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Bankole: Diversity isn't the answer to police reform

Bankole Thompson

The push for police accountability is falling into a familiar and more convenient refrain: We need to hire more black officers and conduct inclusive training workshops and seminars for white officers to understand and appreciate the African American community. 

Politicians who don’t want to go up against powerful police unions would rather check a diversity box. But that ignores the demands for serious police reform. It undermines the quest to root out rogue cops as well as racist ones who might be weaponizing their badges against Black and innocent people just for the heck of it. 

Calls for diversity training in police departments are simply a way to disguise the discriminatory practices that are inherent among police departments across the nation, and often brought to the fore when another innocent Black person is killed in an encounter with an officer. 

"We need radical reforms for police to regain community trust and affirm that black lives matter, not feel-good diversity training," Thompson writes.

If we are serious about untangling a biased criminal justice system, we should be pushing for a public registry to track bad cops, supporting legislation to remove qualified immunity — the legal doctrine that protects officers from civil lawsuits in cases of police brutality — and mandating that officers carry a professional liability insurance to cut down on excessive use of force. These kinds of reforms will require a public showdown with police unions. 

The reforms that will finally end police brutality will tackle the embedded structure of inequality that allows repressive policing tactics.  

“We err when we just focus on individual police officers, individual people," Jennifer Cobbina, an associate professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University, told CBS News recently. "The reality is we are talking about a system, a culture of policing that permits the aggressive policing of Black and brown people, which is why we see Black people in particular being over-policed, they are over-sentenced and ultimately over-incarcerated."

Last year, an embarrassing email that an implicit bias trainer, Dante King, sent to San Francisco Police Department Chief Bill Scott underscores entrenched biases that fuel police misconduct. 

“The degree of anti-black sentiment throughout SFPD is extreme. While there are some at SFPD who possess somewhat of a balanced view of racism and anti-blackness, there are an equal number (if not more) who possess and exude deeply rooted anti-black sentiments,” King wrote about a department that a 2016 U.S. Department of Justice review found had “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups.” 

King in his email about SFPD, which came under fire for shootings of Black and Latino men, explained how a police officer during one of his trainings said he would go after a Black suspect over a white suspect because, “statistics show black people commit more crimes.” He also noted how officers in his training class were responding with an “immense amount of anger.” 

The email, which was King’s departing farewell, was so stinging that a San Francisco Police commissioner told the media, “Let me be absolutely clear, racism and white supremacy have no place in SFPD.” 

The Detroit Police Department has similar troubling issues. A recent audit found a racist culture at the 6th Precinct that targeted Black drivers during the afternoon shift. In a separate incident, a Black police officer was captured on video repeatedly punching a Black woman who was taken to Detroit Receiving Hospital for mental issues. 

It is becoming increasingly clear that the problem of police brutality is not so much about a lack of a racially diverse force. It is more so about implicit and explicit prejudice that exist in the police force. The hard line law-and-order approach that ignores overt cases of racism in policing is carried out by both white and Black officers. 

We need radical reforms for police to regain community trust and affirm that Black lives matter, not feel-good diversity training.