Can America Reform Policing and Fight Crime at the Same Time?

In a shocking revelation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday released provisional data suggesting that between 2019 and 2020, the country had its biggest increase in the rate of homicides in modern history.

Furthermore, The Guardian pointed out that “At least four Black women and girls were murdered per day in the United States in 2020, according to statistics released by the FBI last week, a sharp increase compared with the year before,” and the paper reported that experts believe even that extraordinary number “probably represents an undercount.”

This came only days after a study in The Lancet revealed that deaths from police violence in the United States between 1980 and 2018 have been undercounted by more than half. And the report found that Black people were three and a half times as likely as white people to be killed by police.

Black people are suffering disproportionately from both state violence and community violence during this pandemic, not to mention that they are nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to die from Covid than white people.

But America doesn’t have a great track record of responding to the plight of Black people in times of crisis. We have seen too often how the lust to punish Black criminality — to inflate and pathologize it — wins out over all else. Often, the crusaders use Black victims of crimes themselves as justification.

It seems impossible that elected officials would see the nuances within Black communities and respond in ways that are nuanced. Considering the long history of Black oppression, it seems impossible that they would display empathy for the Black community.

One of the arguments against emancipation and later, Reconstruction, was the mythologized idea of Black criminality and barbarism. As the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University points out, during Reconstruction, “many white writers argued that without slavery — which supposedly suppressed their animalistic tendencies — blacks were reverting to criminal savagery. The belief that the newly-emancipated blacks were a ‘black peril’ continued into the early 1900s.”

Throughout those years, Black people were the victims of racial terror as lynching spread across the country — particularly through the South — like a plague.

In 1993, when Congress was debating the crime bill, Black people were disproportionately represented both among victims and perpetrators in homicides, and lawmakers focused on punishment, with little latitude for empathy.

As then-senator Joe Biden said during a speech on the floor:

“We must take back the streets. It doesn’t matter whether or not the person that is accosting your son or daughter or my son or daughter — my wife, your husband; my mother, your parents — it doesn’t matter whether or not they were deprived as a youth. It doesn’t matter whether or not they had no background that enabled them to become socialized into the fabric of society. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re the victims of society. The end result is they’re about to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take it on my sons. So, I don’t want to ask what made them do this.”

The 1994 crime bill would have disproportionate and disastrous effects on the Black community by contributing to mass incarceration.

When then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was championing and defending the Police Department’s discriminatory stop-and-frisk program, which overwhelmingly targeted Blacks and Hispanics, he framed it as a way of saving Black people’s lives.

Before a Black congregation at a Brooklyn church in 2012, Bloomberg declared that “We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives.” As the A.C.L.U. of New York pointed out, in the previous year, more than 685,000 people were stopped, and “nearly 9 out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent.”

Now we are at another crossroads: After last summer’s protests elicited lofty commitments to change, the country is once again considering police reforms against the backdrop of crime.

But the negotiations in Congress over federal police reform legislation have already collapsed. Democrats — including former President Barack Obama and the strategist James Carville — have expressed their disapproval of the slogan “Defund the Police,” while President Biden said in July that “We need more policemen, not fewer policemen.”

The pandemic has been attended by massive trauma — in lost lives, and lost jobs, as well as the prospect of lost homes and the lingering effects of a lost year that children couldn’t spend in school. Black people have been hit particularly hard by these upheavals. Some of that trauma is pouring out onto the street, sometimes in the form of violence.

The question for America is whether it can sympathize with people suffering through trauma and design solutions that address it in a holistic way, or else default to its position of comfort and convenience: using power to punish and defending people as a shield to destroy people.

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