Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
2015 could have been the year U.S. law enforcement agencies finally did some soul searching on racial bias. But that’s not how it happened.
On January 1, 2015, a photo began circulating online of Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. In the image, McLay is seen smiling while holding a sign that reads, “I RESOLVE TO CHALLENGE RACISM @ WORK #END WHITE SILENCE.”
Whether or not he realized it at the time, McLay had crossed a line. It was a line drawn not by the Black Lives Matter activists who’d spoken out about the link between racial bias and police brutality throughout 2014. Rather, the line would be drawn by the police union representatives who would go on to spend much of 2015 denouncing seemingly any public statement that alluded to a need for changes in U.S. policing culture.
“The police union went crazy in denouncing [McLay],” said law professor and policing expert David A. Harris when Citylab spoke with him earlier this year. “They tried to make [McLay] the most hated police chief in America for the heinous crime of saying that he was against racism.”
This is more or less how the narrative around policing in the United States has unfolded over the course of this year. Law enforcement officials attempt to engage in honest dialogue about policing and racial bias, and then a manufactured diversion thwarts those attempts.
It’s only really been since 2014 that mainstream U.S. policy debate has focused on racial bias and police tactics. That was the year an unarmed, black teenager—Michael Brown—was shot dead in the street by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It was also the year Eric Garner died after being placed in a choke hold by a New York City police officer who was sweating him for selling loose cigarettes. And it was the year names like Gabriella Nevarez, Tanisha Anderson, and Michelle Cusseaux—black women who died in interactions with U.S. police officers in 2014—were finally forced into the public consciousness.
Wasn’t 2015 supposed to be the year that things started to get at least a little bit better? For all the innovations local governments in the U.S. have been leading the way on—education reform, energy-efficient construction, smarter mass transit systems—law enforcement agencies have been using the same blunt instruments (batons, guns) and employing the same broken-windows methods for decades. Surely, with the spotlight firmly on policing at long last, reform could finally begin there, too.
But it didn’t happen in 2015. As noted in a recent meta-study on policing practices published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest:
[W]hatever the gains of proactive policing, these policies have not built popular legitimacy. The legitimacy model makes it possible to understand the reasons for this continuing disconnect between police actions and popular legitimacy. Relying on a sanction-based model, the police have misunderstood the basis of public support for the police. The original broken-windows discussion articulated a connection between public concerns and police actions by emphasizing the importance of the police being responsive to public concerns and communicating that the police respect the needs and concerns being expressed by the public. More recent models of proactive policing have departed from these initial insights, and proactive policing has not built popular legitimacy as expected.
Incidents of police using excessive force on African Americans did not die down this year, despite the flare-up in Ferguson. Instead, just a few months into 2015, shortly after the White House announced its task force on 21st Century Policing, Baltimore police officers were implicated in the death of another young African American, Freddie Gray.
The days of protest and rioting that followed further bruised that city’s already banged-up reputation. And of course, the local police union, while placing blame for much of the ordeal on Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and then-Police Commissioner Anthony Batts, decided to refer to protesters as a “lynch mob” while insisting that the officers implicated in Gray’s death had done nothing wrong.
This could have been a moment for self-reflection, when police leaders across the U.S. finally took a collective step back to truly examine the role that race plays in how they enforce the law. The U.S. Justice Department certainly began nudging local law enforcement toward that assignment. Following an investigation into the Ferguson police department after Brown’s death, DOJ issued a sweeping indictment not only of the police force but of the entire criminal justice system—including prosecutors, judges, and courts—across St. Louis County. The department later cracked down on Cleveland’s police department for similar failings and accepted Rawlings-Blake’s invitation to come investigate Baltimore’s police department for the same.
This should have taken over as the prevailing message on policing—that police would definitely now have to challenge themselves to work harder against racism. But, as before, a counter-message interrupted: “The Ferguson Effect.”
The logic behind this thoroughly debunked concept was that since the 2014 riots in Ferguson, black people in America were becoming more criminally emboldened and police more sheepish about arrests due to a fear of being filmed. It’s been adopted by pro-police pundits like Heather Mac Donald and by FBI Director James Comey. But it’s also such rubbish that even police in Milwaukee, not exactly the most welcoming place in the U.S. for African Americans, have disavowed the term.
If there’s one tool that’s prevented police from completely evading the kind of self-examination that Black Lives Matter activists argue is desperately needed, it’s the camera. Video footage has proven throughout 2015 to be a highly effective weapon against police departments that are too quick to resort to the use of force.
Most prominently, a dashboard camera recorded Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke gunning down 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, betraying the story from police union representatives that McDonald had lunged at the cops. Anyone who claims that police cameras are ineffective has not been paying attention to the role they’ve played in achieving justice for police violence throughout 2015.
Calls for Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s resignation in the wake of the McDonald case have led the mayor to admit that his police department just might be steeped in a culture of violence against Latinos and African Americans. But perhaps just as importantly, Emanuel headed off any rebuttal from the local police union by telling them not only would they have to change their ways, but they’d have to stop obstructing attempts to reform the police force as well.
If 2016 is to get any better when it comes to policing in the U.S., it will have to follow and improve upon Emanuel’s recent about-face. Mayors and police chiefs must be able to challenge racial bias in their departments without rhetoric getting in their way.