Zane T. Crute, president, Mystic Valley Area Branch of the NAACP and the assistant secretary, New England Area Conference of the NAACP, writes the second in a series calling for dialogue around police reform and racial justice in Arlington. Contact those involved in this series at arlingtonma.voices at 

Race and police reform logo

The role of race in policing, and in our overall legal system, is rooted in the founding of our nation. This history is so infamous that it is omnipresent in our literature and film.

Take Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. In Lee’s classic, the mere word of a white woman controls the fate of a black man in the court system. The history of the African diaspora is the history of peoples who have always been treated as less than human in the eyes of the law. This includes, but is not limited to, unjust policing in our communities, a war on drugs that disproportionally results in the incarceration of black people, and the school to prison pipeline that further overpopulates our prisons with black people.

More accountable, less valuable

Black people are simultaneously both more accountable in the eyes of the law while their lives are deemed less valuable. This lack of true justice for black people is one of the deepest scars to the soul of our nation. In terms of race in policing, I believe three social pillars allow these racial inequities to permeate through our society: qualified immunity, police unions (the "Blue Wall") and inadequate training systems for police officers.

Qualified immunity was born from the [Pierson v. Ray (1967) case, which held that officers cannot be found personally liable for ANY conduct unless someone can prove that officers have deliberately violated one’s constitutional rights. This is a nearly impossible standard for plaintiffs and thus shields police officers from standing trial.

So, what does qualified immunity do? It creates a “shoot first, ask questions later,” approach to policing. This precedent is dangerous to all Americans and not just black people. As our nation has a history deeply rooted in racism it was easily predictable that this dangerous power would be directed as a disproportionate threat to black communities.

Some argue that without qualified immunity, no candidates would apply to be police officers. They would be too afraid of getting sued. Stock brokers and doctors somehow manage to do their jobs under the constant threat of litigation and malpractice suits while still encouraging new candidates to their respective fields. Apparently, police officers are uniquely scared of the judicial system they work for.

In America, it is time that we value the lives of black and brown people who have not been treated as though their lives have value in the past. We need to value people’s lives more than we value making the jobs of police officers easy. If an officer is not able to handle the negative implications of his or her misconduct, there are plenty of other employment opportunities outside the arena of public service.

Issues raised by unions

Police unions are another significant part of the problem. Unions work for the best conditions for their workers. Police unions, however, are problematic and create a conflict of interest to the safety of our communities. They seek to maintain the status quo.

Police unions should not have a say in the reforms of making communities safer for all. Police unions should surely not be the ones to prevent the police reform bill (S.2820) from taking a stricter stance on limiting qualified immunity. This "Blue Wall" also prevents rogue officers from getting fired. If police unions always aim to give bad cops who should be penalized to the fullest extent of the law a slap on the wrist, they have no place in the conversation around police reform.

Maybe if officers were required to have more schooling and hours of training (racial-bias training included) officers would be better equipped to both police communities of color and understand why comments like the ones made by Lt. Pedrini have no place. Lt. Pedrini’s offensive comments, “meet violence with violence and get the job done,” are an illustration of the toxic culture in policing.

Sentiments such as these are what led to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, or Jacob Blake getting shot seven times in the back. Community conversations and restorative justice are great measures, but a better tactic is to change ineffective training and help officers think better going forward. Officers should at the least be versed in the history of genocide from the slave trade to King Leopold II’s pillaging of the Congo.

In addition, officers should be informed about Jim Crow. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. Our officer training is certainly failing to educate officers on events that either happened in their lives or in the lifetime of their parents. A complete understanding of the history of our nation and the African Diaspora will aid future officers in understanding why comments such as Lt. Pedrini’s foster a toxic culture specifically aimed at people of color. Social workers commonly have advanced degrees. What is stopping us from holding police officers to this same standard?

Sept. 5, 2020: Can we talk about police? Let's build a spectrum of allies

This viewpoint was published Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2020. 

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