Police Reform Revisited?

“A reform that begins with the officer on the beat is not reform at all. It’s avoidance. It’s a continuance of the American preference for considering the actions of bad individuals, as opposed to the function and intention of systems.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Myth of Police Reform.

On July 14th, Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett announced his plan to bring about reform in the Indianapolis police department. This announcement came on the heels of another unarmed African American killed by the police, fleeing the police. Of course, like so many cases, Aaron Bailey was found unarmed. Of course, Aaron had a criminal record. As a lifelong black male citizen of Indianapolis, you begin to acquire numbness to this slow-motion genocide of state violence.

Michael Taylor. Older people remember the death of sixteen year old Indianapolis native in 1987, where he was killed in the back of a police car, with his hands cuffed behind his back. The police performed a supposed reenactment of how Michael Taylor was able to pull a gun out of his shoe while his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Joseph Clark. He was the brother of a friend of mine, who while attending a college party was shot in the back of the head and killed. He was unarmed.

Pedro Sanchez. A car attempted to drive away from the downtown circle. He was shot and killed while “reaching for a gun” that was never found.

And the beat goes on.

These are three of the many stories that people can tell of non-violent interfaces with the police in Indianapolis that have left citizens dead. While these are a small number of many examples, not just locally, but nationally, in the aftermath of these cases, reform is often called for.

And yet, when we take a critical look at the history of police reform in America, we find very little has changed. It is no mystery why a large number of African Americans nationwide don’t trust the police. It’s no mystery why when reforms are called for, many of us are skeptical of the emergence of any meaningful outcomes. In fact, in the post-Obama era, with a “law and order” president, we should have no expectations of the federal government assisting in addressing this particular challenge. With that said, we citizens must actively challenge the mayor to go deep, to look at the structural needs to bring about real, authentic reform in the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department.

Additional training, of course, is a good thing in an effort to sensitize police to the effects of race on policing. A civilian review board, on with teeth, and independent, may also have some impact. But at the end of the day, a critical analysis of state violence at all aspects of our social order must be included. This critical look must begin to look inside all aspects of power, private and public sectors included.

The role race plays in decision-making, in every circle of our lives, must be reviewed and addressed. Attitudes of the police are just an extension of the core fabric of the dominant culture’s worldview and the police are the front line of maintaining those cultural norms. The police are organic conduits of state power, the object of the violence enacted are people of color and particularly, Black communities.This is one of the reasons why it is also no mystery that when white America is polled, their perspectives about the police are very different from people of color.

And what do I mean by state violence?

State violence can occur when decision makers decide that particular communities are in need of development. One of the first steps of that development is crime reduction, brought on by an increased police presence. When these decisions are made without adequately preparing police departments to deal with the particular social conditions of crime laden communities (often as a result of long-term institutional racism), a form of state violence has occurred, whether intentional or not.

When decision makers in communities, public and private sectors, are dominated by only a handful of voices, the majority of which are white and male, state violence against a community has occurred.

When corporations are provided large tax credits, promising economic development and jobs, and then default on their promises, leaving communities more destitute than before they arrived, state violence has occurred.

State violence is the economic development community refusing to take a critical look at how their actions over the last 10 years have contributed to the growth in poverty and inequity in communities.

While these manifestations of state violence may appear to be disconnected, the reality is that all of these points converge into the kind of outcomes we see with an overly aggressive police force, laden with the same racial attitudes as the dominant culture.

As a Black male resident of Indianapolis, I have become numb to the idea that any ideal reform in America will occur from government or institutional promises. Until America decides it wants to confront its historical and present ideas about race, I won’t hold my breath.

While I won’t hold my breath, I will continue to challenge myself and others to have the strength and courage to make these issues of institutional racism (state violence) visible and present in all our spaces where we find ourselves engaged in community. Our actions on these issues are urgent and necessary and they begin with understanding the power and agency we as community hold in creating change for ourselves. By making the invisible visible through our conversation and our firm demands to make these spaces more equitable, I believe we will begin the process of finding more equitable solutions to these historical challenges. As long as we remain silent out of fear of professional and personal consequences, the outcomes will remain the same.

Good luck, Mayor Hogsett.

Listen to Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Tiny Desk Concert where he talks about how an interaction with the police inspired a new piece of music.