“Jail Killer Cops”: Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform

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She sat there looking at me, gauging how honest she could be with her question, before quietly asking:

Mr. Mauro, when they say “justice” why do I hear “revenge” in my head? Like, when they say “We want justice for Michael Brown!” I just hear “revenge” in place of “justice” – why do I hear that?

Mia’jhane was a seventh grader in West Oakland last year. During a short break from a violence-prevention session I was facilitating in her classroom, I was engaging with the young people, asking them if they had heard about Black Lives Matter, and what it meant to them. Some had heard of it, some had not, surprisingly enough, especially given all the direct-action work that has taken place in Oakland over the past couple of years.

But Mia’jhane’s question has stayed with me, even if my lessons on cycles of violence have not stayed with her and her classmates (though hopefully they have, at least with some). Over the summer, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the overarching culture of retributive justice in the United States, a system that disproportionately harms poor people and people of color. Mia’jhane was pointing out the ways that disempowered communities rejoice when this system of retributive and punitive justice is turned on those who harm them – and she is highlighting her discomfort with the limitations therein.

Let me be clear: I am not here to dismiss the responses of family members and communities to indictments and convictions of police officers who kill armed and unarmed civilians while in the line of duty; when deaths have been ignored and lives have been disregarded, reveling in the recognition provided by our one official avenue for redress – the criminal justice system – makes a lot of sense. Neither am I hear to provide a defense of the abuses of power demonstrated by large swaths of police officers across this nation, abuses that disproportionately harm poor people, people of color, immigrants, and LGBTQ people, as well as people with developmental and emotional disabilities.

I am writing in order to lift up the foundation of Mia’jhane’s question, or what I interpret to be at the foundation of her question: is reliance upon a retributive and punitive system of criminal justice the best and only option? Thinking on this question has allowed me to come up with some of my own, as well:

  • What institutions of retributive justice do we strengthen when we call for the jailing of killer cops?
  • Can we call for prison reform or abolition while also demanding that people be jailed?
  • Do we want to assume the responsibility for deciding who should be jailed and who should not?
  • Does jailing “killer cops” actually allow us to hold police departments, communities, and the United States at large responsible for the racism and classism endemic to all our social institutions? Why or why not?

Many in the U.S. have discussed other forms of justice – the most popular in progressive and radical circles being restorative justice, a diverse collection of responses to violence that includes looking at those harmed, the offenders, and the impacts of violence on entire communities. This form of justice has been discussed by many, and has even been institutionalized in some ways in Oakland public schools, and yet, it still carries some assumptions.

One of these assumptions is that there were pre-existing conditions of safety and justice that need to be restored and that it is possible for those harmed and those offending parties to be able to commit to such a process, which is not usually the case in many of the cases of police officers killing armed and unarmed civilians. Another assumption is that we have communities prepared to hold one another accountable to these often difficult and drawn-out processes that require non-violent commitments to refusing acts of retribution.

Internationally, there are those experimenting with forms of transitional and transformative justice, though these approaches are so particular to each context that it is not useful to delineate them here, given that we have not yet had a national-level awareness that forms of justice outside of our current law are even possible. I encourage readers to investigate different approaches to transitional and transformative justice in areas of ethnic and armed conflict.

Returning to the questions above, I’m thinking about why our calls to jail “killer cops” are both understandable, and not enough. To begin with, our sense of hope in the current justice system has left us asking for steps as small as indictments and convictions of individuals. I say “small” not to dismiss how meaningful the recognition of wrongdoing can be, but because in the bigger picture, holding one individual accountable within police forces where racism and other forms of discrimination are woven into the fabric of their day-to-day functioning does not feel like enough. Allen Feldman, an anthropologist who has studied conflict in Northern Ireland, has said that “arrest is the political art of individualizing disorder.”

If this is not enough, and we push for police re-training or body cameras, we find ourselves in our present circumstances, where municipal police budgets are increasing, especially in places like Oakland, which has a long legacy of police misconduct and corruption, both on the individual and institutional levels. When calls for police indictments and convictions, more training, and body cameras become part of the rallying calls for justice, those requests are easily responded to.

It is my understanding that many are calling for much more than the above. Some are calling for a national reckoning with legacies of racism, and anti-black racism in particular. Many leading the movement work are queer and feminist women of color. To contribute to many of the feminist critiques of past organizing around issues of racial justice, I would like to add my own: jailing individual men has punitive effects on more than just the man.

Poor and working class communities of color have been devastated by the jailing of large proportions of men aged 16-50 years old, and are well aware that the person who is imprisoned is not the only person who is harmed. Is the aim in jailing “killer cops” to punish more than just the officer, or are we also aiming to harm women, children, and entire families as well? Are those people guilty by association?

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics does not keep numbers pertaining to veterans employed in police departments, anecdotal evidence points to estimates that between one third and more than one half of police are veterans, reserve personnel, or national guard personnel. While we discuss the actions of police officers and the enculturated racism and classism of police departments, we must also confront the ways that lack of adequate employment opportunities for veterans returning from overseas – combined with the mental health and social needs for those who have served in combat zones – must be a part of our analyses.

Past research has produced mixed results regarding whether or not education levels impact an officer’s willingness to use force; however, recent studies have shown that there is a significant relationship between officers with 4-year degrees and those who only have high school diplomas when it comes to resorting to verbal and physical force with civilians. I am not writing to advocate that education requirements should be a part of police hiring processes, a practice which is likely to mirror demographic discrimination found in most universities. Instead, I am asking us to consider the ways that education and class privilege contour our popular representations of racist attitudes and behaviors; we think of the high-school drop-out turned police officer who shoots a black man as one of the greatest manifestations of racism rather than the Ivy League-educated executive whose signature condones corporate practices that endanger and kill workers in fields and factories, both in the U.S. and abroad.

I strongly believe that we need to create mechanisms that confront the racism and classism – as well as the sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia – that target poor people and communities of color, often with life-ending consequences. I also acknowledge the sense of validation that can come from having the offender, the “killer cop,” brought to justice within the only popular framework that exists in our society.

For me, I cannot also allow myself to remain ignorant of the contradictions that Mia’jhane’s question brings to light. It is important that we make space to discuss these issues and to name the limited avenues for official recourse when institutional class and race discrimination shows up in ways that harm those most vulnerable to homicide at the hands of police officers. And in order to prevent future violence, we also need to see the deep roots of harm that jailing individual officers will never rip up.

Thank you for reading. Part 2 of “Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform” will focus on the challenges and consequences of reducing California’s state prison population, and how the reduction of these state prison populations is impacting Central Valley county jails.

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