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A turning point for policing in America

Melvin B. Miller
A turning point for policing in America
“If the cops would just chill we wouldn’t have to worry about staying in shape to outrun them.”

The Massachusetts Legislature has voted for a reform of the regulations governing police conduct in the state. There is little doubt that the demonstrations across the nation for a more civilized police culture have inspired the local interest for change. For decades, police officers have been able to shoot and kill people without fear of legal recriminations.

In 2019, the police gunned down 999 people across the country — 405 white, 249 Black and 163 Hispanic victims. This year, with 1,020 deaths as of Dec. 1, the rate of police killings continues. The slogan “Black Lives Matter” caught fire to protest the rampant police shootings of Black men, but many whites at first objected to the theme. That seemed to be a strange objection, since 156 more whites than Blacks were killed by the police in 2019.

But much of this objection to “Black Lives Matter” dwindled after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020. Up till then, there were primarily just news reports about another Black man dying from police brutality. However, there was a videotape of Floyd being pinned to the ground and shut off from air for a period of seven minutes and 46 seconds. The offending police officer knelt callously on Floyd’s neck until he asphyxiated. And Floyd’s offense was refusing to be shackled and arrested for the charge that he attempted to pass a $20 bill he knew to be forged.

The brutality of the police can be so flagrant that Black men would rather take their chances on running from the police rather than be apprehended when there would normally be no serious charge. That is how the Black 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks died in Atlanta, Georgia. He ran off rather than to submit to the police when he was awakened for snoozing in his own car.

With police shootings of Blacks so rampant, it is easy to view this essentially as a race problem, but that would be a mistake. Last year 405 whites were shot and killed by the police. While such incidents might be disproportionately racial, they are still too frequently part of the nation’s race problem to be forgotten.

The Boston Globe recently published an article stating that there were four police shootings in Massachusetts in November. All of those shot were white, and they lived in Lynn, Winchester, Everett and Malden. All four of the men shot had mental illness difficulties, and three had been involved with drugs. Two of the four men involved in the police shooting were killed.

The youthful multiracial protesters have been chanting “defund the police.” Their cry has been to establish special units to resolve social problems that cannot be described as dangerous felonies. To some extent, that is what the newly created “Massachusetts Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission” will establish. Its very name, “Peace Officer Standards,” creates a non-militant tone for the corps. Its goal should be service to the public.

The use of deadly force will be limited to violent situations, chokeholds will not be permitted, and standards will be established for the use of force against lawful demonstrators. There is still much to do to craft the final reform, but it looks good. In committee, the House bill passed 93-66 and the Senate version passed 30-7. While all Republicans voted “nay” on the final call, enough Democrats resisted the police unions and passed the measure.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts likes to be the national leader of social change. Just setting police standards would be a breakthrough. It will clearly take considerable time to establish a profoundly civil relationship between the police and the citizenry.

Gov. Charlie Baker now has the opportunity to vote contrary to his Republican Party and establish a historically significant renovation for America’s police forces.