Policing Is An ‘Avatar Of American Racism,’ Marshall Project Journalist Says

Terry Gross,

Erik McGregor LightRocket via Getty Images

Protesters hold a portrait of George Floyd at a demonstration against police brutality in New York City. Policing "wasn't always this big. It wasn't always this bureaucratic," journalist Jamiles Lartey says.

In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, protesters across the country are demanding systemic changes in the way American police forces operate and are funded.

Journalist Jamiles Lartey says the discussion about policing feels different now than it has in the past. “You’re hearing so much less of the ‘few bad apples’ argument and so much more of the, ‘What is wrong with this system?’ [argument],” he says.

Lartey is a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. He previously reported on criminal justice, race and policing for The Guardian, where he was part of a team that created an online database tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016.

Lartey notes that America’s model of policing is a relatively recent phenomenon: “Policing wasn’t always this way. It wasn’t always this big. It wasn’t always this bureaucratic,” he says. “Modern policing — the policing that you and I and listeners recognize today — is really a product of the 20th century.”

He says that Floyd’s death — and the deaths of other black people in police custody — highlight the need to change a broken system.

“There’s so many things that we currently ask our police to respond to — whether it’s a noise complaint or a car accident — that don’t necessarily fit into a reason why someone would need to show up with a deadly weapon,” Lartey says. “Sometimes as a society, you need to rethink institutions, especially when they’re relatively new, especially when they’ve changed a lot over the last 20, 30 or 40 years.”


Interview highlights

On destructive acts of protest, like looting and arson

I think it is important to keep in mind that to the extent that there has been destructive acts of protests, looting, that there’s a range of causes: Are there passionate, angry people who were lashing out in grief and frustration? Yes. Are there anti-capitalists who see looting and destruction as a form of revolutionary praxis and are using this as an opportunity? Yes. Are there pure opportunists who want to get free stuff and are taking advantage of the chaos? Definitely. Are there chaos agents who are trying to give the protesters a bad name and potentially see violence against them? It appears that that was the case as well. So I think it’s really important that when we are trying to analyze these moments that we’re not reductive about the socio-economic phenomena, like destructive protests or looting. …

I think there’s an important distinction between measuring the efficacy of violent protests or destructive protests versus the morality of it. The morality of it is going to be personal and subjective. Most of us can think of moments and places where we find violence or destruction useful and justified, and moments where we don’t. Now, the efficacy of it is something that we can probably wrap our heads around. But again, it’s complicated. If the point is to get attention, then destruction works. If the point is to win hearts and minds and the political center, then it probably doesn’t. And if holding public officials hostage and forcing them to appease your demands is the point, it might depend on the public official.

I think something that you’ll hear a lot … is that, “Two wrongs don’t make a right,” which is an ethical and spiritual intuition in many traditions, but it’s not a particularly American one. Our whole criminal justice system is based on the premise that two wrongs make a right. Caging humans and fining poor people money they don’t have are morally wrong, but it’s how we define justice in most cases in this country.

On a model of protest used in the ’80s and ’90s, where protest organizers met with police beforehand — and why that model is less common now

The negotiated management model of protest is this idea that community thought leaders would be meeting with police. Ahead of a protest, they’d say, “Here’s what we’re going to protest. Here’s when and where and how. This is how we expect it all to go down.” And they’d come up with a plan to essentially let people exercise their First Amendment rights in the fullest way possible. And there would be this expectation on both sides that the police would stick to the plan that they agreed to, that the protesters would stick to the plan that they agreed to. This took a lot of the uncertainty and mistrust out of the calculation and allowed people to express themselves. …

That was in a moment where it was always very clear who community thought leaders were, and in many respects, they were folks who are connected to the establishment … church leaders, people in the church, the spiritual religious leaders. Now, that’s not necessarily the folks who are leading Black Lives Matter protests today. Some of them are. Some of them aren’t. So I think there’s a lot of reasons why that model has fallen out of favor. I think it largely has to do with the militarization of U.S. police. It largely has to do with just a changing cultural attitude about how police approach their job. But it also has to do with the fact that I think, ideologically and structurally, in many ways, the police and the folks who are protesting are further away from one another within the society, whereas before they were both members of an establishment and a community.

