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How do we think about institutional racism in the American police force?

On June 8 2020, Minneapolis City Council announced it would be dismantling its police force. In its place, they pledged to introduce a new model for public safety, free from the institutional racism that had plagued its police. The decision was unprecedented, and yet, it has been followed by similar moves across the US, for police budget cuts and investigations into how they are run. At the heart of this debate is the question of institutional racism: where it comes from, how it manifests, and how it can be overcome. Following George Floyd's murder, pressure has grown for perceived systemic oppression to be addressed. Others argue that this is a myth, and that police are being victimised for the ills of society. The way that people are mobilising around this question reveals the fundamental ideas that drive their perspectives. So, who are these groups, what do they stand for, and why?

'The police must be reformed!': The police are systemically racist

This position believes that the coercive power of the the police has grown too far. The role of the police is to protect individual freedom, but police today now threaten this, more than they uphold it. The force has co-opted longstanding racial tensions in America to expand its own power. It is essentially corrupt and powers must be curbed.

Policing is a tool for state-sanctioned violence

Policing is weaponised by the state to reproduce systemic exploitation. The fundamental issue with the US police, is that its sole purpose is to prop up the oppressive ideas the American state is built on. The police are being used to manage the issues that have grown out of an unequal society. Rather than solving those problems, we continue to expand the police to contain them in the name of 'public order'. They are therefore a key element to the form of austerity politics that characterises the modern state. Without them, the state would have to confront its manifold socioeconomic problems and the inequalities they depend on. Proponents of this group include author and commentator Alex S. Vidal.

We need to hold the police accountable

Introducing accountability measures is the only way to remove rampant institutional racism from the police. For too long, the law has protected the police through laws such as "qualified immunity". In practice, this has given them license to brutalise civilians without repercussions. Reform requires checks and balances including dash cams, abolishing "no knock warrants", and creating a register of complaints against the police. Proponents have enshrined many of these in the Justice in Policing Act proposal - and include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, senator Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

Institutional racism is a colonial hangover

We will never be able to solve this problem unless we fully understand the historical contexts that shaped it. When they began, the police were created to protect white wealth.

The social role of the police must change

This perspective believes that public understanding of the police, and what they stand for, is at the root of the issue. For too long, they have been seen as "public stewards" of law and order. Yet, disproportionately punish black communities. This group points to the origins of the force in the infamous "slave patrols" to show how the very traditions the police have developed from are steeped in appalling racism. Weeding out institutional racism requires reframing the idea of the police. They are not standard bearers for justice. They are here to serve American citizens. Proponents include the ACLU.

Defunding police will disproportionately harm ethnic minorities

Reducing police numbers will create disproportionate negative consequences for those the movement is trying to help. It will create a two-tier system of justice, whereby wealthy white communities and businesses will invest in private local and personal security. Meanwhile, underprivileged groups will be left without this protection. Across the US, minorities are much more likely to be victims of violent crime. This system will therefore leave them more vulnerable to attack, and deepen racialised inequalities tied into law and order. Proponents include San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo.

American police victimise black people

Numerous studies prove that police are far more likely to take action against black people. In 2018, a study by the Washington Post found that 23% of US citizens killed by police that year had been African American. Yet, this group constitutes just 12% of the country's population. A further study by Stanford tracked the 100 million police traffic stops between 2011 and 2017. Their findings were yet more revelatory, finding that black drivers were more likely to be pulled over. At night this was not the case, as drivers' ethnicity tends to be obscured by darkness. These are just two studies within a giant cannon that prove the police unfairly target nonwhites. This is true even when the race of police officers is controlled for. It is therefore a function of the job and the institution, above all.

'The police are not the issue!': The police should not be blamed for the problems of a racialized society

This position believes that the police are the standard bearers of law and order. Limited government is fundamental to protect individual liberty. Strong police are required to protect limited government. Whether institutional racism is real, or a myth, focusing on the role of the police is both misleading and counterproductive.

