By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Policy Analyst
The shooting of Daunte Wright has reignited protests nationwide demanding justice for the death of yet another Black individual at the hands of a police officer. In the backdrop, Derek Chauvin continues his trial for the murder of George Floyd in what has become one of the most critical court cases of our time. Since the summer of 2020, a number of cities and states have passed police reform measures. Minneapolis, where Chauvin took Floyd’s life, instituted a reform policy as well. It is glaringly obvious, however, that such action has led to little improvement. Nearly a year after Floyd’s death, Wright was killed in the same city. Does this mean that law enforcement reform does not work? Not necessarily. The various policies being proposed and adopted include the chokehold ban, reallocation of some funds from the police to community-based models, “no-knock” warrant ban, and additional training. But these measures do not attempt to resolve the crux of America’s law enforcement problem: white supremacy. Most states and cities have done nothing significant to address white supremacy in their police ranks, despite overwhelming evidence of the ideology’s considerable ties to law enforcement.
For years, the federal government neglected the wide breadth of reports and findings detailing the ties between right-wing extremism and law enforcement. Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD 8) released an unredacted version of the FBI’s 2006 intelligence assessment of white supremacist infiltration of law enforcement last year. In a comprehensive report on this subject for the Brennan Center, Mike German unpacked the historical role of police in America to show how entrenched our policing system has been with carrying out white supremacist violence. From its origins as slave patrols, to enforcing Jim Crow laws, to participating in the Ku Klux Klan’s acts of terrorism, our law enforcement has a history of advancing the agenda of an exclusively White America. Only when the threat of white supremacy landed on the footsteps of Congress did our federal government seem to wake up to the urgency of the problem. The January 6th Capitol Hill insurrection, where a number of insurrectionists were found to be members of the police and military, served as a catalyst for reforming our counterterrorism policies and our policing system.
Last week, we wrote about how disparate application of the foreign terrorist organization (FTO) designation to Muslim terrorist groups allows for law enforcement to prosecute American Muslims through material support statutes and pursue federal punishment for crimes of terrorism. The biases in our law enforcement are apparent in how agencies like the FBI and local police departments apply counterterrorism policies to American Muslims versus how they apply them to White Christian Conservatives. Until federal, state, and local policymakers treat the disease of right-wing extremist ideology in law enforcement and institute proper oversight over those agencies, Americans of Black, Brown, Muslim, and other minority communities will continue to be inherently insecure in this nation.
Most states and cities have done nothing significant to address white supremacy in the ranks of their law enforcement. An increasing number of states, including California, Colorado, Iowa, and New York, have passed policing bills. Many cities, like San Diego, CA and Austin, TX, have instituted a mix of measures like a ban on chokeholds and reduced funding. While these policies may help reduce aggressive, reactionary law enforcement practices over time, they fail to mitigate the systemic racism that dictates an officer’s behavior toward a white “suspect” versus a black “suspect”.
One of the key hurdles in eliminating white supremacist affiliation in law enforcement has been reconciling First Amendment right to freedom of speech. As Mike German notes, “firings often lead to prolonged litigation, with dismissed officers claiming violations of their First Amendment speech and association rights.” One can have unchecked right of free speech and association outside a career in law enforcement, but once that person pledges to “protect and serve”, then they have signed up for disassociation with any supremacist group. Free association is subordinate to equality under the law.
Maryland may offer some lessons here. Earlier this month, it became the first state to revoke its police bill of rights, which protects officers from civilian inquiries into records of past misconduct and complaints. Its reform bill also includes “the mandatory use of body cameras, the establishment of a civilian role in police discipline, and a restriction on the use of no-knock warrants.” Maryland’s measure sends a strong message that there will no longer be silent code on police brutality and paves the path for stronger policies that prioritize the lives of civilians over police immunity.
Though only a small fraction of law enforcement is made up of active members of white supremacist groups, there is very much a troubling contrast between how police officers and officials treat white Americans and how they treat people of color, especially Black Americans. Even when it comes to the double standards of how our government prosecutes domestic terrorism versus foreign terrorism, the systemic racism found throughout our law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, allows white supremacist violence to thrive at the expense of Black lives. States and cities need to take more direct action to counteract the discriminatory practices among law enforcement. Doing away with any police bill of rights, as Maryland did, is a start. Beyond that, law enforcement agencies and bodies need to enact strict policies to vet potential police officers to ensure that they will be able to honor the pledge to “protect and serve” the people, regardless of race and creed.