Though on-screen deaths of African Americans seem increasingly horrifying even as they become more routine, there is no sign that police officers are going to stop killing black men. In fact, many forces and their union, the Fraternal Order of Police, have been doubling down. Each time we think a new video of a human literally dying in front of our eyes is too much to bear, even in a country with a biased criminal justice system, the officers involved are cleared of wrongdoing. Just last week, one of the Baltimore officers charged (and then acquitted) of Freddie Gray’s death was awarded $127,000 in back pay. In most videotaped deaths of boys and men whose names are now forever etched in our memories, the officer hasn’t even faced charges.
There is an eerily formulaic refrain from activists and family members of the dead (as well as from inside our own heads) that “justice” has not been served, that we’re all left with no acknowledgment of loss. It’s easy to hope that this time the cops will be put away for what they did. But even though this desire is understandable, it doesn’t mean prison time will resolve that loss. And it certainly won’t solve the problem of police violence.
Justice in America is framed by founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Tenets of American justice tell us that citizens and residents have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what happens to these grandiose, supposedly fair concepts of justice when the system so clearly fails its black and brown citizens? Should communities of color and Black Lives Matter, a movement that largely operates outside the political system, be putting such stock in America’s definition of “justice” by calling for the arrests and convictions of cops who kill black and brown people? The impulse to bring “police to justice" is inherently flawed when that "justice" was conceptualized during a time when black people weren’t entitled to the same inalienable rights as white ones.
The goal shouldn’t be to punish cops who kill black and brown Americans by pursuing convictions that lead to long prison sentences or the death penalty. (That approach, as we already know, isn’t even working.) What if, instead, the movement put its energy behind changing the way police are trained to do their jobs? Behavior is learned, and it is the fault of how policing is conceived—as a militarized force at war with poor communities of color—that has bred racist policing.
Policing in the United States has always demonized and targeted its black citizens, but the 1960s marked a crucial change in cops’ approach to the people they were tasked to protect. In the wake of white flight from inner cities, police forces stopped even paying lip service to the ideal of “community policing,” where cops were trustworthy stalwarts of the neighborhoods they patrolled. Instead, as Monica Potts writes in Talking Points Memo, it was “poor, law-breaking African-Americans in city centers, led by militant groups like the Black Panthers, versus the white cops who formed a wall between the turmoil and safe suburban enclaves.” Friction intensified with laws and court decisions that emboldened police officers and gave rise to more militant police forces, writes Potts.
It’s not that Black Lives Matter doesn’t understand the need for structural change; two weeks ago, they called for the complete demilitarization of law enforcement and for the closure of private prisons. But nowhere in their list of demands is there anything about overhauling police training courses and academies, a strategy that would make this demilitarization possible. And BLM’s birds’-eye approach goes out the window altogether every time people call for another white cop to be thrown in prison.
Abolishing the death penalty is already listed in the group’s demands. And so is amending laws that lead to black and brown men and women languishing in prison. But progressive activists should be questioning long prison sentences in general, since the American criminal justice system proves again and again to be purely punitive as opposed to restorative. Shouldn’t white police officers who kill black and brown people be learning how to correct their behavior?
By focusing on prison time, activists reinforce conservatives' “bad apple theory,” the one that suggests individual “problem” cops are to blame for discriminatory policing rather than the system itself. This theory too often turns out to be bullshit, anyway. Let’s take the shooting of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed black man who walked into the staircase of his housing project, as an example. Officer Peter Liang had his gun drawn and shot at the unarmed black man, killing him. Liang, a rookie cop who hardly has a laundry list of complaints against him, was convicted of manslaughter charges but was not sentenced to prison. Arguments against Liang as a good man and green officer helped prevent jail-time for him. It’s hard not to assume that his impulsive actions were the result of deeply flawed training.
The scant amount of time spent on community skills and de-escalation tactics is astounding. According to a New Yorker profile of Darren Wilson, the cop who shot Mike Brown to death in 2012, “ [a] recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum revealed that cadets usually receive fifty-eight hours of training in firearms, forty-nine in defensive tactics, ten in communication skills, and eight in de-escalation tactics.” It isn’t a secret, then, that violence is a preferred method of policing over peace.
There are models everywhere for policing methods that do work. In the United Kingdom police closed in on a man brandishing a machete by using their riot shields, not weapons. In fact, The Washington Post reports that there are five western countries—Britain, Ireland, Norway, Iceland and New Zealand—where police don’t use guns during their patrols. The Christian Science Monitor reported that when Icelandic police shot a man in 2013, it was the first time they’d ever done it…in the history of the country. These aren't perfect comparisons—many of these countries are more homogenous and don’t share our racist history or glorification of violence and guns—but it still reminds us that a better way is possible.
Besides, there are already better ways to do it in the U.S., even in Texas, a state famous for its cowboy mentality. After five officers were shot and killed at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, the city was hailed as a “model of community policing,” a fact that made the shootings even more tragic. In 2013, Brown changed the department’s lethal-force policy to incorporate trainings for officers every two months. Previously officers only had to undergo trainings every two years. Policies like that aren’t sea changes, but at least they’re a step toward “demilitarizing” a culture that results in violent shootings.
Reinventing the way white police are taught to relate and act in the black and brown communities they work in could potentially prevent these shootings from occurring, simply by quelling the impulse of white officers to see black people as a constant threat. Maybe if officers were given 58 hours to develop their communication skills and didn’t have guns at all, police culture could start to change. But it will take a shift in our collective thinking—even during painful moments of mourning—to make that happen.
Correction: A previous version of this piece stated that Officer Peter Liang was cleared of all charges. He was in fact convicted of manslaughter but was not sentenced to prison.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.