The Nation Looking at Policing Reform, Systemic Racism and Race Relations

By Edwin Quinabo

Congressional Democrats unveiled the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which aims to install wide-ranging reforms for police departments across the country. It faces Republican opposition. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)

No one imagined there could be news so big, urgent and alarming to replace the coronavirus’ 24/7 news cycle. But it did on May 25, 2020 when an unarmed black man George Floyd was killed by police. The video of Floyd’s death was so graphic, devoid of humanness when a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes that something clicked in the minds of millions.

Tens of thousands from all walks of life, all colors, joined in solidarity to call for an end to police brutality against America’s black community. From Minneapolis (where George died), east to NYC and Washington, D.C., down south in Atlanta, and out west to L.A. — loud chants, “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Black Lives Matter” rocked the streets for two weeks.

The protests, so large, uncontrolled, were reminiscent of the turbulent 1960s when the country rallied against the Vietnam War and pushed to pass civil rights legislations. And 50 years later, the work that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. started, remains unfinished. 

Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd in 2020 alone represent the ongoing struggle. Add to this list Rayshard Brooks, another black man fatally shot by police just days after Floyd was buried. Political analysts say it’s unconscionable that at a time of hypersensitivity over police brutality, yet another black unarmed black man is shot and killed.

Has the day of reckoning arrived? — a time for serious policing reforms to be implemented. Activists are demanding change, but also realize Americans of all races must rally together to make it happen.

Raymund Liongson, PhD, former Hawaii Civil Rights Commissioner and retired professor, University of Hawaii-Leeward CC, said “There is no question about the need for sweeping reforms in policing particularly as it relates to racial and ethnic diversity.”

Liongson suggests a few needed reforms could include checks-and-balances of police power, transparency in police investigations, and continuing police training toward de-escalation, racial equality, human dignity, and compassion. 

“Other groups demand ‘defunding the police,’ and we need to have robust conversations to clarify this reform proposal,” he said.

Jonathan Okamura, a retired professor with the Department of Ethnic Studies at UH-Manoa told the Filipino Chronicle, he agrees that police procedures are necessary as long as people are being killed while in police custody. 

“George Floyd is just the most recent victim of police brutality against African Americans and joins the continuously growing list of unarmed Black men and women who have recently lost their lives in encounters with the police. Since his killing, changes already have begun with several local governments prohibiting their police departments from using chokeholds when arresting suspects,” he said.

But Okamura believes changes to policing is only a start. He says the entire criminal justice system, including the courts and prisons needs to transform its practices and policies to ensure racial justice for people of color.

Police Reforms Proposed 
House Majority Steny Hoyer said Democrats are aiming to bring their policing reform packages to the House Floor for a vote during the week of June 22.

The package, called Justice in Policing Act was put together by the Congressional Black Caucus, House Judiciary Committee Democrats and Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

“The Justice in Policing Act establishes a bold, transformative vision of policing in America,” said Representative Karen Bass of California, the chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “Never again should the world be subjected to witnessing what we saw on the streets in Minneapolis, the slow murder of an individual by a uniformed police officer.”

The Act is the most expansive federal intervention into law enforcement proposing significant changes. A few of the changes proposed:

  • Establish a new set of restrictions on law enforcement officers to prevent them from using deadly force except as a last resort. 
  • Ban police chokeholds.
  •  Establish a National Police Misconduct Registry to track police misconducts and require law enforcement agencies to report data on the use of force.
  • Require all uniformed federal officers to wear body cameras and mandate that state and local agencies use federal funds to ensure their use. 
  • Incentivize state and local governments to conduct racial bias training for officers. Some federal grants would be conditioned on these trainings made available.
  • Limit the transfer of military weaponry to state and local departments and ban “no knock” warrants” in federal drug cases that allow police officers to enter residences without warning. 
  • The most contentious feature of the bill is altering what’s known as qualified immunity, which shields police officers from being held legally liable for damages sought by citizens whose constitutional rights are found to have been violated.

Currently, prosecutors must prove that an officer “willfully” violated an individual’s constitutional rights. The change proposed would lower that standard, to actions undertaken with “reckless disregard” for the individual’s rights.

What the legislation doesn’t include is the defunding of police departments as many protestors have been calling for.

