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LAW ENFORCEMENT AND SYSTEMIC RACISM

As a psychologist who has helped select, support, and train police officers for the past 39 years, I have observed the constant challenges and frustrations of generations of dedicated and idealistic law enforcement men and women. As a citizen I have also witnessed the harsh, humiliating, discriminating, and deadly incidents involving police use of force that we are all now demanding must stop.


Voices have increasingly called for dismantling and re-orienting law enforcement and its various functions. And even the overall purpose and societal impact of the law enforcement system itself have been criticized. Todd May and George Yancy (New York Times, June 22) argue that the important issue is not weeding out bad apples: “the question we should be asking of the police (is) not why they regularly fail to perform their duties correctly and thus need reform, but rather, what duties are they succeeding at?”



May and Yancy conclude police departments are succeeding at “keeping people in their place…They succeed in keeping middle-class and especially upper-class white people safe…(and) in keeping people of color in their place so that they don’t challenge the social order that privileges middle- and upper-class white people.” And, they say, “(police departments) succeed in suppressing those who would question the social order.” May and Yancy argue the whole policing institution is racist, whether or not individual officers themselves are racist, because of current law enforcement’s overall impact of defending the established inequities and discriminations in our society’s status quo.



These authors are not saying the individual men and women in law enforcement are necessarily racist or intending to restrict freedom or to keep people of color down. They argue not that racism problems come from a few bad apples, but that “the tree itself is rotten.” May and Yancy, rather than supporting police reform, suggest exploring “how to build healthy and safe communities of mutual respect and see which institutions we need to reach that goal.”



Key concepts here are “healthy,” “safe,” and “respect.” As we look at restructuring the various services law enforcement has come to provide in our country, a number of services can logically be retained under safety: crime intervention, investigation, and prevention; corrections supervision; 911 crime dispatch; traffic control; and special units related to crime or danger, such as SWAT, sex trafficking, child victims, sexual assault, narcotics, and terrorism.

Some current police functions might be better served conceptualized as health-related: mental health outreach, housing, and wellness checks; emergency medical assistance; crisis intervention and 911 non-crime dispatch; and accident response.



And some current police functions might benefit from being considered respect-related: property checks and protection; crowd control and event protection; dispute intervention; civil rights investigation and protection; and ordinance and licensing enforcement.

Law enforcement has come to mean much more than enforcement of laws for citizen safety. And it is questionable whether keeping the “order” in “law and order” really makes sense for only police to try to provide everyone in a diverse society. Expecting police officers (and departments) to provide for safety, to protect health, and to maintain order and respect seems an unrealistic and unnecessary burden on individual officers and agencies. Additionally, and very importantly, it may also overly militarize, weaponize, or “police” the image of those public employees charged with reaching out to the community to provide health and respect resources.



All of us, and our society itself, need each of these safety, health, and respect services to maintain the general welfare in a diverse, multifaceted, and ever-changing country – to protect life, to guard liberty, and to maximize opportunities for each person’s pursuit of happiness. The complex questions before us are how best to design, present, and administer these services to maximize accountability and transparency, to minimize negative perceptions, to increase trust and access, to lessen fear and divisiveness, and to realistically enable our public service employees to do their jobs as comfortably, effectively, and respectfully as possible.


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