Accountability impacts how communities perceive law enforcement

Photo by Tony Webster published under Creative Commons License
Photo by Tony Webster published under Creative Commons License

This must be said: The burden and responsibility falls on law enforcement and political leaders to stop the systemic police brutality and killing that created the context in which a former U.S. soldier snapped and killed police officers in Dallas. The protests of African American communities and Black Lives Matter are not responsible for his actions as some conservative pundits, law enforcement and political figures suggest.

Micah X. Johnson’s moral center tragically collapsed as a reaction to decades-long failure of law enforcement to police its own ranks and reform its practices and attitudes toward communities of color. To think a Dallas situation would not happen sooner or later is to be in denial of the potential consequences of systemic police brutality that goes on with impunity. Especially, in a nation haunted by mass shootings. These are strong words, but they must be said.

Of course, we grieve for the families and loved ones of the Dallas officers who died. In his pathological state Johnson considered all White officers guilty by association. He endangered thousands of people of all colors and backgrounds. His actions cannot be excused. But as a society, if we do not understand Dallas within the historical record of racism that still permeates our society and law enforcement, we will fail to take the necessary steps the long struggle for justice demands.

Law enforcement officials responding to Dallas say they feel besieged and unappreciated, instead of taking responsibility for their own conduct and policies. Bill Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, told The Washington Post that officers “feel unfairly painted with a broad brush.”

Locally, John Ohl, the recently retired police chief of the St. Anthony Police Department, that patrols Falcon Heights where Philando Castile was killed, told St. Paul blogger William “Bill” Lindeke that “nothing’s significantly broken,” referring to law enforcement in the U.S. These arguments can only be described as denial in the face of decades of evidence.

In July, four off-duty Minneapolis officers working a Lynx game exhibited this attitude of denial. Lynx players wore black t-shirts to protest the recent killings. Their shirts listed the names of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile as well as the emblem of the Dallas police department and the slogan “Black Lives Matter.” The officers walked off the job in protest. Police union president, Lt. Bob Kroll, commended the officers’ action.

Is this a way to show respect for the family of Sterling and Castile? Doesn’t it indicate these officers consider these killings were justified, that Black people’s grievances are not legitimate? What are Black people to think of such officers as they patrol their community?

Police Chief Harteau, while not condoning the walk off, issued a statement the following week that in the face of the tense circumstances was disappointing. “I am proud of our profession and the service our officers provide on a daily basis. Accountability is a must but police officers also deserve and need public support.”

Accountability? Jamar Clark, no charges. Terrance Franklin, no charges. A Star Tribune survey of 148 deaths at the hands of law enforcement in Minnesota since 2000 found not one officer has been held accountable for the death of unarmed people, Black, White or any other.

Taxpayers on the other hand in Minneapolis and St. Paul have been held accountable for officers’ brutality, killing and misconduct: to the tune of $17 million since 2006, with more lawsuits pending.

The last significant democratic reform of law enforcement came in the 1960s when police departments across the nation were forced to hire people of color. This has contributed to strengthening the connections between law enforcement and peoples of our diverse nation.

Yet, in the past couple decades after hundreds of studies and federal investigations into police misconduct and after implementing reforms and training regimes the killing and profiling continues unabated.

Our existing system of law enforcement cannot be reformed. It must be reinvented on new moral, institutional and legal framework and with a new purpose. This transformation must begin with a dialogue with communities and by taking steps to empower citizens to evaluate and hire officers and set policing standards, conduct and roles. It means moving toward community control of police.


Wayne Nealis welcomes reader response to