When asked about the defunding movement, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, “We want to work with our police departments. There are many who take pride in their work, and we want to be able to make sure that the focus is on them.”

Hawaii and policing reform 
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell also does not support defunding of the Honolulu Police Department but actually has plans to increase HPD’s budget. He said some of that money would go to body cams. The mayor also said he supports more transparency at HPD.

As many police departments are being pressured to implement reform, two Honolulu Police Commission members Steven Levinson and Loretta Sheehan resigned. The two have been vocal critics of the system. Levinson said the commission has no power over policy. “We don’t have any power at all. It’s ultimately up to the chief. The chief has a monopoly over those kinds of powers. That’s the way the city charter’s written.”

The mayor nominated two replacements – former state Attorney General Doug Chin and YMCA President and CEO Michael Broderick, a family court judge. Both nominees support more transparency of HPD, including around officers accused of misconducts and a review of policies on chokeholds and shooting at moving cars.

“I think if there’s any lesson that we’ve learned it’s how important transparency matters to be able to hold people accountable,” Chin said. “It’s been a very difficult time but I know that through everything that has been happening there is what I believe a sea change.”

The commission has the power to hire, evaluate, and fire the police chief. Some critics say the Commission’s role should be expanded and truly be an independent oversight body over HPD.

Police Unions 
Police commissions are just one limited oversight body. But civil rights activists say police unions are part of the problem of police brutality.

As most unions, police unions are designed to protect their members. Activists claim there can be a conflict of interest here between protecting citizens and protecting bad cops. The same standards of unions of protecting members should not apply to police unions because they are entrusted with life and death matters, and where an error or abuse occurs, it could have deadly consequence.

Recognizing a shift in perception of police unions, Richard Trumka, who heads the nation’s largest federation of labor organizations AFLCIO (that includes a few police unions) said its board has adopted a set of recommendations aimed at addressing “America’s long history of racism and police violence against black people.”

Reforms AFL-CIO supports include banning chokeholds, expanding use of body cameras, ending racial profiling, demilitarizing police forces, limiting no-knock warrants, and creating a more community-centric policing culture. The reforms almost mirror the Democrats’ Justice in Policing Act.

The powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Lee Saunders said, “No union contract is or should be construed as a shield for misconduct or criminal behavior.” 

Civil rights activists complain that police unions’ political clout (besides their membership) stems from their political endorsements. Candidates for political office from state House members, City Council members to governor actively seek police union endorsements.

This 2020 election cycle, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers (SHOPO) has endorsed former media General Manager Rick Blangiardi for Honolulu mayor.

A Ewa Beach voter, who wished to remain anonymous, said SHOPO has no business making political endorsements. “All candidates shouldn’t be seeking SHOPO’s endorsements.” She said Blangiardi, as a news GM should have been sensitive to the current situation around the country and refused the endorsement to set an example.

“We know the majority of cops are good cops. But police unions ought to be non-political and have a different way of operating than other unions. SHOPO’s political endorsements corrupt the system. Their primary role should be relegated to pay and benefits bargaining. The idea of the police, basically policing themselves, doesn’t make me feel comfortable. And if a mayor, for example, has been endorsed by SHOPO, that makes it more complicating.”

SHOPO represents about 3,500 officers.

Patricio Abinales, professor at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies, UH-Manoa, supports policing reform. “Chokeholds for one should be banned. I do not agree however that that police should be abolished because of this. There is a lot of talk about bad eggs but very little on the good things people in uniform do.”

Data on police brutality 
Data on the use of force by police officers presents difficulties for researchers because law enforcement agencies voluntarily report these statistics, which is why activists say a national data base system must be established. Besides data being voluntary, it is also not impartial because police agencies are reporting on themselves.

Dr. Matthew Miller, a violence researcher and professor of health sciences and epidemiology at Northwestern University, co-authored a study on civilians who were shot and killed by police officers between 2014 and 2015.

He found that of the roughly 1,000 people shot to death by police officers each year, Black Americans were twice as likely to be shot and killed by police officers, compared with their representation in the population.

The Washington Post’s Fatal Force Project found similar results since 2015.

In another study with data taken from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Violent Death Reporting System, Black Americans were three times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers during interactions where the victim appeared to pose little or no threat to officers.

Systemic Racism 
Social Science academics say while banning neck restraints and other policing reforms help, they do not address structural problems, cultural problems that devalue people of color.

