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Time for a verdict on justice

Today is a milestone day, as the jury will retire to consider a verdict on the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Derek Chauvin. After over two weeks of televised testimony, we will see if the jury comes to the same conclusion we have, in this landmark trial. Certainly nothing I've heard has changed my opinion that Chauvin is guilty, but if it's one thing I've learned about US justice, it's that the conviction of a police officer is never a forgone conclusion.

At a time when tensions are high and we have seen further examples of police killing a young black man and a child, I am sure that the authorities are on edge as the nation awaits a verdict. Back in May 2020, when I saw the events leading up to the death of George Floyd unravel on video for the world to see, I was deeply shocked and could not get the image of him being rolled limp and clearly dead, onto a stretcher by paramedics. The world was aware that there had long been issues with deadly force used disproportionately on mainly black and minority men, although women too had fallen victim. However, this was different, we were able to see it first hand and it was shocking beyond belief. For me, it was the callous disregard for the welfare of George Floyd that struck a deeply disturbing note. I maintain to this day, that Chauvin took pleasure from the distress he was causing. George Floyd said, 'They're gonna kill me man' and that's exactly what Chauvin did.

Much has been said about there being a two tier justice system and never was it more on display than on that day. I actually believe that there is a three tier system. One for the rich, in which color seems to play little part. If you have money then the playing field seems a little more even when it comes to race. However, for everyday Americans, rest assured that if you are black, then you can expect justice to be your enemy rather than your friend, as has been demonstrated time and time again.

It's an uncomfortable truth, but the racism experienced by people of color in segregated America has never really gone away, it's just been dressed up in a new outfit. It's long been accepted in southern states that it's never too far from the surface and the Trump years gave white supremacists the freedom to express their racist views in the open. This is now something that is proving to be an increasing problem for the new administration. Racism is a cancer on society and it seems to me to be deep rooted in US institutions, none more so that in law enforcement. It appears that it is a magnet for some who hold racist views and provides daily opportunities to abuse people of color.

There have been many studies on the subject of use of deadly force by police. As you would expect, the actions of police vary from state to state and even town to town. I read this interesting report in Nature from September 2019 by Lynne Peeples, which I think is an essential read, if only to underline the complexity of identifying racial bias in police encounters. If you get a chance to read it, I think it will better inform your thinking on some of the nuance involved. There can be little argument with the fact that a black man is at least twice as likely to be fatally shot than a white man, so clearly there is a huge problem. The problem is, what causes that to be the case? On the surface, it would indicate that there is clearly racial bias, be it overt or subconscious.

To understand the issue, we have to consider recruitment and vetting. Just how good is it? As there appears to be no federal standards involved, it would seem that the process is vulnerable to recruiting those with racist tendancies.

Even more disturbing, was the piece on 60 Minutes about the Oath Keepers, in which there is open mention of law enforcement within their ranks. Leader Jim Arroyo revealed that active-duty law enforcement is part of their movement and helping with militia training. He said;

"Our guys are very experienced. We have active-duty law enforcement in our organization that are helping to train us. We can blend in with our law enforcement,"

Once you've reached a position where an 'Anti-government militia movement' (as described by the FBI) is openly boasting about having members from law enforcement and the military in its ranks, then you clearly have a problem. The Oath Keepers represent a snapshot of a number of white supremacy groups across the country. The difference being, that they are open and proud to share their views, even on mainstream media.

Aside from the potential for bias coming from membership of these militia, there is then the issue of police training. I have spoke before about the 'taking of sides' and my most hated phrase of the decade 'Defund the police'. Whilst I understand the need for activism to raise awareness of issues and shine a light on injustice, here is a good example of how social media can distort the truth. Take a look at this article at Politifact by Emily Venezky from June 2020, discussing a somewhat misleading post comparing US police training with Nordic law enforcement. I think this report by CBS News gives a more balanced view, the conclusion being that you can't train bias out of the police force.

Looking in from the outside, law enforcement operates at federal, state and local level, with no centralised baseline guidance for training. This makes it impossible to standardise police training. I'm sure that there are those that would argue that it's far better to train police with emphasis on local community dynamics and there's probably a good case for that. However, the one recurring factor is the disproportional use of lethal force against primarily young black and brown men. The burning question is, can you train racial bias out of a police officer? My view is, probably not, as concluded in the CBS News piece above. It all points to the reality that this can't be solved overnight and it certainly can't be solved by defunding the police. So we have to ask, is there the will and the commitment to do it? Sadly, that appears to be an open question.

The truth is, until you find a better way of vetting recruits and provide training that can identify racists that slipped though vetting, you are forever going to be forced into a reactive response to racism within the police. Training has to be an ongoing evolving part of policing, that learns from the mistakes of others and is able to implement change to slowly bring down lethal force incidents involving people of color. There is no quick fix, to this complex issue, but a good start would be to ensure that any officer who is involved in any suspected racist use of lethal force has nowhere to hide when it comes to accountability. Any expression of racial bias on the job, has to be stamped on and officers need to learn that there will be severe penalties for those who racially abuse anyone. Good luck with that!


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