Lack of police reform is harming Black Americans — now what?

Public attention to addressing racism is experiencing a historic moment in the United States, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently declared racism to be a serious threat to the public’s health, and this issue has come fully within the purview of the fields of health and medicine. And yet, at the moment, addressing racism in policing has been stalled in the U.S. Congress, with an executive order on policing being considered by President Biden. And the question of whether or not there will be federal policy in this area has yet to be resolved.

In recent years, one of the most visible facets of racism has been interactions between Black Americans and police across the country. The Black Lives Matter movement in light of the murder of George Floyd reactivated a population of Americans who were exhausted by their treatment at the hands of police. Policing is a personal safety and health issue, particularly for Black Americans as they have experienced extremely high rates of death and injury at the hands of police.

Recent research shows that Black Americans are 3.5 times as likely as whites to be killed by the police, while more than half of all police killings have been mislabeled over the past several decades. And although this issue is highly salient to the views and everyday experiences of Black Americans, due to the fact that Black Americans’ views and experiences are not often reported separately from aggregate views of the general U.S. public. But when we look at the data that does exist on Black American public opinion on policing, what do we find?

When Black Americans are asked which three topics they find the most worrying, 59 percent list racial injustice and police violence as first on the list. Recent public opinion data show that the issues of police misconduct, violence and racial discrimination are exceptionally important issues to Black Americans. Among Black Americans, 70 percent say that they trust police to do what is right for them or their community some of the time or none of the time. 

Additionally, 65 percent believe that deaths of African Americans during encounters with police in recent years are signs of a broader problem. Also, 63 percent of Black Americans state that they feel unsafe because of their race or ethnicity. Meanwhile, 77 percent of Black Americans think that police violence against the public in the United States is very/extremely serious and 72 percent believe that police officers who cause injury or death are treated too leniently by the criminal justice system. 

Furthermore, if Biden issues an executive order, what do Black Americans want to be included? Regarding policing policy, 88 percent say major changes are needed to policing in the United States today (while only 51 percent of white Americans say this). In addition, 71 percent of Black Americans have little or no trust in police, and 78 percent of Black Americans believe that white Americans are treated better by the police than Black Americans.

Over 90 percent of Black Americans favor changing police management practices so that officers with multiple infractions can no longer serve and that officer abuses are punished, requiring police officers to have good relationships with the community, to promote community-based alternatives such as violence intervention and ending stop-and-frisk practices. Over 80 percent favor training police on how to de-escalate conflicts, requiring police to have and keep on their body cameras at all times, as well as early warnings about problematic officers.

Over 70 percent of Black Americans favored banning police chokeholds, eliminating officer enforcement of nonviolent crimes, prosecuting officers who use excessive force, requiring police to wear video cameras, penalizing officers for racially biased policing, establishing clear standards for use force, requiring officers to report their peer’s misconduct and employing de-escalation tactics with using deadly force as a last resort.

Other policies, which a significant majority of Black Americans support, include bans on police shooting at moving vehicles, bans on police using rubber bullet, limiting the transfer of military weaponry to state and local police departments, as well as bans on the use of tear gas. Fewer Black Americans (ranging from 29 to 39 percent) support defunding the police in recent polls.

Grassroots groups and every day citizens that organized after the murder of George Floyd require that we take policing policy in the United States seriously. Furthermore, the violence against Black Americans at the hands of police and other deputized citizens are a significant public health issue. At the moment this issue remains stalled in Congress and in the White House, so it is critical for policy leaders to recognize how much addressing these problems are highly prioritized by Black Americans.

It is apparent from public opinion polls that Black Americans want sweeping accountability and policy change when it comes to police reform. It is also sadly apparent that more than half of  Black Americans do not believe that the attention on police violence has made a difference (54 percent).

Although much of the power to immediately change policing policy is invested in state and local governments, the agenda-setting by the federal government is a critical component of policing policy change. If the Biden administration acts to begin addressing these issues, it will help restore Black Americans’ confidence in the police and will ultimately save lives.

Nia Johnson, JD, MBE is a lawyer, bioethicist and Ph.D. candidate in health policy at Harvard University. She has been involved in race and social justice work and research over the past decade. She is also an adjunct instructor at Duke University and The University of Pennsylvania. Johnson is a senior policy analyst for Adventist Health Policy Association. Her work has been featured in Hastings Law Journal, JAMA Health Forum and the Journal of Urban Health. Follow her on Twitter: @NiaMarJohnson

The author’s opinions are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of her affiliated organizations. 

Tags Black Americans Joe Biden Nia Johnson police reform policing Racism

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