Note: This Op-Ed was published on NJ.com on April 21, 2021.
The conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd marks a significant victory not only in the court of law, but for the Black Lives Matter movement.
What the verdict does not do, however, is change the systemic issues that have left an open wound in communities of color, and in those of us who seek real and meaningful change.
For these wounds to begin to heal, we must reimagine policing.
What Floyd’s death illuminated in blazing cellphone technicolor is that the system is broken. There is something fundamentally wrong when unarmed people of color are killed by police when eating ice cream on their own couch, driving with a dangling air freshener, playing video games with a nephew, or holding a cell phone at a backyard party.
These surely raise issues of excessive force. But they also represent limitations of vision and imagination. We need to continue asking ourselves the question that no single verdict can answer: How can we do policing differently?
The first step is to change “use of force” policies altogether.
New Jersey is ahead of the curve in meaningful ways. Attorney General Gurbir Grewal has implemented various initiatives to limit when and how the police use force and has created a tracking system to monitor use of force reports. New Jersey has also released to the public the names of officers who have been disciplined for excessive force.
The second step is accountability, an issue on which New Jersey is again a national leader. For instance, when the New Jersey Supreme Court struck down the right of a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) to issue subpoenas, the legislature acted. A bill is pending that would create CCRBs in every jurisdiction with investigative and subpoena powers and New Jersey has ordered the use of body cameras by June, which will make it easier to identify and review officer conduct. Other accountability measures could also be considered, such as making it easier for civilians to sue.
But we can do even more to create significant structural changes.
What if we advocated for a new model of policing, where the “blue wall of silence” was actively dismantled and officers were trained — and even rewarded — for intervening and reporting the misconduct of their fellow officers? Or a model where officers were held responsible for failing to intervene in and report acts of misconduct?
Programs such as EPIC (Ethical Policing Is Courageous), which empowers officers to intervene in the face of misconduct, have been implemented in major cities such as New Orleans and Baltimore. New Jersey could be the first state to do the same.
And we can go even further than that.
What if we started thinking creatively about policing itself? For example, what if calls about the homeless or the mentally ill were not channeled to the police, but rather were directed to specially trained, unarmed violence interrupters and social workers? What if police were trained to respond in ways that did not involve the use of deadly force?
We can take an even bigger-picture look at how we classify certain crimes. What if low-level misdemeanor offenses like trespass were decriminalized, much in the way that marijuana has been? What if we eliminated racial profiling and “stop and frisk” policies that overly target Black and brown people? Can we envision other changes in the laws that could reduce the potential for escalation between citizens and the police?
America has a policing problem. I recently read about a Black teenager who refused to get his driver’s license because he was afraid of what might happen to him while he was out driving. This cannot be accepted as “business as usual.”
We can and must do better. Deep, meaningful, structural change is needed. A verdict holding Chauvin accountable for George Floyd’s needless death can not be the end. Rather, it must mark the beginning of ongoing change.