a complete overhaul of our systems. We need to take on the human rights abuses perpetrated by police as a national priority, requiring a real reconciliation process. Such an endeavor would require a cultural shift similar to the transition which occurred in South Africa during the fall of Apartheid.
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