A few weeks ago, the world watched as my cousin, George Floyd, another Black man, died at the hands of police officers. I’m outraged. Enough is enough. Open season on the Black community is over. We cannot and must not allow this to continue. And we cannot wait any longer for police and criminal justice reform. Change is here. Change is now.
We must learn the history of policing in this nation and the role police have played in enforcing discriminatory laws. The fact of the matter is that significant racial disparities still exist in our policing and criminal justice systems. Much of the system was created in the 1950s and 60s to enforce discriminatory laws and oppress Black people who are still being oppressed at this very moment. The earliest form of American policing occurred in “slave patrols,” developed by white slave owners as a means of dealing with enslaved people who had run away. The same system is in place, it’s just being enforced on a different scale.
Despite the intentions of good police officers, the continued use of these draconian systems and practices allow structural racism to endure. They allow racist officers to operate with impunity. And yes, we must accept that there are, in fact, some racist police officers. We must also admit that the vast majority of cops are not racist and they honor the law enforcement profession.
But policing has been powerfully conditioned by broad social forces and attitudes, and that includes a long history of racism. Some of the same policies and practices that have sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our nation’s history are deeply embedded in policing. What we have is a pattern where people of color have fewer civil rights and the work of the police is to keep us under control, with little responsibility for protecting us from crime within our communities. Quite frankly, I view police departments as barometers of the society in which they operate.
We must get past these issues. This is a new era in the United States, and we need police departments to embrace the change that my people have been waiting on for so long. If not now, then when?
I don’t necessarily support efforts to completely abolish the law enforcement structure, but racial injustice within policing and the militarization of policing in communities of color are issues that can no longer be ignored. We have to undertake earnest law enforcement reforms that will make the public safer. We’re talking about Black men and women dying. We’re talking about systemic racism in police work.
Virginia, the former Confederate capital and once the largest slave trading post in the country, has the opportunity to right its wrongs. Virginia needs to ban chokeholds, boost police training on excessive use of force, mandate citizen review boards to boost oversight of police misconduct, release body camera footage of any incident that causes injury or death within 30 days, and rethink police presence in schools. And to root out racial injustice within police departments, the state needs to require additional training of officers on topics including racism, teaching tolerance and white supremacy
What my family has gone through, I wish on no one. No one should have to fear that their loved ones could come to harm at the hands of those charged with protecting them.
You can’t speak about police reform without talking about criminal justice reform. Not only are people of color being killed by police at disproportionate rates, but also they are being arrested more often than their white counterparts. One in every 12 Black men in his thirties is in prison or jail on any given day. People of color comprised 50% of the jail population and 70% of the prison population in 2017. Black women are imprisoned at twice the rate of white women.
There is nothing right about this. Yet, only 1% of elected prosecutors in the country are Black women, and 95% of all elected prosecutors are white.
And one of the only places where Black people are overrepresented is arrests. Arrests are commonplace in most of the nation’s racially segregated communities. The sad thing is that in Virginia, and the DMV, very little of this pandemic of jailing has to do with serious or violent crimes.
Arrest is the first of three stages in the administration of the justice system, followed by prosecution, and if the defendant is found guilty, sentencing. In each of these three stages, Black people tend to be overrepresented. The overrepresentation of Black people needs to be understood at each stage of the justice system, because government officials use discretion at each stage that may affect the treatment of individuals.
Just as racial bias may unconsciously enter into police decisions to arrest or release individuals, it can also influence prosecutors’ judgments on what charges to prosecute or drop, and judicial sentencing and prison terms. Discretionary decisions influenced by subtle, inadvertent racial discrimination are barriers to fairness in the administration of justice, and as pernicious as overt actions of racial prejudice.
In Virginia, Black people comprise roughly 20% of the adult population. But for every white person incarcerated in Virginia, six Black people are behind bars.
In addition, Virginia’s justice system is expensive, ineffective and inequitable. Despite some recent, minor progress in the areas of post‐incarceration reentry, particularly felony disenfranchisement, the state continues to suffer under misguided policies and practices of the past. Virginia spends roughly $1.5 billion a year to operate crowded jails and prisons. The “tough on crime,” so‐called “truth in sentencing” laws enacted in the 1990s have failed in driving down crime or recidivism. They have only driven up costs and created a larger group of people who carry the burden of post‐incarceration collateral consequences.
But we need to do more than merely stating the statistics of criminal justice that bear witness to the racial, social, and economic inequities and injustices. We need solutions. We need to properly fund existing work at places like the The Sentencing Project and the Innocence Project. We also need to add additional research on what can prevent mass incarceration, while we emphasize the urgency for criminal justice reform legislation at both the federal and state levels. And we need more effective programs for the hundreds of thousands of incarcerated people preparing to reenter society, without the counterproductivity of recidivism.
The time is now for action, not more partisan debate. No more postponements. No more excuses.
We don’t want special treatment. We want equal justice. Criminal justice reform for Black America is long overdue. Change is here. Change is now.
Tavares Floyd is a civil rights attorney in Virginia.