The killings by police of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, George Floyd in Minneapolis, and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, within three months this year, have created a moment of reckoning in American society.
This is an election year, meaning that reckoning can and should come at the ballot box. Polls show the great majority of Americans believe that Black people are subjected to systemic discrimination in the criminal justice system and often at the hands of locally elected officials. Black people are also much more likely to be the targets of police violence. Florida has a long, ugly history of such discrimination and violence. With elections for sheriff and state attorney scheduled throughout Florida this year, voters have a chance to engineer change.
Candidates for sheriff and state attorney should have clear policy positions on the issues most necessary to bring reform.
For sheriffs, those reforms include:
restricting the use of deadly force only to protect life and after all other reasonable alternatives are exhausted, including de-escalation techniques and nonlethal force tactics.
prohibiting choke-holds, strangleholds or any other neck restraints.
pledging to not acquire surplus military equipment, such as armored personnel carriers, submachine guns and grenades.
releasing videos of officer-involved shootings and other interactions that result in death.
publishing an online record of all uses of force by officers, as well as all misconduct complaints and any disciplinary consequences resulting from those complaints.
funding community-led training that teaches police officers how to treat residents with dignity and respect; and to expand education in police de-escalation tactics and anti-bias training.
establishing an early intervention system that identifies officers with high rates of use of force and misconduct complaints and officers whose interactions with Black people and Hispanics indicate possible racial prejudices. The sheriff should intervene to address these practices, up to and including termination.
Further, sheriffs and state attorneys should also realize that confrontations between members of the public and police are often the product of longstanding friction that comes from the over-policing of communities. All over Florida, law enforcement often acts as an occupation force in communities of color, intimidating residents and arresting for minor offenses, rather than protecting.
According to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, while only 21 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are Black, 49.9 percent of youth who are arrested are Black. Many of these arrests happen in school. A solution? The state needs to reallocate the $156 million it spends to place police officers in schools and devote it to services that help keep kids in school, not send them to jail.
This friction continues into adulthood. Black Floridians, per capita, are four times as likely to be arrested for possession of marijuana than white people, even though marijuana use is about equal between the two races. A young Black person with an arrest record for a minor crime such as marijuana possession will find it more difficult to find a job, receive federal grants for education, or find housing. That increases the odds of having problems with the law. The state needs to legalize marijuana and stop using it as an excuse to ruin lives.
But uniformed law enforcement officials alone will not end discrimination in the criminal justice system. Candidates for state attorney must commit to enact reforms at the prosecutorial level in order to end the racism pervading that system.
They must pledge to take complaints of police brutality seriously by investigating them and holding the guilty accountable.
They should adopt a policy of not prosecuting youths in the adult criminal justice system.
Until state laws change, they should pledge to never prosecute possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana. Civil citations can be issued for that and many other minor low-level offenses.
Finally, they should embrace bail reform by demanding that persons accused of most offenses, especially minor crimes, should not languish in jail if they cannot afford to pay for their freedom. The majority of people in Florida jails have not been convicted of anything. Being caged in jail pending hearings when one is not a threat to public safety or a flight risk can cost individuals their jobs, enrollment at school and housing. Voters should insist that all candidates for state attorney embrace bail reform.
If Floridians really want to put a racist criminal justice system in the past, they must vote for change and elect a state attorney and sheriff who will advance equality and justice for all.
Read the full article on Sun Sentinel here.