For true law enforcement accountability, change must come from the bottom up

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Hearing the words “Guilty.…  Guilty…. Guilty” in Derek Chauvin’s murder trial brought millions of Americans a feeling of relief. But that relief was incomplete. 

The brutal murder of George Floyd and killings by police officers that continued before, during, and after the trial are evidence that there is still much work to do to make all Americans safer. 

As a starting point, we must recognize that failures in public safety are deeper than the actions of “bad apple” officers. Solutions will require more far-reaching changes than firing or retraining individuals.  

Americans made some changes possible with their votes in November. Attorney General Merrick Garland has done away with Trump administration restrictions on the use of consent decrees to deal with abusive practices in law enforcement agencies. Garland has announced a Justice Department investigation into the Minneapolis police department. This commitment from the top is significant.   

Congress has a key role to play, too. It should move immediately to pass the imperfect but still important George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. It would ban racial profiling, no-knock warrants, and other dangerous police practices.   

Ultimately, though, the heaviest lifting will have to be done at the local level. We must change the way officers are recruited, trained and removed. 

Personality tests should eliminate recruits with deeply authoritarian personalities that make them more likely to commit violence. 

Officers must be trained and constantly retrained in de-escalation and use of force. A person losing their life because an officer grabbed a taser rather than a gun is a sign that the officer was not well trained in use of force. 

Police officers who are removed for negligent or abusive behavior must not be allowed to simply go down the road and get a job at another law enforcement agency. It makes no sense that it is easier for a doctor who harms someone through negligence to lose their license than it is for an abusive police officer to lose theirs. 

Public safety is fundamentally a city and county responsibility. A successful move to transform it must come from the bottom up. 

It is a huge job. There are more than 12,000 local police departments in the U.S. But we can make a big impact quickly by focusing first on the 25 metropolitan areas with the largest Black populations. And we can expand from there.   

One key to building the momentum to transform public safety is rejecting the false narrative that abusive policing is required to keep us safe. 

I grew up in a law enforcement family. My grandfather was a Black pioneer in law enforcement in Baltimore, and he was my hero. When I was a kid I wanted to be a police officer. And I trained as a criminologist. 

But I became a civil rights activist and leader because I saw the impact of rampant racism and abuse in law enforcement. A few years ago, my son wanted to be a police officer. He recently asked me why police kill so many Black people.  

The verdicts in the Chauvin trial were a welcome sign that accountability in law enforcement is possible. Creative policy changes being modeled by local activists and public officials show us that deeper change is possible. 

Transformative change was made more possible by a courageous teenager who recorded George Floyd’s killing. She energized a multiracial and multigenerational movement for greater accountability and justice in policing.  

We must not allow our reaction to Chauvin’s conviction to be “mission accomplished.” We must use it to renew our commitment and energy to press forward with the urgent task of envisioning and creating more just and effective ways to ensure the safety of all Americans.    

In a democracy, we have a responsibility to one another’s safety. Our work is not done until George Floyd’s daughter can be confident that her life will be protected in a way that her father’s life was not. 

Ben Jealous is currently president of People For the American Way in Washington, D.C. and is the former national president & CEO of the NAACP. He is also a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Tags American society Black Lives Matter Derek Chauvin Derek Chauvin George Floyd Killing of George Floyd Law enforcement Law enforcement in the United States Merrick Garland Minneapolis Police Department Murder of George Floyd Police State v. Chauvin United States racial unrest

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