Apr 30, 2021 | OPINION | By Andrew Hoffman | Illustration by Patil Khakhamian
“It is not Black people’s responsibility to fight for our civil rights, that responsibility falls up white people.” Those words — from one of the speakers at a Black Lives Matter protest in response to the Daunte Wright shooting — have stuck with me.
Even now, almost three weeks later, I still am trying to figure out how to live up to those words. What do they mean for me, a full pay, half-white student in one of the richest colleges in the nation? What must I do?
Originally, I had planned to write out a detailed, well-researched response that provided a tangible picture for what I would argue an ideal American policing system would look like. Yet after seeing the visceral emotions, the telling of real, lived experiences of people just like me, that Saturday, I cannot help but feel that such a response would fall a little short. It would be lacking a human element, a soul or living understanding.
Now, do not get me wrong, I fully intend to provide policy solutions for American policing, but if I wanted to truly live up to those words, I would need to embrace the privilege that comes with my wealthy, white, male identity. I would have to recognize my inherent lack of experience. I would need to confront my inner guilt of having enormous social and racial power that came from such shameful roots. I would also need to come to terms with the power imbalances that I do not fully deserve.
With that being said, I hope through this article I can not only paint a clear picture of a “better American criminal justice system” but I can retain a sincere and humble voice that pushes back against the cold robotic monotone of an academic spitting out solutions.
The first thing I would recommend to my fellow non-BIPOC students is to attend a Black Lives Matter protest in a major city. Personally, I had attended a couple protests beforehand, but the experience I had in Denver was eye-opening.
In prior protests I’d attended at home, I was removed and comfortable, in a suburban bubble. When I went to the cities I stood among the people who truly experienced and feared our American law enforcement system.
I do not think I can fully articulate what it is like to witness people’s full, real-life stories. It was a truly human experience. So if you have not gone to a protest in a major city, please do; it helped me connect with people and experiences in a way I hadn’t before.
After that protest, the term “Black trauma” truly felt like an appropriate term. People suffer under this system, and until we can start to see people as such (rather than reducing them to newsfeed statistics or props in feel-good, do-nothing rhetoric) the policies I suggest will mean nothing.
Before I get into the policies, I want to quickly note that in the interest of keeping this article succinct and accessible to my readers, I will not fully be covering the community investment and community restructuring portion of the fixing of our criminal justice system.
That is not to say that that topic isn’t important or necessary, but rather public investment in community infrastructure like proper healthcare, properly funded education, strong roads and “real” infrastructure, is such a complicated and controversial topic on its own that it is better saved for another article.
The first set of reforms I want to introduce require a fundamental restructuring of the police. The first major change is the limitation and/or abolition of police unions. Police unions greatly limit the ability of governments to regulate and discipline poor police behavior.
The Wall Street Journal, for example, shows that despite receiving 2,600 police misconduct complaints between 2012 and 2020, the Minneapolis Police Department only pursued disciplinary action for 12 of these cases.
Statistics like this are common across the nation. Since police unions are inherently designed to protect the officers, and not the actual citizens of the community involved, it is no surprise we see such problematic scenarios occurring.
The second major reform requires us to change our inherent viewpoint towards what it means to “serve and protect” our community. Since the mid-1990s, “War on Crime” rhetoric has skyrocketed, with police being seen as essentially first line combatants to fight the scourge of crime on our streets.
The problem is that not only are we implicitly encouraging our officers to see themselves as “badass defenders of the streets,” but this type of tough on crime rhetoric actually fails.
A great example of this is the case study of Camden, New Jersey. Once called “the murder capital of the world,” Camden’s police department was hopelessly corrupt, understaffed and overpaid with entirely reactionary officers.
However, after laying off the entire police force and leasing the responsibility out to the county instead of the city, a wildly unpopular decision at the time, the county was able to essentially bust up police unions, cut officer benefits, increase training and hire more officers. While this might sound expensive, Camden was actually able to cut average per-officer costs from $182,618 to $99,605. All this work has paid off, with Camden no longer being in the 2019 top 50 dangerous cities in America, according to FBI data.
Another important factor to keep in mind with the Camden success story is their usage of community-oriented policing. Studies have shown that through increased positive non-enforcement contact between police and citizens, further cooperation and trust can be built.
What this means in more simpler terms is that through simple non-violent or even non-enforcement encounters with police, trust begins to develop in communities that become safer and healthier places for all involved.
Developing that trust and non-violence, however, requires us to also reform our criminal justice system. As our current system stands, we live in a punitive criminal justice society, with the belief that punishment should be the goal of criminal justice.
That concept, however, is regressive and works against the very notion of community-oriented policing. Rather, we need to develop a system that is focused on restoration and rehabilitation. This naturally calls for a multitude of actions, such as lighter sentencing that is more focused on rehabilitating criminals for reentry into society.
A great example of this is the usage of rehabilitative prisons. While Norway is an ever-popular example among proponents of prison reform, with its incredibly low recidivism and crime rates suggesting the system’s success, I want to instead point to Brazil.
Brazil’s prison system is a mismatch of regressive punitive prisons as well as more rehabilitative-focused “alternative prisons.” The results are incredibly shocking. Brazil’s rehabilitative-focused prison system has recidivism and escape rates of lower than 10%, resulting in these prisons consistently being labeled as the leading prisons in the nation.
While the major issue of these Association for Protection and Assistance of Convicts (APAC) prisons is the lack of funding and volunteers in Brazil, the amount of money and manpower we pour into criminal justice in the U.S. makes this issue (with a fair amount of reallocation as the program largely pays for itself in reducing crime rates) negligible.
Further rehabilitative policy ideas include the decriminalization of drug use. While this might initially sound like a radical idea, Portugal was able to completely reverse their opioid epidemic through the total decriminalization of drug use and focus on providing drug users with proper health care.
To this day, Portugal continues to lead the European Union and comparable European countries, with incredibly low rates of drug-related health problems, death rates and crimes (such as drug dealing).
What this all ultimately suggests is that through the mindset of rehabilitating those who have been damaged by systemic issues in American society, we are able to save a lot more money to restore what we have lost.
Policing and criminal justice is far from perfect in the U.S., and the issue is multifaceted to say the least. In this vital exercise, it is important to remember and recognize the role our identities play into all of this.
Implicit racism is not an issue that can be solved overnight, and it is important to recognize that in this school with such a high percentage of incredibly affluent and wealthy children, the responsibility falls upon us.
The disenfranchised have fought for as long as this nation has existed, and change has always been gradual, but it is up to us, the powerful and the privileged, to truly ask ourselves if we are willing to face the shame that our nation’s injustices have caused and finally take the burden and responsibility to fight this system that has been “fixed” in such a broken way.