Lack of humanity makes justice system more dangerous for blacks long before cops interact
Victims of crimes too often made to feel like suspects. Spend less money on police, prisons and more on treatment, communities.
The killing of George Floyd is yet another example of our nation’s disregard for black lives. It also reveals a heavily financed criminal justice system that not only fails to keep black communities safe, it also repeatedly puts us in danger.
The data shows it, too.
In Minneapolis, specifically, police use force against black people seven times more frequently than they do against whites. Those disparities exist at every stage of the legal system, including for victims of crime. Data compiled by The Washington Post shows that homicides for black victims yield a lower percentage of arrests than homicides for white victims in the city.
Similar disparities hold true across the country.
The lack of accountability for violence against black people reflects a systemic problem beginning long before any encounter with police on the streets. It starts with a failure to recognize black humanity. The deaths of black people at the hands of law enforcement are an extension of this larger problem.
As long as I have been alive, the lack of safety in black communities has been seen by law enforcement and too many policymakers as a problem inherent to the people in those communities, rather than as a problem happening to them.
As the co-founder of a national network of more than 42,000 diverse crime survivors, I’ve had the privilege of working with many black crime victims across the United States. Despite popular assumptions that crime victims support long sentences and prison expansion, survey after survey shows that the opposite is true.
In fact, 61% of crime victims support shorter prison sentences and more spending on prevention and rehabilitation. Rather than more jails, the vast majority of crime victims support an approach to public safety that prioritizes investments in communities for necessities that include education, mental health treatment, drug treatment and job training.
But governments have failed to make those investments, leaving black people unsafe from violence and vulnerable to just about everything. The newest revelation that Floyd had COVID-19 is not surprising — black people make up more than 22% of infections in Minnesota despite being only 6.6% of the population.
There is another common theme among many black crime victims in our network.
Whether they’re mothers of children killed by gun violence, young victims of violence, or survivors of robberies and sexual assault, their experiences with law enforcement are disturbingly similar: Police and prosecutors treat them as if they're the suspect rather than the survivor.
This profound example of a failure to recognize black humanity, even among crime victims, permeates law enforcement encounters, along with federal, state and local policymaking. Traditional “tough on crime" strategies have failed — tearing families apart, depleting community resources and leading states to build more prisons. The policies have failed to help victims while making black communities less safe.
Police and incarceration have been the primary response to nearly every challenge in black communities since the 1980s. Struggling with addiction or mental illness? Send in the police. Jobless, with nowhere to live? Call the cops.
Crime victims know how to make our communities and our nation safer, but they aren't being heard or even recognized if they’re black. A black mother who had lost a child to gun violence told me at one of our crime victims rallies in Sacramento about her experience, saying, “Only white victims who lost children are allowed to stand near district attorneys to share their stories to shape public policy. They’ve never let me share mine, and I ask every year.”
Public safety policy ought to begin with actually listening to the voices of crime victims and survivors. We must also act decisively to prevent more crime victims of police violence. And we must act on these three measures to do so:
►Police disciplinary records need to be made public and should be easily searchable online. Officers need to be removed from the force swiftly when their actions violate their oath. They should also be decertified from becoming officers in the future, just as doctors and lawyers are when they engage in misconduct that betrays their professional pledge.
►Communities need a response to health problems with health solutions from their governments. Police aren't trained to address addiction, mental health challenges or homelessness, so they shouldn't be the front-line responders in those situations.
►Third, investments. We cannot have most of our public safety money spent on police and prisons and expect different, more humane and effective outcomes. Communities and crime survivors have said safety will come from prevention, treatment, restorative justice and healing — not from traditional responses that have proved to make matters worse.
These calls for solutions are not just my life’s work, they’re also deeply personal. In 2014, after decades of working toward new approaches to public safety, my best friend from my childhood in Dallas was killed by law enforcement. He was having a mental health crisis, the police were called and the officers saw him as a threat. They took his life.
Until black voices and pain are embraced in policymaking — and in how policymakers view who is seen as vulnerable and who is deserving of safety — we will likely see more Floyds for years to come.
As a father of three black boys, that is something I am not willing to stand by and allow.