On Saturday, relatives and friends of Walter Wallace Jr. gathered to mourn him amid renewed calls for peace during the investigation into his shooting death last month by Philadelphia police.
Wallace, 27, was killed Oct. 26 outside his house in the Cobbs Creek neighborhood in West Philadelphia shortly after officers arrived. Family members have said they called 911 to seek help because Wallace was going through a mental health crisis. Police said he was shot after ignoring commands to drop a knife.
The Wallace family now joins far too many other families that have been the victims of excessive police force. Like other victims they demand justice and want real police reforms. Lawyer Shaka Johnson spoke for the family at a City Hall news conference a day before Saturday’s funeral for Wallace. Johnson called for the city to divert some of its police budget to a separate hotline that families could call to get trained professionals, instead of armed officers, to respond to mental health crises.
Police reform activist Gwen Carr, whose son Eric Garner was killed in a 2014 police chokehold in New York, echoed the call for change, the Associated Press reported.
“You never hear of a Black police officer going into Scarsdale shooting down a mentally ill person,” Carr said at the news conference, referring to a suburban New York city. “That is unheard of.”
Johnson also called for the city to follow 2015 Justice Department recommendations and issue all patrol officers Tasers so they have other ways to assert control in similar situations.
The Wallace family has also publicly discouraged violence.
These families understand first hand that there is a serious problem with policing in America.
But they also disagree with those who believe that looting is an acceptable form of protest. It is not. Looting is a crime that undermines the movement for police reform.
Yet political leaders cannot just ask for peace and return to business as usual. They must take the first step toward change by admitting that there is a policing problem in America and then push for serious reforms.
Justice Department investigations in Baltimore, Cleveland, New Orleans, Chicago, Ferguson, Missouri, and other cities over the past several years, typically after protests ignite due to a police shooting perceived as unjust, have found horrific constitutional violations in how police use force, how they target minority residents, how they stop and ticket people, and several other aspect of policing.
In 2013, a landmark decision by a federal judge in New York condemned the New York Police Department’s misuse of stop-and-frisk, which remains a popular tactic for surveillance and control in cities of all sizes. The policies and actions of the police are critical in deciding who gets stopped, searched, arrested, and funneled into the criminal justice system. The United States’ high incarceration rate begins at the front end of the criminal justice system.
According to a recent Sentencing Project report, Black men are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by police. They were about 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by law enforcement between 2013 and 2018, according to a 2019 study published by the National Academy of Sciences.
An Associated Press review of hundreds of State Police records revealed at least a dozen instances over a three-year period in which employees forwarded racist emails on their official accounts with subject lines like “Proud to be white” or that demeaned minority colleagues with names including “Hershey’s Kiss,” “Django” and “Egg Roll.”
Most Americans realize there is a problem and want some change to policing or law enforcement, according to a recent Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos survey.
According to the survey, the following are some of the police reforms most Americans favor:
• More than half of Americans want at least some change to policing or law enforcement, including 55% of Americans who want either major change or to redesign it completely. Just 7% of Americans want it to stay the same.
• Most Americans (58%) say racial bias against African Americans committed by police and law enforcement is a serious problem in their community, including 75% of Democrats and 51% of independents, as well as 40% of Republicans.
• Americans almost universally believe that police officers who use excessive violence should be not be permitted to stay on duty. More Americans would trust an independent citizen-led oversight committee to address the problem of unfair treatment of Black or African Americans by police and law enforcement than any other entity that the survey asked about.
• Majorities of Democrats (91%), Republicans (77%) and independents (70%) support requiring all officers to undergo training on de-escalation tactics to avoid the use of force, as do similarly large majorities of Black, Hispanic and white Americans. Large majorities across the political spectrum and across racial/ethnic groups also support requiring all officers to undergo training on how to be less racially biased.
• Most Americans across the political spectrum and across racial/ethnic groups also support recruiting more Black or African Americans to become police officers.
• Transparency appeals to most Americans, including creating a public database of officers who have used excessive force to stop them from being rehired elsewhere and requiring public reporting of all incidents of force within 72 hours. Nearly all Americans across the political spectrum and across racial/ethnic groups support officers wearing and using body cameras (94% of Republicans, 91% of Democrats, and 86% of Independents; 92% of white Americans, 87% of Black Americans, 88% of Hispanic Americans).
• More than half of Americans support reconstituting police forces with retrained officers.
• Most Americans (60%) would support requiring all police officers to reapply for their jobs, hiring only the most qualified and training them in deescalating violence and avoiding racial bias.
Across the spectrum of political ideology, race and ethnicity there is growing support for police reform. This summer, Americans across the nation from large cities, suburbs and small townships and from different races and ethnic groups protested against police brutality and racism after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Looting concedes the moral high ground because it is condoning criminal behavior. There is no defense for destroying the property of businesses where people work or buy essential services such as food and medications.
I have heard and read anecdotal information that most of the looting is being initiated by outsiders, usually white, and that Black residents have discouraged outsiders from looting and destroying property. I have not seen any evidence to support this claim. Police reports show that most of those arrested for looting and committing violent acts are area residents. Still, law enforcement should investigate who is doing the looting and rioting.
Whether the acts of violence are being committed by outside agitators with a political agenda or opportunists taking advantage of alienated young people, the violence should be clearly discouraged and denounced.
Looting and violent protests can turn public opinion.
Princeton University political scientist Omar Wasow conducted research showing how peaceful civil rights protests helped Democrats win white votes, and then violence pushed white voters toward Republicans.
Looking at data from the civil rights era, Wasow argues that “proximity to Black-led non-violent protests increased white Democratic vote-share whereas proximity to Black-led violent protests caused substantively important declines” — enough to tip the 1968 election from Democrat Hubert Humphrey to Republican Richard Nixon.
News coverage and public opinion during the civil rights movements of the 1950s and ‘60s of non-violent protests, especially in the face of segregationist violence, increased support for civil rights, while violent protests tipped public opinion away from the protesters and toward a stronger desire for what Nixon called law and order and Wasow calls “social control.”
Looting reflects an act of despair and desperation, yet there is evidence of hope and major changes to policing.
For example, Philadelphia City Council approved measures this summer for public hearings on police contracts, residency requirements and prohibiting chokeholds. In the Nov. 3 general election, Philadelphia voters approved two ballot measures furthering the city’s efforts for police reform. The two approvals will establish a Citizens Police Oversight Commission and constitutionally ban stop and frisk.
Local municipalities and statehouses across the nation have passed similar laws or are in the process of calling for police reform including laws that require and set standards for how officers use body cameras, ban chokeholds and change police training.
Since the police killing of George Floyd in May, legislatures introduced, amended or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing, including bills that were introduced in both chambers, according to a database compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan association of state lawmakers.
The House of Representatives this summer passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which will embrace these changes as well as eliminating the legal doctrine of qualified immunity that has been used to protect police from civil lawsuits and trials. The bill was stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill is expected to move forward and signed into law under President Joe Biden if the Democrats take control of Congress.
Police reform advocates have every right to be angry about the slow pace of change, but we should never lose sight of the gains that have been made and the goals yet to be realized of increasing police accountability and improving public safety.