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We’ve talked a lot about racism in America over the past several years. It is a huge and complex issue that defies simple explanations or easy solutions. In the past few years, a lot of the conversation has revolved around race as an issue in police violence and the way that this problem gets ignored in our judicial system. The #BlackLivesMatter movement came into existence in 2013 following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for killing Travon Martin in Florida.

The Travon Martin story was well documented, and the media gave the case a lot of attention. A teenaged boy walking through a predominantly white neighborhood after buying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of skittles, was cornered and gunned down by a wannabe cop while he was walking back to his home. It seemed like a clear case of racial profiling and overly zealous neighborhood patrolling turned to murder but George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges and America woke up to a dimension of tragic judicial protection for those who kill black people in the name of law enforcement.

It was the very next summer when things took an even more ugly turn in the police killing of Michael Brown, a black teenager in Ferguson, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. Riots broke out with looting, burning buildings, and a summer of violence demanding action this time. It took six full years of judicial procedures to end up with the decision that officer Darren Wilson would not be charged with any crime.

We have two issues to think about here. Over the past five years, police have shot and killed at least 135 unarmed black men. Police shoot and kill black people at twice the rate they shoot and kill white people. Last year, nearly a thousand people died in police action. But the second issue has to do with the judicial system, which seems always willing to give a police officer the benefit of the doubt, even when there is video evidence of the unnecessary and sometimes absolutely outrageous nature of the killing.

There is progress on some fronts. Many of us were very encouraged when Cory Bush, a black single mother from St. Louis, was elected to Congress in November. She is the first black woman elected to congress from Missouri and she brings with her, not only her background as a Registered Nurse and a UCC minister, but she has also experienced homelessness and the racism that has been so much a part of this region of the country.

A couple of weeks ago, St. Louis broke another glass ceiling in the election of Tishaura Jones;as mayor, promising that race would no longer be an afterthought in St Louis government and policing. But as an almost throwaway line in a press coverage of Jones’ election, there was a comment about the fact that the 1500 member St Louis police force still has two labor unions, one for white officers and one for black officers.

This is so implausible that you may not have heard me the first time, so I am going to say it again: in 2021, in the city of St Louis, there are two police unions, one for white officers and another one for black officers.

This is not the 1960’s when I started school in a segregated, all white school in rural Kentucky. This is not a museum shot of a coloreds’ only and whites’ only rest room or water fountain signs, this is right now in St. Louis, Missouri.

Of course, it would be impossible to maintain this segregation if black members of the St Louis police force wanted to join the white police union but there is a well-founded matter of a lack of trust here. Black police are painfully aware of deep racism among the white members of the police force.

A perfect illustration of this distrust can be seen in the case of Detective Luther Hall, seen here working undercover during a demonstration in 2017. Three white officers, mistaking Detective Hall for a demonstrator, beat him and beat him so severely that he was hospitalized and underwent several surgeries to recover from the incident. Last month, the three officers who beat him were acquitted of all charges by an all-white jury.

Folks, this is no longer something that we can wave off as being media hype or exaggerated claims of police abusing their authority. Black people don’t fare well in encounters with the police, whether they are guilty or innocent. Whether they fully cooperate or if they resist arrest. Even not when they are asleep in their own bed in their own home, and, as in Detective Hall’s case, not even when you are a member of the police force, at work. Thursday, the police in Chicago shot and killed 13-year-old Adam Toledo as he surrendered to police with his empty hands raised above his head. And after these egregious events, the judicial system makes it all that much worse by seeming to somehow make it seem like it was legitimate police work.

Black Men More Likely to be Killed by Police

Allegations of racism in the Minneapolis Police department where some estimates indicate that a black man is seven times more likely to be shot by the police than a white person is, have been in the news a lot in recent years. From the shooting of Philando Castile in 2016, to the choaking death of George Floyd, and now, this week, the shooting of Daunte Wright in another traffic stop gone bad.