The police are not defined by the actions of a minority

There is no doubt that racism exists in some police officers. But this unfortunate minority of cases should not be used to make generalizing points about a group that includes over 800,000 police. It is offensive to take the actions of a brutish few to tar the reputations of the many.

A reduced police presence is dangerous for everyone

This important debate about race relations has been subverted by emphasis on the police. Much academic research has shown that increasing visible police presence reduces crime rates. The same cannon of research shows that areas with higher crime rates have more police. Scaling back law enforcement would have dangerous repercussions for all. Proponents include Fox anchor Laura Ingraham and Republican senator Ted Cruz.

Defunding the police will lead to vigilantism

Calls to abolish the police are short-sighted. As the George Floyd riots have shown us, people are predisposed to looting, violence and lawlessness. Without police the country will descend into chaotic vigilantism, the effects of which will devastate generations to come. Proponents include Attorney General William Barr.

American political institutions are responsible for police racism

The actions of the police are shaped by politicians and lawmakers. For decades, they have been directed to deliberately undermine black communities. Proponents point to Nixon's War on Drugs, which was later confirmed to have been a policy crafted to victimise blacks. This tradition has sustained throughout successive governments. As New York Times opinion writer Jamelle Bouie states, "Trump explicitly rejects the legitimacy of nonwhites as political actors, having launched his political career on the need for more and greater racial control of Muslims and Hispanic immigrants". The issue is not the police - it is with the racism embedded within our political institutions. And those who lead them. That is where we should be focusing our attention. Proponents include USA Today reporter Wenei Philimon.

African Americans are predisposed to criminal behaviour

The data doesn't lie. African Americans are responsible for 52% of homicides, and yet make up just 12% of the population. This group are prone to violent criminal behaviours. The unequal level of police interaction - of all kinds - with African Americans must be read within this context. Were African Americans less predisposed to dangerous behaviour, police time would not be so unevenly spent on shielding the public from them. Proponents include CUNY Criminology Professor Barry Latzer, who notes high black incarceration rates β€œare best explained not by race bias, but by exceptionally high African American crime commission rates and the imposition of prison sentences for conduct previously punished by jail or probation.”

The police are being victimized

Public outcry victimizes the police. Research shows that police institutions are not racist. A study by Harvard economist Roland G. Fryer Jr. found no evidence of racial discrimination in shootings. Reports that suggest otherwise do not account for crime rates and civilian behavior during police interactions.

To be anti-police is to be anti-American

America is systemically anti-racist. The current debate has been souped up by a liberal elite desperate to turn the country into a war-torn political battleground before the 2020 election. Black poverty is at a historic low. Trump's government has ushered in a series of laws to reduce racial inequality, such as the First Step Act, which freed thousands of non-violent black inmates from prison. The idea that inequality stems from systemic racism is cheap and false. And part of a liberal political agenda to seed resentment instead of deal with the causes of these issues. Proponents include The Australian Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan.

'We must abolish the police!': Reforming the police means getting rid of them

This position believes that institutional racism is insidious because it is intangible. The police are an exploitative state tool for oppression. Without a total re-imagining of social security, we cannot have meaningful change.

Defund the police

This lobby calls for the reallocation of police funding into community initiatives that would put an end to systemic racism. These include mental health, housing and education. An excessive amount of police funding is spent on army-grade weapons. Proponents call for a detailed examination of police funding, and investigation into what many see as its militarisation. This group includes Senator lhan Omar who has called for the government "to completely dismantle the police department because it is a cancer, rotten to its core."

The police are inherently racist

Decades of police brutality disproportionately aimed at ethnic minorities has made one thing clear. The culture of racialised violence is too embedded within the police for change to come without a complete overhaul. Incremental reforms have failed. For too long public safety has meant protecting the interests of whites. We must create a system that protects all lives equally. That can only happen with the abolition of the police, and a completely new model of public safety. Proponents include the Minneapolis City Council and anti-police activists MPD15.

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This page was last edited on Monday, 15 Jun 2020 at 23:59 UTC