On a softer way of policing protests known as the “Madison model”

I spoke to [former Madison, Wis., Police Chief] David Cooper, who I see is in many ways the forefather of this kind of softer approach to policing protests. … And what he described to me is you show up in regular uniforms, people can see your face. (This was obviously outside the context of a pandemic.) You listen, you relate. You talk to people about their grievance. And in exchange for asking officers to make themselves fairly vulnerable in this way, you have these more well-equipped cops waiting somewhere close by in case things go bad.

But David Cooper, when I talked to him, he said … “You never, never, never, never start with the show of force and power because it ratchets up everyone’s expectations for violence and … generate[s] it.” And again, just when we think about escalation and de-escalation, that makes sense. You show up with the most aggressive version of how you can respond to something, and it ratchets up the perception of everyone who’s there of where this is going to go. …

Law enforcement officials and former police chiefs told me over and over again [that] just showing up in soft uniforms to a protest full of angry people does not in and of itself guarantee a peaceful, satisfactory resolution. The work starts before that. There needs to be some baseline level of trust between police and between a community that they’re going to do what they said they were going to do. If you’re talking about one of these pre-negotiated plans for a protest, that they’re going to abide by that. There’s this metaphorical bank of trust between police and a community, and too often it’s overdrawn in both directions, and there’s no way to really approach it as anything but a war. As one of the retired law enforcement folks I spoke to said, “The time to make friends is before you need them.”

On why reforms within the Minneapolis police department didn’t prevent George Floyd’s death

Malcolm X once said, “You can’t legislate goodwill.” And I think it’s maybe one of the most astute political observations of our time. And if I can take the liberty of elaborating on it, I’d say you can’t regulate goodwill or implement it with a consent decree or a strategic policy initiative either. So, yes, we can outline specific line-level reforms that were promised and not implemented or implemented unevenly or ineffectively.

Let’s take neck restraints, for example. Many departments have chosen to ban those outright. But when the Minneapolis police department addressed them in 2014, they chose to leave this carve out where if deadly force was permissible, then so too was this kind of restraint. It maybe makes sense that if you’re legally justified to pull out your gun and shoot someone, you’re also justified to choke them. That’s the argument that’s typically made, and a lot of use of force policies make it. But by leaving that carve out, there’s a significant ambiguity there in the policy. You’re asking officers, in the heat of the moment, or in the heat of several moments, to make a distinction about whether or not this particular situation merits or makes it reasonable to restrain someone’s neck in that way.

But putting aside that specific example, a lot of changes were made. The Minneapolis department adopted a slew of changes after this voluntary review in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Justice. And they automated their system for flagging problem officers as the Department of Justice recommended. They rewrote their use of force policy with a focus on the “sanctity of life.” They required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive in front of them. And all of those would seem to be measures that would have lessened the possibility that an incident like what happened to George Floyd would happen. But they didn’t. And so I think that’s going to beg some really tough questions moving forward for reformers about why not.

And I kind of think it comes back to the words of Malcolm X: If there is a culture in an organization whereby the application of force to black bodies is the norm, that’s the expectation. It’s the M.O. You can’t really policy change that away. The news that the city plans to disband its police department and kind of functionally start over again seems to be a recognition of that fact, as does this newfound popularity broadly of defund and abolition movements.

On why screening for racist officers is not going to fix the problem of racism in police departments

I’ve always found it instructive to think of the police and policing as this kind of avatar of American racism. The police are racism representatives. They are the folks who we hire to actuate something that’s far more distant than a person’s individual biases.

I’m sure listeners will be familiar with the Central Park incident involving Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper [no relation] a few weeks back: A white woman was walking her dog off leash. This black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to put her dog on the leash, per the park rules. And she instantly seemed to feel very threatened and started calling the police and telling them that she was being physically threatened by a black man. This went viral just before George Floyd was killed.

And part of the reason that the Amy Coopers of the world feel so comfortable using the police as their own kind of personal racism valet is because that’s in line with how they’ve operated in our society. Which is to say, even if you or I or we have never called the police on a black person for some deeply unserious reason, as a society we outsource the keeping of the racial order to police every day. … And this is so important: Officers themselves do not have to be ideologically white supremacist to be performing that function.

So we spend a lot of time on this surface level question of how do we get police officers as individuals or as departments to treat black people better. But in sum, the way police treat black people in America is symptomatic of how America feels about black people, which is this state of conditional citizenship steeped in mistrust and in fear.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

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