Another man, Freddie Gray, is dead because we have created a culture in which our police force places itself above the laws they enforce, and they treat poor communities as the enemy.
If you haven’t heard by now, Gray was a 25-year-old Baltimore resident. He died — reportedly of a severe spinal injury — after being taken into police custody in Baltimore. Other news reports say his larynx also was crushed. His death is only the latest in a string of killings by police across the nation.
Tamir Rice was 12 when he was killed by police in Ohio. Rekia Boyd was 22 and at a party with friends in Chicago. Darrien Hunt had a toy sword in Utah. And John Crawford was in Walmart holding an air rifle right off the store’s shelf. These people were not criminals but they are all dead at the hands of the police. No arrests, no trials, and in Freddie Gray’s case not even an explanation. Just dead in a matter of minutes. We have allowed our system to decay to the point where we have to fear that if our children have ANY interaction with police, they may not make it back home.
As a new parent, this is both terrifying and infuriating. My daughter is going to grow up in a world where her life could be violently stolen by those who take an oath to “Protect and Serve.” She will hear on one hand the police are here to protect us, and then witness them kill innocent people on a regular basis. What happens when an entire generation grows up watching police kill without facing justice?
Some of us can pretend that Connecticut isn’t like Maryland or Missouri. However, that would be willful ignorance and my daughter can not afford for me to be blind to the threats she will face growing up. If something isn’t done, all of our children will live in a much more deadly world than our parents gave us.
Here in Connecticut, like in many other states and cities, our police are also equipped with military-grade weapons. We have had instances of public police brutality like the 2013 video of two officers repeatedly stomping on a man in Bridgeport. Police are treating us like enemy combatants on a battlefield. It sounds crazy but CNN reported that this was literally the case in Ferguson during the protests and violence following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer.
It is impossible to build trust with a community you have declared the enemy and against whom you are visibly preparing for war. Our police forces are injecting violence into our communities and creating a pressure cooker that will inevitably blow if there is no de-escalation of the police. We are seeing the disastrous consequences of police violence all over the country.
So what do we do about it?
Hold Police Accountable, And De-escalate All Departments
The obvious first step is to hold our police accountable to the same set of laws as civilians. If a civilian were to commit any of the acts we’ve seen perpetrated by police over the last year, they would have been locked up. When an officer does it, they are given paid time off and likely cleared of all charges. That is not justice. That is violence with impunity.
Police officers should be held to the highest standards. They are entrusted with protecting our lives and any abuse of power should not be tolerated. That means arrest and prosecute every single officer who has been involved in a police brutality case. Every. Single. One.
We must also de-militarize our police. There is no need for local police departments to have armored vehicles and military-grade weaponry. There is no scenario in which local police would need a grenade launcher.
End The War On Drugs
Holding our police accountable is a necessary first step. But unless we change the underlying cause of the problem, we will be right back in this situation tomorrow.
Neil Franklin, a former Baltimore police officer and retired major with the Maryland State Police, described the problem in an interview with Morning Joe:
“I’m talking about the foundation for the relationship, or lack of a positive relationship between the police and our poor black and brown communities,” Franklin said. “Our drug laws have a significant role there, and we need to come to terms with that. We need to realize and start changing some of these laws. That’s my point. Because if we don’t deal with the systemic underground issues, the foundation of what we’re seeing here today, we’re going to be back here tomorrow, next week, next year, five years from now.”
By undoing the underlying public policy that forces police to arrest our young black and brown men for non-violent crimes, we can begin the process of healing by reducing the violence police inject into our most vulnerable communities.
Invest In Communities Debilitated By Crippling Poverty
Drive around Hartford for more than 10 minutes and you’ll cross neighborhoods that look strikingly similar to Baltimore or Ferguson.
Massive unemployment, condemned buildings, and disproportionate arrests of young people of color while our elected officials encourage the construction of high-end condos and the investment of millions of dollars in baseball stadiums. This sends a clear message to our poor communities: Entertaining the wealthy is more important than educating our youth. How many schools could have been built for the cost of one stadium full of yard goats?
Instead of investing in America’s pastime, why not invest in Americas future? What message would that send to our young people? If our government invested massive resources in lifting them up, would it change the way our young people see their place within society? Could it help us develop a stronger sense of pride in our communities and prevent future riots?
I don’t know, but it’s worth a shot. Our young people are worth giving a shot to succeed, not just a shot in the back if they run away.
Jason Ortiz is a graduate of the University of Connecticut and is the Campaign Strategist for Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. He lives in Sterling, Conn. Reach Jason by or on Facebook.