The proliferation of personal recording devices in recent years has exposed the general public to an appalling phenomenon woven deeply into the fabric of our nation: racially disparate policing.
The deaths of Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and countless other black men at the hands of law enforcement officials is nothing new, yet we continue to scratch our heads in bewilderment each time we find that the officers responsible for these deaths are protected from repercussion.
Systemic incidents of corruption, racial profiling, and use of unreasonable force all fuel widespread doubt when it comes to current policing policies and practices. These occurrences exacerbate breaches in trust between poor and minority communities and those meant to serve and protect them. In a 2015 Gallup Poll, a combined 18% of Americans reported having very little or no confidence in police—the highest percentage Gallup had ever measured.
Although coalitions of officers around the country have organized to address institutional racism within police departments, these efforts alone will not suffice to restore the faith of America’s disempowered, marginalized communities. We have seen willful human rights violations by police that demoralize the departments that they represent and set alarming precedents for zero liability when they’re quietly pardoned. However, there are ways of reestablishing the confidence necessary for effective law enforcement, but they require concerted collaboration between police departments and the communities they serve.
Mechanisms of civilian oversight of law enforcement—often referred to as external review, citizen review boards or citizen oversight—all allow non-police individuals to play a role in holding their departments accountable in terms of fair operations, policies, and responses to complaints. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Each jurisdiction defines their own structure of oversight, appropriate to meet the specific needs of the community. Given the influence of that jurisdiction’s unique social, cultural and political tensions, it is important to note that these agencies vary largely in terms of their powers, responsibilities and the impact they have on policing.
In order to be effective, review agencies must be independent (in that they are housed away from police headquarters) and have the power to conduct hearings, subpoena witnesses and report findings to the public. They must have the autonomy to investigate incidents and issue findings on complaints, and have the capacity to compel prosecutors’ offices to charge police officers. Perhaps most importantly, they should be reflective of the ethnic and racial composition of the community that they serve. Almost all large cities and an increasing number of mid-sized cities have implemented some form of civilian oversight. This effort increases police transparency to the public, and in turn improves the public’s view of the police force’s legitimacy.
The Torah insists, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.” Since Biblical Hebrew has no punctuation, repeating a word twice is often used as a linguistic technique to emphasize meaning. In this case, it has been said that the word “justice” is repeated because we should be pursuing just ends through just means. Longstanding policing practices that allow for misconduct are inconsistent with my definition of justice, not to mention the Jewish value placed on life and the general creation of trust within a community. Current policing policies and protections may be inadequate at safeguarding civil liberties, but there is certainly something we can do about it. To get involved in the Reform Movement’s work to advance racial justice, visit the RAC’s Urgency of Now page, where you can connect with our Criminal Justice Reform Campaign.
Samantha Goldsmith is a senior at the University of Michigan, where she is studying Sociology with a focus in Law, Justice & Social Change, and Moral & Political Philosophy. During her summer as a Machon Kaplan participant, she interned at the NAACP Washington Bureau.