“The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line.” — W.E.B. DuBois
By Mike Espy
My brother-in-law is an African-American cop who patrols a New Orleans suburban community. He speaks to me often of his perilous duty. He has encountered most of the difficulties and challenges inherent in being a law enforcement officer in today’s America.
But as a Black man, he also understands the sordid history of hate and violence in this country that has been disproportionately directed at Black Americans. To be sure, he has read about and reflected on the recent tragedies of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and the countless others over the course of years. And he is acutely and painfully aware that centuries of racial bias continue to contribute to the worst outcomes in encounters with many law enforcement officers across our country.
What happened to George Floyd is an abomination. Four Minneapolis policemen used excessive force to cause his death in what appears to be a tragically cavalier fashion. All four officers involved should be held fully accountable and incarcerated for their crimes.
The public outcry generated by the horribly graphic video of Floyd’s death quickly became international in scope, eclipsing even the global pandemic. The call for changes to our established policing structure has perhaps never been more forceful.
So, what are we to do now that we have reached this inflection point? How do we make sure that we have more officers who value Black life and where the numerous episodes of tragic and obvious police misconduct will no longer occur?
I believe there are a number of clear steps.
First, we need to hire more officers of color, especially Black men and women. We can attract more applicants by offering competitive salaries and opportunities for continuing education.
Second, applicants and new hires should be subject to stringent background checks on past conduct and previous performance. Greater transparency is the easiest and simplest solution to prevent officers who have previously been in trouble from getting new jobs. That’s why we must create a national registry of police misconduct and disciplinary actions. State and local police departments should also be required to report use-of-force incidents to the Department of Justice.
Third, we must mandate bias and de-escalation training. I also want our police officers to receive training from our mental health counselors, social workers, child protection officers, and addiction specialists. On a daily basis, officers are confronted with situations involving these afflictions- some are violent, but many are not. We shouldn’t try to turn policemen into social workers, but they should at least understand that not all offenders belong in jail. Some may need mental health treatment, others may require referral to drug treatment, or other alternatives might be in order. I want our departments to work hand-in-hand with these experts so they can better understand these situations in order to better serve our communities.
Fourth, chokeholds and other restraint positions that can reduce blood and airflow should be abolished. We must create a new prevailing standard of conduct in which the unacceptable standard of “reasonable force” is replaced with “necessary force.”
Fifth, all officers in all locales should be required to wear body cameras and officers should be forbidden from turning them off while on duty.
I believe the opportunity for change is upon us — in Mississippi and across the nation. We have seen the passion and courage of a younger generation who peacefully assembled last Saturday and marched steadfastly in the blazing hot Mississippi sun to honor the memory of George Floyd. They marched to send an unmistakable message to every generation that enough is enough.
Young leaders have stepped up, and we more seasoned leaders must not step aside. We have to stay in the fight. That’s why I was proud to peacefully march last Saturday with the organizers of Black Lives Matters of Mississippi, alongside my wife and two sons.
And I would be even prouder to work with them from the halls of the U.S. Senate. We need leadership for this new age. Someone who will listen to everyone, who will show up to march for all the good and just causes — someone who will help to fuse the coalition of youthful passion with the judgment of those who have been around, and who have “seen some things.” We need someone who will work with everyone regardless of race, age, gender, religion or sexual orientation, and who can help set a positive course for Mississippians.
It is a tragedy that it took another man’s death to inspire us to rally together. George Floyd should be alive today, and those who caused his death should be held to account.
But it is also the time to look forward. I believe that police officers — better vetted and trained — are key to ensuring that we can keep peace and order in our society. We need to make the changes necessary to guarantee that men and women of good will and conscience, who are doing the right things in the right way, staff our law enforcement system.
Dr. W.E.B. DuBois lamented that the central problem of the 20th century was “the color line.” Unfortunately, as we embark upon the third decade of the 21st century his assessment still holds true. But, working together we can change this. Through commitment, cooperation, and the enactment of no nonsense solutions, we can get to a place that works for all of us.