Blue Review / Local View: Seize this moment for more respectable law enforcement
Nearly three decades ago, I prosecuted cases in Annapolis, Maryland. I routinely saw officers who worked the weekend night shift charge three offenses together: disorderly conduct, resisting arrest, and battery to an officer. Virtually all of these incidents stemmed from cops scuffling with drunk guys. One officer who worked those same shifts never brought that trio of charges, however, and when I asked him why not, he said: “I’d rather talk than fight.”
Left unsaid: other officers would rather fight than talk.
Since then I’ve worked almost exclusively defending indigent clients charged with crimes. What was true in Maryland all those years ago has been true throughout my career.
On the heels of the police shooting of Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul in July 2016, I read an opinion piece by Redditt Hudson, a black former cop. He wrote, “(On) any given day, in any police department in the nation, 15 percent of officers will do the right thing no matter what is happening. Fifteen percent of officers will abuse their authority at every opportunity. The remaining 70 percent could go either way depending on whom they are working with.”
A toxic culture in the Minneapolis Police Department was on full display during the killing of George Floyd.
We are over-policed, over-prosecuted, and over-incarcerated as a society. We lock up people at five to 10 times the rate of other Western democracies. Notably, we also incarcerate people at five to 10 times the rate that we did from 1880 until the mid-1970s. This hyper-aggressive, overly harsh criminal justice system that we’ve created falls disproportionately on black and other minority populations.
Nationally, blacks are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites. Minnesota and Wisconsin are two of the worst offenders, each with more than a tenfold disparity in incarceration rates. And before you come at me with your “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” banality, take a peek at one example of many. Blacks and whites smoke weed at roughly the same rate; yet blacks are 3.64 times more likely than whites to be arrested for it.
The Duluth Police Department holds as one of its Core Beliefs: “We recognize that our authority comes from our social contract with the community.” We as a society give police a near monopoly on force in exchange for its promise to “protect and to serve.” Not just to serve, but as the Duluth Police Department states in its Mission Statement, to serve “in a respectful, caring, and selfless manner.”
Last weekend, I watched Daily Show host Trevor Noah’s powerful 18-minute monologue on George Floyd’s death. He stated, “Society is a contract that we sign as human beings amongst each other.“ But, like any contract, the social contract is only as strong as the people abiding by it. There is no contract if people in power don’t uphold their end. Noah questioned, “When you see George Floyd on the ground and you see a man losing his life … what part of the contract is that?” You can’t expect people to respect authority when authority doesn’t respect them.
“Game of Thrones” fans will recognize this quote: “Chaos is a ladder.” Between COVID-19 and the days following George Floyd’s death, I’ve never seen our country so turbulent and disrupted. We speculate about how COVID-19 will impact the shape of our society, from hand-shaking to employment practices. In my work, I’ve seen a staggering decrease in the number of people arrested and charged since the advent of COVID-19. Might we learn that we don’t need to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate so severely? And might the avoidable killing of Mr. Floyd and the ensuing protests be the epiphany that this country needs to rewrite our social contract?
Let’s seize this moment and climb the ladder to more respectful law enforcement, a reformed criminal justice system, and an equitable society.
Fritz Anderson of Duluth completed a teaching fellowship at Georgetown University Law Center in the early 1990s and received his Juris Doctor degree from the University of Wisconsin. He has been a staff attorney with the Wisconsin State Public Defender since 1993.