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Addressing racism in the U.S. justice system: An analysis

Banners of Eric Garner and Mike Brown
Photo: Ben Reid

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is a Quaker organization that promotes lasting peace with justice and has long advocated for an end to systemic racism, especially in the U.S. justice system. After the spate of killings of unarmed black men in 2014, a working group of AFSC staff have gathered to assess what can be done to assure justice is achieved and to further examine how AFSC can best support solving this critical issue.

We (the AFSC working group) firmly oppose law enforcement policies and practices that wrongfully harm individuals and fracture communities. We call for an end to the racism that led to the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and many others; an end to the militarization of all levels of law enforcement; and an end to the abuses of power that permeate the grand jury process.

As chants of “Hands up, don’t shoot”, “I can’t breathe” and “We can’t breathe” pierce the consciousness of the world, AFSC stands with and among communities who continue to lift up the value of black lives. It is this elemental truth that betrays the false narrative that any life can be considered insignificant and inconsequential. History and realities of today provide us with evidence across the U.S. to support the outcry against unequal treatment of blacks under the law. Disproportionate harassment and killings of African American youth and young adult males by law enforcement is only one example, but it is one that connects to far too many other ways that they are devalued and oppressed, and are ultimately fed by schools and the criminal justice system into the pipeline of incarceration. 

  • A recent ProPublica investigation found that young black men are shot dead by police at 21 times the rate of young white men. In a recent Gallop poll, one in four young black men recalled unfair treatment by police within the last 30 days. Directly connected are the staggering rates of incarceration of black men. The U.S Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that African-American males are six times more likely to be incarcerated than white males and 2.5 times more likely than Hispanic males. If current trends continue, one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. 
  • Other communities of color in the U.S. - not only males but predominately - are devalued and unequally treated at the hands of law enforcement as well, and are also excessively subject to institutional injustice and violence. For example, Native American, and Latino youth and young males are also disproportionately killed by police, as highlighted by the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice. According to this report, Native American males—one of the smallest racial or ethnic groups in the country—are the most likely to be killed by police.
  • In a nationwide survey by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 84 percent of Latino respondents expressed the belief that police are there to protect. But 68 percent also worried about brutality aimed at Latinos (by police), and nearly one in five said they had friends, neighbors or relatives who had been targets of excessive force. Fear of excessive force was highest among respondents with lower levels of education and income, and among undocumented individuals. But at least 43 percent of Latinos in all demographic subgroups expressed concern.
  • Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have long tracked racial profiling and harassment by police of black, Latino, and Native Americans, but of other groups as well such as South Asian, Muslim, and Arab people, particularly since 9-11.

The militarization of our police forces through the use of military equipment freely distributed to them (as well as schools and other institutions) after their use in U.S. wars abroad has only served to exacerbate these issues and heighten tensions, while creating images of institutions of accountability like law enforcement waging war against the citizens it is obligated to protect.

Like AFSC, as this country continues to live through this searing crisis, many are thinking bigger and broader about what a society in which all lives matter equally might look like. This won’t be easy, but world is watching and we will and should be measured against what we create.

As this is happening, we also don’t want to lose touch with the immediate need for explicit goals and demands for reforms. While these will not solely solve our larger issues, they can create space for us to breathe a little more and move more swiftly toward our longer-term vision.

The undoing of these injustices and the process of healing must start with individual, governmental and societal accountability. It will require deliberate focus on achieving fundamental balance and institutional fairness. We endorse the following list of demands that many communities are calling for in different parts of the United States as a starting point while we all seek healing that will lead to lasting peace and justice:

  1. The Department of Justice must fully investigate officers and bring civil rights charges when applicable, when the public and community’s trust has been broken. Only through a justice system that recognizes that “black lives matter” can we achieve even a sense of fundamental balance and institutional fairness.
  2. Individual states, through the Governor’s office and/or through state assembly, must appoint special state prosecutors who can fairly judge these matters without the burden of institutional relationships with the police. A special prosecutor who does not rely on the police for information and witnesses in other cases has less of burden to side with the police. There is also less of a chance that grand juries are convened to vindicate the police version of events.
  3. Local police departments and the Department of Defense must end the insidious supply of military grade equipment and weapons for use in local policing. The more pervasive this weaponry is and the more widespread the training in its uses, the easier it is for police to look upon community members as enemy combatants. Police officers referring to the public as “civilians” is one illustration of how this military mindset is evident in local police vocabulary. In order to hold police accountable, we must know more about our local police departments, their policies and procedures, complaints against them and the level of military grade weaponry they possess. Recently, the Pentagon released a report detailing all military equipment deployed through Bill 1033 to various counties, cities, states, Federal departments, and schools. This amount of surplus military equipment is evidence of waste in the federal military budget. The resources to produce this equipment could be reassigned to fund the building of strong, safe and accountable communities. Easy access to information about military equipment assigned to the community you live in can be obtained through the Marshall Project website. This information will prepare you to demand information about the equipment, implementation plans for its use, and the extent of officer training
  4. All civilian review boards must be strengthened with the power to subpoena officers and compel testimony; to complete independent investigations and offer findings; to hold fair and impartial administrative trials; and to enact penalties independent of police department/chief review. These boards must be fully-funded and should be completely independent from the police department with board members appointed by city councils, mayors and/ or a direct vote. They should not be undermined, as has happened in the past by governments or police departments reducing budgets and staff, so that these boards cannot effectively carry out their work.
  5. Police public behavior must be modified in ways that ensure the highest standards of public accountability. The technology of dash and body cameras should be implemented to give an extra layer of safeguard to the community that the police interact with. These videotapes can help make officers more aware and reserved in their behavior and can provide important evidence and indicate need for future training in proper police protocols and conduct.
  6. Civilian review or community police review boards must be created where members of the community can serve and play a significant role in reviewing complaints and making recommendations for how policing should be done in their communities. Re-imagining the relationship between the police and the community is an important step in moving forward. The community must feel empowered to direct police actions as opposed to having police feel no accountability to the communities they serve. Creating a more horizontal police structure de-militarizes the structure and brings the community directly involved in how policing should be done in their/our communities where broken relationships and flawed policies too often result in the feeding of mostly black and brown youth into the prison pipeline.
  7. Legislators must prioritize spending on building relationships between people, advancing community healing projects and allowing communities to lead themselves. This means more diversity and more training in many police departments; more community policing and civilian review boards. By reducing military spending by even a small percentage, resources could be supplied that build not only more accountability but also peaceful and better-resourced communities.

Holding institutions and systems, like law enforcement, accountable must be a priority in any work towards social change. This accountability must be both immediate and long-term; it must realize tangible and swift changes outlined in this paper, while ensuring that a necessary, sustainable and impactful change continues to be advanced and ultimately won. While inescapable evidence of a failure in personal accountability and the implementation of existing measures of institutional accountably permeates much of law enforcement and criminal justice systems, we all must commit ourselves to transparent scrutiny of our own accountability and ask ourselves whether or not we are doing enough to end the criminalization and dehumanization of all people, including black, brown and Indigenous people.

We hope you will join us in taking action, in finding healing and refuge in working together towards lasting and accountable peace and justice, in building the beloved community.