Sunday Book Review: Nonfiction: Three New Books Discuss How to Confront and Reform Racist Policing

In 2010, Brown became police chief, and he had his officers go door-to-door to meet the people they were charged with protecting, attending homeowners association meetings and block parties, hosting basketball games and offering counseling sessions at local schools. (He also lost his 27-year-old son that year, to police gunfire. His son, who had bipolar disorder, was killed after fatally shooting a bystander and a police officer.) Brown’s approach, based not on arrest numbers but on police-community engagement, led to a historic decline in Dallas’s crime rate between 2010 and 2015. Brown retired in 2016, after he noticed an uptick in the crime rate, which he attributes to budget cuts that led to staffing shortages.


Although Brown offers us one of the most impressive models for community policing, his view begins to look idealized in light of the racist practices described by Paul Butler in “Chokehold.” “Cops routinely hurt and humiliate black people because that is what they are paid to do,” Butler writes. “The police, as policy, treat African-Americans with contempt.” Like Brown, Butler admits that he was once an active participant in this system, a prosecutor who “sent a lot of black men to prison” and “defended cops who had racially profiled or used excessive force.”

While Butler urges us to rethink the purpose and function of policing entirely, a number of the essays in Angela J. Davis’s anthology suggest that the historical tension between low-income residents of color and the police charged with protecting them can be addressed with training programs. In one of the most popular of these programs, known as procedural justice, policemen are taught that if they treat people with dignity, respect and fairness, they will build trust and gain legitimacy. Meanwhile, implicit bias training encourages officers to recognize the set of racial assumptions they carry but do not consciously control. These measures can also save lives. As Yale Law School’s Tracey Meares and Tom Tyler put it in their essay, the more trust communities have in the police, the more likely they are to report crime, provide testimony and help “to hold offenders accountable.”

Barring fundamental legal reforms, however, these programs can have only a limited impact. Indeed, much of the discussion in “Chokehold” and “Policing the Black Man” highlights the impact of major Supreme Court decisions of the last 50 years, including ones that supported racial profiling and deemed statistical evidence of racial disparities insufficient to prove a “discriminatory purpose” on the part of police officers or the courts. As Jin Hee Lee and Sherrilyn A. Ifill, both from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, point out in their contribution to Davis’s book, “the courts function in a distorted reality that only recognizes racial discrimination in a specific and distinct form: overt racial animus by a specific actor.” The Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Constitution has largely failed to extend African-American citizens protection from police abuse and sentencing disparities.


Lee and Ifill suggest that hope might lie in pursuing “a more effective body of equal protection and anti-discrimination law.” Butler, however, remains skeptical of incrementalist measures. “Liberal reforms, such as anti-discrimination laws, have not brought long-term change,” Butler writes in “Chokehold.” “Civil Rights laws have helped stigmatize discrimination but have barely blunted its effect.” He demonstrates that when citizenship rights are extended to African-Americans, policy makers and officials at all levels of government historically used law and incarceration as proxy to exert social control in black communities. Black Codes, convict leasing and Jim Crow segregation followed Emancipation; overpolicing and mass incarceration followed the civil rights movement. “In order to halt this wretched cycle we must not think of reform — we must think of transformation,” Butler writes. “The United States of America must be disrupted, and made anew.”

For Butler, remaking America entails abolishing both prisons and the conditions of segregated poverty that increase the likelihood of criminal justice supervision. Butler cites a study from New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice estimating that 40 percent of the nation’s prisoners could be released without compromising public safety. This alone would save taxpayers $200 billion over 20 years, freeing up new opportunities for resources and outcomes. He suggests those funds could be used to hire 327,000 new public-school teachers, or to create jobs for low-income citizens who often have no options for survival outside of the informal economy. And since nearly 80 percent of people in prison suffer from drug addiction or mental health issues, Butler thinks it wise to reallocate funding from police departments and correctional authorities to community health care.

If the prospect of this level of structural change sounds impossible or rash, at the very least we can heed the insights the public interest lawyer Bryan Stevenson provides in “Policing the Black Man.” Stevenson looks to South Africa, where a series of truth and reconciliation hearings followed the end of apartheid, and Germany, where citizens are encouraged to visit the sites of Nazi concentration camps and reflect on the history of the Holocaust, as examples of the kind of historical reckoning we must also commit to as a nation. For it is only by fully confronting the traumatic and contradictory currents of American history that we can begin to change course. Past abuses must be repaired so that safety and justice can exist for us all.

Continue reading the main story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *