i can’t breathe

One of the major reasons why excessive use of police force continues to be a problem is that the “average person” doesn’t know how to begin doing something meaningful about it.

According to Mapping Police Violence, as June 30 U.S. police officers have killed 598 people during 2020. Annual data reveals that approximately 1,000 people are killed by police year over year, and nearly 60 percent of those victims do not have a gun and aren’t involved in activities that typically necessitate police involvement.

Furthermore, Black people have been 28% of those killed by police since 2013 despite being only 13% of the population.

Across the U.S., policies governing police department operations often fail to include common-sense limits on police use of force. The impact of these policy shortcomings is, as we’ve seen, loss of life, severe injuries, families shattered, futures ended, and an ongoing, widening trust delta between police and communities–especially impoverished communities and those predominantly Black or Latinx.

Defund the Police

What can be done to stop this tragedy? First and foremost, defund the police.

There’s widespread misperception regarding what “defunding” means. It means restructuring local and state budgets to reinvest in healthcare, employment, education, and housing. It does NOT mean stripping police departments of all their funding.

To become informed about and help support these efforts, start by researching how much of your city’s budget goes toward police. Then, lobby your lawmakers to reallocate that spending toward healthcare, education, and housing.

You don’t have to figure this out on your own. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has created a toolkit with resources and information for how to get involved in such efforts, and I’ve posted some additional resources below.

Immediate Changes

While defunding is the most thorough and sustainable solution to the culture of excessive police force, there are numerous, immediate steps that “traditional” police departments must take.

Campaign Zero, through its Police Use of Force Project, has reviewed police department use of force policies in 97 of the 100 largest U.S. cities (see this database). The group found that several specific, more restrictive use of force policies are associated with fewer police-involved killings:

  • Require officers to de-escalate situations, when possible, before using force.
  • Use a Force Continuum or Matrix that define/limit the types of force and specific weapons that can be used to respond to specific levels of resistance.
  • Restrict chokeholds and strangleholds (including carotid restraints) to situations where deadly force is authorized or prohibiting them altogether.
  • Require officers to give a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.
  • Prohibit officers from shooting at people in moving vehicles unless the person poses a deadly threat by means other than the vehicle (for example, shooting at people from the vehicle).
  • Require officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before resorting to using deadly force.
  • Require officers to intervene to stop another officer from using excessive force.
  • Require officers to report both uses of force and threats/attempted uses of force (for example, reporting instances where an officer intentionally points a firearm at a civilian)

The Road to Policy Change

Tragedies such as George Floyd’s death will continue to make news until there is across the board police defunding and immediate, meaningful policy changes, which requires a critical mass of Americans–including white Americans–influencing leaders at all levels of government.  

More specifically, I embrace and recommend these five action steps to drive the defunding and immediately needed changes identified above:

  1. Research and Learning (Including Data Gathering): Make an ongoing effort to educate yourself on the facts, history, complexities, and nuances of excessive use of police force. Keep links, notes, and data handy so that you can be informed when you interact with others or on social media. This tracker can help you with those efforts.
  2. Equitable Relationships with Members of Historically Underrepresented Groups (HUGs): There’s no substitute for getting to know and spending time with people who are different from you, especially those with less privilege than you enjoy. You’ll learn from them how police force is an issue they don’t have the privilege of ignoring. Note: It’s crucial that these relationships are built on equal footing, without the person with more privilege positioning themselves as the “helper” or, worse, “savior.” The person with more privilege should also do most of the listening and a lot less of the talking.
  3. Speaking Against Injustices: When you hear or see injustice taking place regarding police force, whether it’s right in front of you, explained to you by others, or observed through media, take a stand and speak out against it in a compassionate, skillful manner. These engagements can often be awkward, uncomfortable, or downright scary. Sometimes speaking out costs you a relationship or changes how people perceive you.
  4. Communication With Elected Officials and Signing Petitions: Regularly comment on posts from elected officials or others in positions of power, and create and share posts that address the actions of these individuals regarding police force. Sign well-organized petitions that can influence policy changes by such elected or appointed individuals. And do so with compassion, skill, and non-violence (see the last section of this post).
  5. Contributions of Time, Money, and Resources: Being an effective activist who helps to influence meaningful, sustainable change in the culture of police force will cost you something. Contribute as much as you’re able to, depending on your individual circumstances and interests. This includes supporting non-profits that are doing effective work on issues that matter to you.

Non-Profits Doing Effective Work

Regarding non-profits, in addition to the aforementioned Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, here’s several organizations doing great work to drive policy changes for police departments:

  • Critical Resistance: A national grassroots organization working to abolish policing, imprisonment, and surveillance. This group can help you further understand the distinctions between police defunding and reforming.
  • Black Lives Matter: A crucial (and the most visible for most Americans) leader for several years in this space of excessive police force. Sign their #DefundThePolice petition.
  • Reclaim the Block: This is a Minneapolis (but fostering a model for the entire country) organization that organizes the community and city council members to move dollars away from the police and toward “community-led safety initiatives.” You can sign its own petition to defund the police, download educational resources, and check out the group’s digital toolkit.
  • The Black Visions Collective: This is another Minneapolis-based organization that lobbies to divest from the police department.
  • MPD150: This group educates others on the history of police violence in Minneapolis as part of its effort toward a police-free city.
  • Communities United for Police Reform: This New York City organization works to end discriminatory policing and seeks a $1 billion budget cut to the NYPD through its #NYCBudgetJustice campaign.

Self-Care and Mindfulness

Advocating to successfully end excessive use of police force is a long game, a marathon that requires a lot of strategy, self-care, and support from others. A key part of my own self-care and ongoing personal growth is practicing the “Five Mindful Trainings,” derived from Buddhist teachings and compiled by Vietnamese Zen monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh and summarized here by me:

  1. Reverence for Life: Eliminate all forms of violence against one’s self, other human beings, animals, and nature.
  2. True Happiness: Practice gratitude and generosity and avoid stealing from or exploiting others.
  3. True Love: Cherish and celebrate others and practice sexual virtue in romantic relationships.
  4. Deep Listening and Loving Speech: Practice active listening and kind, helpful speech in order to facilitate equitable and peaceful relationships.
  5. Nourishment & Healing: Eat and drink in a manner that avoids bringing toxins or diseases into the body, and consume media of all forms in moderation.

 

John M. DeMarco is a writer, executive coach, and activist based in Nashville, Tennessee.