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Dr Chenelle Jones: Let’s please stop shooting black men

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by Dr. Chenelle Jones, Ohio Dominican University

There are good officers out there! I know because I’ve worked with them. The problem however, is that the actions of a few bad officers will always outweigh the actions of the good ones. Yes, there are police serving as mentors to youth in communities across the country, but there are also police officers brutalizing and murdering unarmed youth across the country. Yes, there are police departments actively engaged in community policing initiatives, but there are also departments disproportionately targeting, searching, and arresting people of color. Yes, there are police officers striving to maintain order, but there are also police officers causing disorder. Yes, there are officers maintaining the safety of the public and enforcing the law, but there are also officers who are abusing their authority to do so.

With nearly 12,000 local police departments and 461,000 sworn personnel, good officers are easy to come by, they take pride in their job, are willing to listen, and strive to de-escalate confrontational situations with communications. Most officers have never fired their weapon in the line of duty and a majority of departments have few Internal Affairs investigations. In fact, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that most people stopped by the police during traffic and street stops report their encounters as positive. However, with all of the positive encounters and good work accomplished by a majority of officers, there are a few bad officers whose actions overshadow all of the good.

The recent public executions of both Mike Brown and John Crawford demonstrate how the despicable actions of a few bad cops, taint the images of all police officers. Furthermore, situations such as these reinforce negative perceptions of the police and causes people to lack trust, lose respect, and ultimately feel disconnected from the police. When people feel this way, they are less willing to cooperate with the police, thus making community policing – a contemporary model of policing, nearly impossible.

The purpose of community policing is to bring police and communities together in an effort to prevent and deter crime. It has proven an effective model for safety and crime prevention. In fact, the U.S. Department of Justice established the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Office to provide funding to police departments conducting research, implementing programs, and providing services to advance the field of community policing. However, community policing will not work when the police are perceived as the enemy and the public is unwilling to work with them. My advice to all officers, stop shooting unarmed men and/or stop allowing your colleagues to shoot unarmed men! When officers use excessive force, they lose trust from the community. In turn, the community is less willing to cooperate with the police. When officers lack cooperation from the public, solving, fighting, and preventing crime becomes more difficult.

As such, officers and other criminal justice practitioners need to step up and hold their colleagues more accountable. The public can raise awareness and protest but at the end of the day, criminal justice practitioners revise policies, implement mandatory procedures, change guidelines, and impose sanctions on bad officers. Many departments have use-of-force continuums, codes of conduct, policies and procedures, but these guidelines fail to prevent hostile cops from shooting unarmed men. Therefore, there is a need for more aggressive and mandatory penalties (e.g. felony murder charges, employment termination, mandatory fines, etc.) for officers who murder unarmed African American men.

One reason why African American men are murdered every 28 hours by the police is because there is little to no accountability for the officer. Investigations are typically conducted by the Internal Affairs unit of the agency the officer works for, and it is possible that the investigators conducting the investigation are also colleagues of the officer being investigated. As such, the sanction imposed may be a slap on the wrist, the officer may be transferred to another unit, or lose his/her badge. These are fairly light penalties for murder. The implementation of mandatory penalties would eliminate investigator bias as well as force officers to consider less lethal methods before resorting to lethal force against unarmed men.

Another reason African American men are frequently murdered by the police is because discriminatory police cultures, pervasive stereotypes, and irrational beliefs distort the judgment of some officers. In Ferguson Missouri, the place where unarmed teen Mike Brown was shot, African Americans make up 67% of the population, but account for nearly 86% of stops, 91% of searches, and 92% of arrests, despite the fact that Whites are more likely to have contraband (34%) when compared to African Americans (21%). Similarly, in Beavercreek, Ohio, the place where John Crawford was shot, African Americans make up only 2.5% of the population but account for 20% of arrests. Both scenarios reveal a legacy of disparate treatment that persists because good officers allow it to continue.

It is time to change the culture of policing and that change should start with the officers. There is an old saying that “a few bad apples spoils the bunch” and although there are good officers out there, the bad officers eclipse good ones. When unarmed, African American men are consistently choked, beaten, and shot by officers, and good officers fail to speak against it, they become part of the problem.

When officers continue to support racial profiling, they become part of the problem. When officers endorse disproportionate stops and arrests, they become part of the problem. When officers allow the disparate treatment of African Americans (or anyone) to continue, they become part of the problem. Saying nothing and doing nothing about the perpetual mistreatment of African Americans or anyone by law enforcement, is just as bad as engaging in the behavior. So would the good officers step up and be change agents for the culture of policing? After all, the actions of a few bad cops are 1) negatively effecting how the public perceives officers, 2) negatively influencing the public’s willingness to cooperate with officers, and 3) making the overall job of policing more difficult.

Dr. Chenelle Jones is a Criminology Professor at Ohio Dominican University.  You can follow her on Twitter at MsJones1908.