Stopping police violence demands a fight against poverty

Reducing the interactions between police and the public is the best way to reduce the chances police will kill people, and that requires significant investment in healthcare, housing and social welfare

Photo by: Eric Miller/Reuters
Photo by: Eric Miller/Reuters

Dea'Anna Reynolds, who saw her father shot dead by Minnesota police, at a 2016 protest over the killing.

Wilson Dizard Wilson Dizard is a deputy editor at TRT World.

“I wish this town was safer.”

That’s what the four-year-old daughter of Philando Castile said as she sat in the back of a police car moments after an officer had fatally shot her father seven times. Her mother, Diamond Reynolds, handcuffed, wept next to her.

“Mama please don’t scream,” her daughter, Dae'Anna, said. “No, please, no. I don’t want you to get shooted!”

The heartbreaking conversation was captured on camera inside the cop car. The two tried to comfort each other as their futures changed forever, and their loved one passed away. The little girl lamented how the family was on its way to get ice cream.

“We were just going to eat ice cream, have our dinner, have a great time together,” she cried, helpless, in her mother’s lap. Reynolds, who committed no crime, was in handcuffs.

Pulled over for a broken tail light and a vague suspicion of his fitting the description of a robbery suspect, Castile was legally carrying a licenced handgun at the time.

When he told the officer about the gun, which he was legally obligated to do, the officer fired into the car later saying he thought Castile was drawing the weapon. He was really reaching for his wallet. Reynolds posted the immediate aftermath to Facebook, in one of the most nightmarish recordings of its kind.

A year later, a jury acquitted the St. Anthony, Minnesota officer, Jeronimo Yanez, of manslaughter charges in Castile’s death. The verdict drew nationwide outrage and protests in the Minneapolis area, calling for accountability for police who activists say have a license to murder black people without consequence.

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Castile’s case has drawn renewed attention to the perennial problem of police violence in a country where the legacy of slavery manifests itself every day in thousands of interactions between police and people of colour. Since the watershed trials — and acquittals — of the killers of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, convictions of police officers who brutalize or end the lives of black and brown people have been rare, even when their deaths are caught on smartphones, dashboard cameras or other surveillance. 

About a thousand people every year die at the hands of police, according to a running Washington Post tally, and so far this year that number is on track to equal the total of the last. Meanwhile, the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and self-proclaimed friend of police US President Donald Trump has made moves to pull back on efforts to reform police departments started under the Obama administration.  

What is to be done? There seems to be a limit to how much police can be reformed, and whether police will ever become safe, especially for people of colour. Whatever their justifications, rationalisations or excuses, it’s hard to imagine a world in which there are no killings carried out by police. As a logical follow, it’s also impossible to imagine that all of these killings will be legal uses of force.

There’s reason, in other words, to be pessimistic about the ability for police to ever reform in a way that eliminates unjust violence. There is no way to eliminate the dangerousness of a gun. In the same way, there is no way to eliminate the dangerousness of the people society designates to carry them.  

The problem the United States faces is a lot deeper, and the solution far more expensive, than simply retraining officers to de-escalate potentially violent encounters. The best way to stop police killings is to make sure there are fewer reasons for police and the public to interact at all.

Beyond that, it is imperative that police exercise the utmost restraint in using violence, do their best to know and build trust with communities they serve, and strive for their interactions with the public to result in positive outcomes instead of fatal ones.

There are certain steps communities can take to limit the risk police pose to citizens. One of those is legalizing marijuana. Stops by police officers for suspected marijuana use or possession are a main source of the reason for police interacting with the public at all, and interactions that disproportionately affect communities of colour.

This contradicts the so called “broken windows” theory of policing, where cracking down on small offense is supposed to discourage more serious, potentially violent ones. But “broken windows” policing can often alienate communities when officers focus solely on the arrest and prosecution of rule breakers.  

Finding the a window breaker by interrogating every teenager with a baseball in a neighborhood is a waste of time. Calling someone to repair a broken window, a temptation for robbers or worse, involves a complexity and cost that police officers aren’t trained to perform. That’s the kind of strategy that would fix the problem, but limit police interaction with the public in ways that could go horrifically wrong.

De Lacy Davis, a retired East Orange, New Jersey police officer who now heads the National Coalition of Law Enforcement for Justice Reform and Accountability (NCLEO), told TRT World that the uphill battle to make police less violent is one still worth fighting. Nevertheless, doing so requires cops to recognize all the factors in a person’s life that brings them to an encounter with law enforcement, whether those factors are poverty, drug abuse, mental illness or just bad luck.

Improving the material condition of people is crucial to reducing their risk of being killed by a member of a police department, even one where reforms and retraining are successful.  

“Police reform in a vacuum will be ineffective and holistic police reform does include the whole person and all the areas of life that impact that person. I need housing I need healthcare I need employment. All of those things are impactful on the police reform process,” Davis said.

Motivations for criminal behavior that attract the attention of the police often stem directly from desperation, Davis added.

“I got children — I got to feed them. How do I get them fed? If I’m homeless, how do I survive?” he said.   

Searching for a robbery suspect was part of the pretext Officer Yanez used to pull over Castile. If that robbery had never happened, would Castile be alive today?

When improving social welfare and retraining police fails to stop encounters like the one that killed Castile, prosecutions of police are necessary, Davis said.

But he stressed that prosecutions by the regular run of district attorneys aren’t sufficient, since the prosecutors and law enforcement agencies have a relationship that inhibits impartiality. Prosecutors rely on police testimony for convictions. That’s why, Davis and others argue, the only solution is a special prosecutor whose sole duty it is to investigate and charge officers guilty of misconduct.

 A special prosecutor’s “livelihood does not depend on police helping them close cases.”

At every level of the US criminal justice system, wealth, class or just survival plays a role. But the prospects for the health and welfare of heavily policed, poor communities look dimmer than ever.

As news of the verdict in Castile’s case bounced around social media, another grim story emerged. Details of a secretively written repeal of Obamacare trickled out of Washington, including major cuts to Medicaid. Tearing apart an already fragile and strained public healthcare system is a recipe for increasing desperation; pushing people into bankruptcy over medical bills; leading to higher rates of homelessness and untreated mental health issues that will only increase the chances of someone interacting with police — and increasing the chances that they won’t make it out of that encounter alive.

 
The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.