Our Role in Police Violence and the Culture that Permits It – Personal Reflection by Michael Gelder, Health & Medicine Founding Board Member - Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Our Role in Police Violence and the Culture that Permits It – Personal Reflection by Michael Gelder, Health & Medicine Founding Board Member

June 23, 2020 Written By: Michael Gelder, Founding Board Member of Health & Medicine

We have to realize ending police violence requires committed, long-term effort by people of all skin colors to achieve what we’ve been marching for since the murder of George Floyd—a system of public health and safety that respects the rights of every human being. This system includes the right to health care, adequate nutrition, quality education, affordable housing, and other essential building blocks of social justice. Only WE can prevent the forest fire of structural racism.

The initial focus of this uprising has been on establishing policies that limit the force that officers are legally permitted to use. These laws are legitimate, immediate targets for our ire and energy. But achieving social justice will require even more effort on a broader range of inequalities, some of which are ingrained in a white-dominated culture.

Recent efforts by local (Minneapolis), state (NY), and federal (action by House Democrats) governments to fashion legislation to reduce the worst abuses, such as chokeholds, are important. Nevertheless, the federal role in local law enforcement is extremely limited. Federal funding accounts for a tiny fraction of total spending on police across the nation. Federal efforts are even less helpful under a president who is hostile to the notions of fairness and decency. Even if that changes in January, we’ll have a new president who believes the answer is to give police more funding. We must focus on what personal and cultural changes we can set in motion to confront white supremacy.

Policing is really up to us. Policing is a local function. That means a city can have the type of policing it wants, within, of course, the rather flimsy guard rails of the Constitution. We recruit, hire, train, supervise, discipline, and pay for the force we want. We reward certain behaviors and discourage others through pay and discipline.

Yet even a progressive mayor and police chief, as in Minneapolis, have been unable to break the stranglehold of the white supremacist wing of that police department after more than a decade of effort and federal consent decrees. The Brooklyn borough president, an African American and victim of a brutal police beating as a young teen, who became a police patrolman and worked his way up to Captain despite suing and winning discrimination lawsuits along the way, said in a recent interview, those officers in Minneapolis should not have been fired. They should have never been hired in the first place, let alone retained for all those years while brutality complaints piled up. Yet there they were, serving as cop, judge, jury, and, nonchalantly, executioner to a man suspected of passing a questionable $20 bill.

Unfortunately, the badge, gun, and relative freedom to act unencumbered by social norms attract white supremacists like a magnet. And their union becomes the vehicle through which their jobs are protected and insulated from those social norms. Unlike most job settings, going rogue and breaking the code of silence can have life or death consequences for cops in the field.

In contract negotiations, unions insist on disciplinary procedures that protect the rights of officers and afford them the benefit of the doubt when conflicts with the public arise. Sizable union donations to elected officials help the union-favorable contracts sail through city councils. With those protections in place, officers have time to get their stories straight, consult and conspire with other officers on the scene, and have a union rep and a union-paid attorney at their side before reports are submitted and throughout any subsequent inquiry. And in the rare case a police officer is prosecuted, there’s still the challenge of breaking the bond the police have with judges and prosecutors, who depend on police to keep the wheels of injustice moving. State legislators, influenced by the same union donations, offer officers qualified immunity from civil suits. Unfortunately, with these cop-friendly protections, some de jure and others de facto, threat of discipline or penalties does not pose much deterrence for abusive on-or off-the-job behavior.

Fundamentally, police forces reflect the power dynamics of the society they serve and protect. Originally formed in the U.S. to enforce the system of slavery, they continue to protect the property interests of the powerful.

We know that recruitment, training, leadership skills, promotion policies, and discipline procedures, etc. are all essential elements. But they are not sufficient. Policemen and women have to grow up in a culture that respects the individual and collective dignity of every person they swear to protect.

We have to ask ourselves, why do we create so many white supremacists? Why do we have such racially homogeneous neighborhoods that cops can “know” from an address what “type” of person lives there? And when the neighborhood is Black or Brown, why do they feel free to behave like warriors confronting enemy combatants.

To get to the root of this problem, we have to address the permanent stain of slavery, Native American genocide, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, financial oppression, health care and educational disparities, and other forms of repression under the shameful label of structural racism before we can develop a public health and safety system that can truly serve, protect, and respect the people they serve.

Yes, we need to devote ourselves to a Blue Wave in November. Yes, we should immediately prohibit use of lethal force weapons and holds. We should immediately demilitarize and defund the current police forces, while redesigning public safety functions that would engage professionals with the appropriate skills, training, and education to handle the vast majority of matters that don’t require sworn officers with guns and badges.

But the ominous blue wave pouring out of armored vehicles, in riot gear, and brandishing lethal and debilitating fire power to smash peaceful protests must be addressed by much deeper soul searching and personal and collective commitments to economic and social justice.

As an older white male, my immediate duty is to listen and focus on the role I play individually and collectively that perpetuates our racist systems. We can march, sign petitions, get out the vote, and contribute to Black Lives Matter and other allied causes. But what about those awkward conversations with our work colleagues, friends, and families? What about reparations? What about at least ensuring that our taxes are sufficient to ensure that education and other building blocks of social justice are in place, even if it means less for ourselves? What else can and must we do differently to extinguish the forest fire of racism and white supremacy?

We were not around to fight slavery, genocide, lynching, Jim Crow, or other historical forms of oppression upon which our wealth was accumulated. But we are here now and what we do at this moment will define us. Let’s take time to sharpen that focus with the aid of a mirror. As we said decades ago, if we’re not part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. We need to own this and act accordingly. The forest is ablaze.

Michael Gelder

Welcome to the blog for Health & Medicine. Founded in 1981, we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that operates as an independent, freestanding center driven by a singular mission: formulating health policy, advocacy, and health systems that promote social justice and challenge inequities in health and health care. Signed posts represent the opinion of the author(s), and are not necessarily those of the Board, Staff, or Health & Medicine itself.