I, like many of us, watched in rapid succession the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd with outrage and exhaustion. After working for 25 years as a criminal defense attorney and 20 years as an immigration attorney, I am familiar with abuses of power by law enforcement. As a young lawyer, I was enraged during my first trial, which involved a police officer who dragged my 5-foot Black client on the pavement by her hair and pulled so hard he ripped a chunk of her hair out of her head. The history of police committing acts of violence with impunity is not new. What is new is the ability to obtain video footage to expose it.
As a lawyer, wife of a Black man, and mother to two biracial children, I have these thoughts about what to do:
▪ Elect officials who promise to establish civilian police review boards with subpoena power. These civilian review boards would include nonpolice members and have investigatory powers and the ability to fire officers who have been cited with multiple misconduct complaints, especially those related to use of excessive force. Someone needs to police the police.
▪ Eliminate police unions’ ability to reinstate officers accused of excessive force, abuse, or racial profiling, by requiring elected officials to negotiate contracts that allow for civilian police review boards to fire officers found guilty of those offenses.
▪ If you elect judges in your state, elect those who understand the depravity of some police officers and refuse to let those officers lie during in-court testimony. This is considered so common that defense lawyers call it “testa-lying.” I can’t recall a single incident of an officer charged with perjury despite clear video evidence against their statements. Demand that state governors appoint judges who approach police officers’ testimony with caution.
▪ Elect district attorneys who will decriminalize charges that cause havoc such as shoplifting, drug offenses, disorderly conduct, driving without a license, and similar nonviolent misdemeanors. Arrests on these charges often result in job loss and incarceration, further destabilizing the community. These charges also can serve as a pretext for violence committed against people being arrested. In what has been called the “Kim Foxx effect,” progressive district attorney reforms in Chicago resulted in shootings and murders decreasing, with shootings down 14 percent.
▪ Elect officials who support affordable housing in all neighborhoods, including historically white neighborhoods. Desegregation of housing leads to desegregation of public-school systems, further expanding opportunities for historically disenfranchised communities. Racism, and all its ramifications, leads to systematic disempowerment, including targeting by police officers.
▪ If you see something, say something. Don’t stand by as people taunt and harass people of color. Talk to your racist uncle. Maybe he won’t listen, but others in the room might.
▪ Keep taking to the streets. Police brutality and systemic racism have been going on for a long time, but the deaths of Arbery, Floyd, and other Black men and women in recent years require renewed vigilance.
▪ Elect mayors, city councilors, state representatives, and local officials who agree to defund and demilitarize the police. Between 1997 and 2014 the federal government transferred $4.3 billion in military equipment to local police departments. Defunding and demilitarizing means that essential taxpayer money can be transferred to low-income neighborhoods, schools, and health care.
▪ Remove guns from community policing. In Britain, as recently as 2012, only 5 percent of the police force were authorized to carry guns. Although they have access to guns for emergencies, local police officers carry bully sticks or pepper spray for protection. Of course, this requires larger gun reform efforts, but removing guns from the streets and the police will ultimately make all of us safer.
As longstanding and deeply structural as these problems are, they will not resolve quickly or easily. One more march — or even violent protest — will not magically fix the roots of our racist society.
But if we take a long view of the factors that enable this kind of behavior from police officers, we can start to chip away at police violence and unchecked racism. With each step, we can help keep our Black children safer and move our society closer to justice.
Susan Church is a Cambridge-based attorney.