At this writing, we are still awaiting the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin in the choaking death of George Floyd. But while demonstrations have been going on every night of the two-week trial, demanding justice for George Floyd, now we add to the tension the shooting death of Daunte Wright by Kim Potter, who has been on the police force longer that Daunte Wright had been alive. Potter has resigned and has now been charged with involuntary manslaughter because, she claims, she thought that she was holding her taser when, in fact, she was holding her revolver. She insists that the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright was an accident.

Something which, and I can’t believe I am even saying this, Televangelist, Pat Robertson, finds to be an unbelievable claim . . . and folks, Pat Robertson has shown us for 40 years that he will believe and say almost anything, but not being able to tell a yellow plastic taser from a heavy metal handgun is just too much for ol Pat to buy!

I don’t know much about Kim Potter. I don’t know if she is a racist. And, for our purposes today, I don’t want to get mired down in the particulars of any one case in any one city. I want to draw back the wide-angle lens and consider the presence of racism in our police forces in the United States, and for that matter, racism in our military because an awful lot of former military service people come home to become police. And I want to think about why our judicial system seems to so blatantly favor the police, even when there is video evidence and multiple witnesses to lethal crimes.

As arrests mount of those involved in the January 6th insurrection, we are discovering that very many; are deeply racist, Nazi-sympathizers, who were members of the military and police forces. There were thousands of people involved in the insurrection and only about 500 have been arrested, but 20% of them have military or police backgrounds, which, on the face of it, would seem to be impossible, except for the fact that racism is a disease that runs deep in law enforcement and in the military. I don’t mean to tar the whole of our armed forces and all of our local police forces with a single brush. It obviously is not all of them and it is obviously not a majority, but there are too many and we all know it. We just can’t ignore it any longer.

The nomenclature is not new, marginalized communities have been talking about either defunding or dismantling the police for a long time. It is a new term for a lot of us and a lot of Democratic leaders don’t like it, and those of us who do like it don’t always mean the same thing when we say it. Speaking only for myself, what I mean when I say it is dramatic police reform.

I am going to pretend that someone asked me how I would go about rooting out racism from the police and the military, as well as white favoritism and white police favoritism in the judicial system.

  • Why are there a thousand police killings in the United States every year when there are none or always fewer than 7 in Great Britain when Britain has all of the racism and racial diversity that we have, but without so much violent policing? There are a number of reasons: The streets of Great Britain are not awash with guns. Guns are closely regulated in the UK and so the police don’t have to be afraid of being shot every time they try to apprehend a suspect. We have allowed our streets to become militarized which has led our police to become militarized and, frankly, scared.
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As we saw Thursday night, there are military styled weapons readily available on our streets, such that an inexperienced, untrained, 19-year-old kid in Indianapolis could jump out of his car and kill 8 people and wound 4 others in one minute! Police are always pulling out their handguns because, they say, they are afraid.

I’m not saying that being a policeman or woman is not dangerous, I’m just saying that it is not the most dangerous job in America . . . it is, just for example, much less dangerous than being a logger, an aircraft pilot or engineer, a oil derrick worker, a road maintenance worker, and agricultural worker, a roofer, a garbage collector, a fire fighter, a delivery driver, a utility lineman, a crane operator, a landscape supervisor, a farmer, a construction worker, a vehicle mechanic, or a grounds keeper.

I’m not saying that the police do not face danger, but it is statistically true that the police kill ten times as many people as people kill police and that is just a fact. So, if people like Kim Potter have been on the police force for over 20 years and still get scared enough to not be able to tell a gun from a taser, maybe this is just not the job for her.

Another reason there are almost no police killings in Great Britain is that there are almost no traffic stops, which appears to be where most of our police get into trouble. In Great Britain, they use cameras on major highways and if you are speeding or driving badly, you will get a ticket in the mail for which fines are only one possible consequence.

Our police use broken taillights and expired tags as a pretense to go looking for more serious crimes which is, in two words, over policing. In sum, we must demilitarize our streets, and demilitarize our police, and not send armed police out to do traffic stops when a camera can accomplish what needs to be done.