Professor Okamura explains the theory of systemic racism was introduced by sociologist Joe Feagin of Texas A&M University in the mid2000s to account for how Whites in America have maintained their large-scale oppression of non-Whites over the centuries.

“As a system, Feagin, who blames Whites for systemic racism, argues that it consists of four primary components that work together to maintain racial hierarchy and inequality: discriminatory practices of Whites; racial stereotypes and representations by them; resources and power held by Whites; and maintenance of material inequalities by White-controlled institutions, such as universities,” he said.

“Why should we care [about the killing of George Floyd]? Because we could have been George Floyd and the brutality on George Floyd dramatized the inhumanity against people of color, indigenous societies, immigrants, women, and marginalized population of which Filipinos in America may fall under. Remaining silent on the killing of Floyd is complicity to the continuing racial hatred and oppression.” 

—Raymund Liongson, PhD 
Former Hawaii Civil Rights Commissioner, Retired Professor, University of Hawaii-Leeward CC

“As I tell my students, in Hawai‘i systemic racism is not only sustained by Whites because Japanese Americans also contribute to it, and Filipinos have been subject to systemic racism since their arrival as plantation laborers. At present, it is evident against Filipinos in the institutionalized discrimination they encounter in employment and education, racist stereotyping of them through joke telling, and their persisting lower socioeconomic status, including severe underrepresentation as students and faculty at UH Mānoa,” Okamura said.

Professor Liongson agrees that systemic racism goes beyond policing. “It is demonstrated in many other various ways – from apathy to discrimination to overt violence like assault and homicide. It seeps into all dimensions of our social lives – from the educational system to the workplace to our day-to-day affairs.”

He adds, “the litany of reports on police brutality against black and colored people is more than about few bad apples. It mirrors a system of racial hatred and prejudice that is rooted on the refusal to accept the dignity of people who look differently. Such system has established a rite of violence that has been sadly accepted as a social norm.”

The meter on discrimination perceptions have moved from 2015 up to the present. In 2015, in the wake of unrest in Ferguson, Mo., just half of Americans said they believed racial discrimination to be a “big problem,” according to a Monmouth University polling. Compare that to the recent 2020 Monmouth University polling after the death of Floyd, more than 75% of Americans say discrimination is a big problem and 57% understand that African Americans are more likely to suffer from police violence than other demographic groups.

Race relations: better or worse?
Professor Liongson said he was inclined to think race relations in the U.S. has improved because of advances in the 1960s with the Civil Rights movement. He cites reforms in segregation, voting rights, education and work opportunities as examples. “But discrimination and hate crimes stemming from racial diversity continue to resurface, many of them brutally committed by law enforcers. The discrimination and killings of blacks and people of color are a stark reminder of the wide and oppressive racial divide that is still very much alive in America.”

Professor Okamura agrees that race relations has gotten worse. “Whether one takes a longer historical perspective from the 1960s or a much shorter one since the Trump presidency, race relations in America have clearly worsened. The Sixties, a period of tremendous political and cultural changes, brought forth the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act in 1965, and the Fair Housing Act three years later, all of which prohibited racial discrimination and benefited racial and ethnic minorities. However, well before Trump became president starting with the White backlash in the subsequent decade, these laws were no longer being fully enforced, and changes were initiated that have reduced their efficacy, such as in voting. As the racist-in-chief, Trump has sought to divide America along racial lines and is seeking re-election by blowing his racist dog whistle at his dwindling base of noncollege educated Whites. He has demonstrated no interest in bringing together people of differing race, and his administration has been primarily about making America White again, as is evident in his anti-immigration and anti-immigrant policies.”

Why should we all care of the killing of George Floyd?
Professor Liongon said George’s killing highlights the destructiveness of hatred and unregulated power particularly in the hands of those who are supposed to uphold human dignity and preserve human life.

“Why should we care? Because we could have been George Floyd and the brutality on George Floyd dramatized the inhumanity against people of color, indigenous societies, immigrants, women, and marginalized population of which Filipinos in America may fall under. Remaining silent on the killing of Floyd is complicity to the continuing racial hatred and oppression.”

Is it as protestors say, “silence is complicity?” Is it time for a united front finally to end abusive policing and systemic racism against the African American community, which ultimately would benefit all people of color?

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