Race, Justice and Equality: The Mandate for Change Will Require Collaboration Across Systems

June 17, 2020Alerts

In the days and weeks following the heinous killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, before the very eyes of the country, protests and cries that Black Lives Matter have been interwoven with calls for meaningful and lasting change. Now a country already beleaguered by a global pandemic must again battle the anguish of the societal pandemic of racism.

What is uncontroverted is that change is needed and forthcoming.

As we watch this change take shape, it’s clear that a broad coalition of stakeholders – from state and local governments to organized labor to the business community and schools at every level – will be expected to participate in the conversation and join in helping to reach consensus on overdue reforms.

There is a palpable distrust of law enforcement in communities across the country that is rooted, in large part, in the disparate treatment of Black people in America, particularly in the criminal justice system. What remains unanswered, at this point, is what the necessary change will look like. Leaders at every level – federal, state and local – are actively and aggressively working on legislation to address the root cause of the killing of Black people in America: systemic racism.

Recommendations currently being debated include:

  • Improving training around de-escalation, mental health and implicit bias
  • Defining parameters for the use of force
  • Reallocating police funding
  • Requiring state and local law enforcement agencies to report use of force data disaggregated by race, sex, disability, religion, age
  • Banning chokeholds and “no knock” warrants
  • Providing independent oversight mechanisms to assess police department protocols, implementation and response to complaints
  • Strengthening the mechanisms to hold police officers accountable and reducing procedural impediments (e.g. arbitration process)
  • Eliminating qualified immunity[1] for police officers
  • Reforming hiring practices for police officers to provide greater transparency by including any civil, criminal or ethical complaints filed against an officer in his or her personnel record and fully explaining why an officer might have left a previous job

Lawmakers are moving swiftly at every level of government. On June 8, 2020 members of Congress proposed the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which outlines a series of changes intended to hold police accountable and reduce racial profiling. A pending vote on this bill is anticipated in late June.

At the local level, cities and towns across the country are evaluating the role of the police in their communities as well as school resource officers (SROs) in their schools. Long-held beliefs that having police or school resource officers in schools make school communities safer are now being challenged as to whether data supports that decision as a best practice or serves only to have a disparate impact in a disproportionate number of Black students being arrested or referred to law enforcement. School boards in Denver and Minneapolis have voted to eliminate law enforcement officers in their schools. Other cities, such as Oakland, have indicated they will be taking similar steps to remove SROs in schools. 

Schools are not the only areas where change is being debated or enacted regarding the presence and role of law enforcement. The discussion regarding holistic reforms in law enforcement includes the analysis of the role police unions and collective bargaining agreements have regarding the adoption and successful implementation any legislated reforms.

For example, the City of Minneapolis has withdrawn from contract negotiations with its police federation as the Chief of Police stated that he needs to take a “deep dive” into what can be done to respond to public calls for reform.

Based on the calls for lasting change and comprehensive reforms, police chiefs, labor union and municipal government leadership and human resource departments should begin to anticipate what is being forecasted based on current legislative proposals, such as:

  • Review and re-negotiation of police union contracts with cities and municipalities
  • Drafting new or revising existing law enforcement HR policies and procedures
  • Hiring external resources with the subject matter expertise to assist law enforcement entities on how to effectively implement the anticipated legislative mandates such as training on use of force and de-escalation, mental health and bias
  • Analysis of how the anticipated new legislation, state and federal, intersects and may impact other existing laws that address public safety, health and welfare

Laws are enacted to ensure that all citizens feel protected, safe and secure in their communities, and to guarantee that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not limited by skin color. While many of the changes currently being proposed focus heavily on police and their interaction with the community, specifically Black people, the overarching cry for criminal justice reform demands change from any and all entities that play a role in the criminal justice system, including prosecutors, probation officers and the courts. The lens through which those who swore to protect and serve or to ensure justice is served must identify and wrestle with the implicit and explicit biases that have historically impacted Black citizens and seek to remedy and not allow history to repeat itself.

While the specific changes our society makes have yet to be determined, what is evident already is that changes are coming and they will be broad. And while the oaths taken by all those who enforce the laws of this country will remain the same, the expectation for accountability and transparency by the community will not.

[1] See Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982)