  • Secondly, there should be much better screening of candidates for both police and military service and their training must include regular sensitivity training to make sure that they do not become radicalized.

I have to regularly take boundary training classes to teach adjunct classes at my university and as elaborate as they try to make it sound, it boils down to this:

Don’t have sex with any of your students. How often should I have to take that class? Doesn’t that seem pretty obvious? My counseling professor at Vanderbilt had a much more graphic, and therefore, more memorable way of saying it, but that cannot be repeated here. Back in the 70’s, professors having sex with students was almost considered an employment benefit, but it became frowned on in the 80’s, and since the Clarence Thomas hearings, it has been cause for dismissal.

Learning how to not be racist is much more complicated than being taught not to have sex with your students, so, yeah, regular continuing training really has to be a part of the solution.

  • Thirdly, a great deal of police work has to do with addiction, mental health, and domestic violence. These are things which, when you add an armed policeman to the mix, often get much worse. We need to dramatically reduce armed police in traffic management, and we need to cut back on armed police and staff up with trained social workers who know how to deal with mental health emergencies, addiction, and domestic disputes. I’ve never owned a gun and I have gone into homes dealing with addiction, mental health crises, and domestic disputes for more than 40 years. I’ve taken a couple of punches in my day, one that was quite memorable, but I have never wished that I could have shot anyone.

Once I was held at gunpoint by an alcoholic in a domestic violence call for five hours. If the police had shown up, I am confident that the alcoholic, me, the alcoholic’s wife and mother would all be dead. It was a traumatic event, but I’ve been around to talk about it for 35 years because no Barney Fief with a loaded gun showed up to “nip it in the bud.”

I get that there are circumstances that call for an armed officer and I want to know that they are available when needed. I’m just saying, we probably need about a fourth as many as we have, and we need a lot more social workers and people with mental health training to do what they are equipped to do.

Our police have a bad habit of turning a minor traffic infraction into a fatal shooting. Their defense is almost always that they were following standard police procedures and that, I submit, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, is the whole damn problem. Standard police procedures in the USA are militarized to the point of the police acting like an occupying force in a foreign country. They work for us. They are supposed to protect us. Our problem is that we have no one to protect us from them!

If the British can manage their population with 2 or 3 gun deaths per year, anytime we have more than 10, we should stop and re-evaluate what we are doing. By the way, we had more than 200 by the end of March this year, about 80% of them were non-white. So, you see, that is about 100 years of British police work done in less that 3 months in America. Do you see how serious this problem is for us?

The federal government can help with this reform in two ways. Stop giving military equipment to local law enforcement agencies and shift your federal grant money away from armed policing and towards mental health, addiction, and social workers. Local law enforcement will hire what they can pay for. This is not complicated.

  • Finally, the Attorney General should have an office of review in every legal case where there has been a police killing with special attention to be given to cases in which the race of the police and the victim differ. Every judge and prosecutor should know that their work is being professionally scrutinized in a way where consequences for racist decisions are severe.

Judges and prosecuting attorneys are not that much different from the rest of us. They are much more likely to do the right thing, when there are serious consequences for doing the wrong thing. Judges are not demigods; they are just surgeons who couldn’t get into medical school. I can’t prove that last statement, I just know that I’m right.

This is mostly a white problem. We need to change. Black people have tried everything from absolutely compliance to running for their lives. They have knelt, slept, demonstrated peacefully and rioted. They have tried everything to avoid being victims. Now, we need to try something, like changing, not being so racist, and not burying our heads in the sand.

Dr. Roger Ray

I want to thank you for asking me how I thought we should approach police reform. This is not a comprehensive list but, I believe that it is a vital starting place. Clearly, what we cannot do is to accept the status quo and, I beg of you, my white sisters and brothers, do not think of this as a black problem. Sure, most of the victims are black but most of the shooters are white.

That’s just my opinion, of course, but you know in your hearts that I just happen to be right.

Dr. Roger Ray

The Emerging Church