On Black and Blue Justice
Eliminating systemic racism and brutality in America’s police departments is possible—but it will take time, says a criminal justice professor.
In response to the nationwide protests that arose after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, Rutgers alumnus Gautam Nayer, an associate professor at Texas Southern University in Houston, co-wrote an op-ed for Diverse Issues in Higher Education on how policing in America needs to change. Nayer SPAA’09 teaches at the university’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs and is a board member of the Center for the Healing of Racism in Houston.
Nayer and co-author Sasha Legette write in the op-ed that historically black colleges and universities, like Texas Southern, can provide feedback and research to help police departments fight systemic racism and brutality in their ranks. Here’s what Nayer has to say about American law enforcement’s troubled past and how police departments can better serve underrepresented communities in the future.
What are the origins of police brutality in this country?
Police officers in America are trained to be warriors. It’s hard to turn that off. The militarization of police creates an aura that they’re fighting a war. Officers are trained to be hypervigilant, that anything could become a fight, although less than 5 percent of calls end up in a violent confrontation.
We’re much quicker to use force than in other countries. Police work is hard work and it can be violent, but in the United States, violence is seen as acceptable to get the job done.
Why do you think George Floyd’s killing sparked the response it did?
The pandemic has exacerbated the issue of systemic racism for minority people, who are at significantly higher risk of COVID-19 than white middle-class Americans. Another reason that the video of Derek Chauvin killing Floyd was so powerful is because Chauvin’s looking at the camera like, “What are you going to do about it?” It shocked so many people.
The op-ed you co-wrote says that diversifying police departments can help decrease racism and brutality against people of color. What are some examples of how police forces can diversify?
Part of the reason the system is racist is because police departments don’t have enough officers who look like the communities they serve. The New York Police Department is slowly changing its ranks. There may be fewer African-American officers coming in but there are more Hispanics and Asians coming in. So, the police unions, which were made up mainly of white men, are thinning out. Once you have more representation in the leadership, you can probably change. But it’s a slow process.
Do you think reforming police unions would help cut down on systemic racism and brutality?
Police unions are very powerful and can push back on reforms. They protect their members, more than other unions do. But changes are coming. For instance, the Dallas Police Department doesn’t have one union negotiate everything, they have several different unions, including an African-American union, so they get everybody’s input. Also, as forces become more diversified, there’s a graying out of officers. It’s changing the dynamics of the profession.
Would it help to shift some traditional police duties to other professionals, such as social workers?
We look to cops to solve everything, but they’re not trained for that. San Antonio’s police department started a special branch where they trained officers to help homeless people get medication they needed. I think that’s a compassionate solution and that’s what we need to come back to, the humanity part.
They should also get better training. Police training in the United States is very different from that in Europe. For instance, in Germany, police have as much as three years of training. (Police officers in the United States typically complete between 10 and 36 weeks of training.)
Are there ways police officers can cultivate closer ties with their communities?
There used to be officers walking the beat in neighborhoods. They were on the same level as everyone else. Then they were in their cars with the windows rolled up, so now there’s even more distance. We need to bring back the beat patrols.