A critique of American policing

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REV. GAYLE FISHER-STEWART, PH.D.
GUEST COMMENTARY

Editor’s note: Dr. Fisher-Stewart’s original critique was published in the Sept. 30 issue of the Florida Courier.

My name is Gayle Fisher-Stewart and I am an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Washington, D.C.
For most of my adult life, I have been involved in policing and criminal justice, either as an active police officer, retiring with the rank of captain in 1992 from the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington; as a consultant to police departments, local governments, and federal agencies; or teaching criminal justice at the university level. For more than 40 years, I’ve been involved in American policing.

Calling on officers
A couple of weeks ago, I posted a YouTube video which was a critique on American policing and the need for those with intimate knowledge of the system, current and retired police officers to come forward and “confess” concerning the origins of policing and how those origins affect how policing is conducted today with sometimes deadly results.

As a result of that video, I was asked for next steps – where do we go from this point in time to a point where police community relations are what they should be.

Long-term change requires time, commitment and resources and the acceptance of major risk.  And a group I’m working with – of retired police officers – we are developing those next steps.

Getting started
So, what I thought I’d do to get the conversation going in the broader community, because it will only be in community that change will come about – when the police and community come together as one – and I include the faith community, to get the conversation started I would provide some interim steps, some baby steps.

We must remember that our system of policing has as one of its guides the Metropolitan Police of London and Sir Robert Peele, one of its founders. Peele said that the public are the police and the police are the public; that the police are paid full-time to do what the public or the community really has the responsibility to do.

This would be true community policing; however, as we well know, the community as a whole is either unwilling or unable to take on the task of policing. So we pay members of the community – members of our community, the communities we live in – to do that job.

The police are members of the community who have come forward to take on the job of self-community control, self-control –  that the majority of the community really doesn’t want to do or doesn’t have the time to do.

Interim steps
Watch Ava DuVernay’s documentary on the 13th Amendment. It is out on Netflix. It should be required viewing for anyone who calls him or herself an American and a lover of freedom.

According to information promoting it, this documentary reframes American history and explores how the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery, led to an epidemic of mass incarceration in the United States because of a loophole.

Yes, slavery was abolished except in the case of having been convicted of a crime. So if you are convicted of a crime, this country can legally enslave you.

After the end of slavery, which literally destroyed the economic system of the South, there was still a need for cheap or free labor.  Laws were enacted that criminalized activities that should not have been criminal, such as being without a job.

These nuisance laws enabled Whites to, in effect, re-enslave Black people while also perpetuating the lie that Blacks – particularly Black men – were dangerous and needed to be controlled.  And so we see the beginning of the mass incarceration of Black men to steal their labor and to control and constrain their freedom.

Keepers of the gate
What’s interesting about mass incarceration is that to enter the criminal justice system, we find that the police are the gatekeepers.  It is difficult to get to the courts and correctional system without going through the police.  So the police have been a part of this re-enslavement of people of color.

I’d recommend watching this film in community.  Bring together the police in your community, members of the larger community, to include the faith community and watch it together.  As part of this process, I’d also ask you to “like” the Center for the Study of Faith in Justice at Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.
– which is my church – on Facebook, where I will list questions to guide the discussion.

Protected space
America was considered, and still is, to some degree, a White man’s country. We have seen laws that protected White space.

People of color who entered White space did so at their own peril.  Just look at certain communities in our country where people of color are still not welcome.  This protection of White space has morphed into “stand your ground” laws, also called “shoot first” laws.

These laws say that a person does not have to retreat from an encounter that may or may not be dangerous or life-threatening, and can use deadly force to protect that space.  Trayvon Martin was a victim of Florida’s stand your ground law, and there are other states that have the law formally and informally.

To understand this law and how it negatively affects people of color, I’d like you to read a book, “Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God,” by Kelly Brown Douglas.  Rev. Douglas is also an Episcopal priest.  Read this book, again, in community and discuss its implications for people of color in your community, and the role that the police –  sometimes unwittingly – play in maintaining and protecting White space.

Lost its voice
The second book I’m recommending is by Kenyatta Gilbert, a professor at Howard University Divinity School in Washington.  It’s called “A Pursued Justice:  Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights.”  This is really a call to Black churches to recover the prophetic voice that challenges injustice.

Our Black churches began because of the racism and discrimination that was rampant in so-called White churches. In the Black church, we found a Jesus who was a champion of the dispossessed, who lived in the margins, who was killed – lynched if you will – because he challenged the status quo.  Unfortunately, too many of our churches have lost that prophetic voice that must be reclaimed if our children will not be having the same conversations we are having today.

Again, read the book in community. It is not just for those who are members of a faith community or for people of color; it is for everyone who seeks justice in an unjust world.

Baltimore report
On our Facebook page, I will include a link to the Department of Justice report on the Baltimore Police Department, which was investigated in the aftermath of the police killing of Freddie Gray.

There will be certain pages I would like you to reflect on and ask yourself, “How can human beings do this to another human being?”

To do what you will read on those pages, a person of color must be dehumanized, defaced, made a thing, an object – which comes right out the system of slavery.  There is no way another human being can look into the face, the eyes, of another human being and do some of the things that are recounted in the report.

For example, on page 32 of the report, the Department of Justice found that BPD officers frequently ignored legal requirements and strip-searched individuals prior to arrest – which is unconstitutional – in public view.  In one case, the officers publicly strip-searched a woman following a routine traffic stop for a missing headlight.

Stopped and searched
According to the report, officers ordered the woman to exit her vehicle, remove her clothes, and stand on the sidewalk to be searched. The woman asked the male officer in charge, “I really gotta take my clothes off?” The male officer replied, “Yeah,” and ordered a female officer to strip-search the woman.

The female officer put on purple latex gloves, pulled up the woman’s shirt and searched around her bra.  Finding no weapons or contraband around the woman’s chest, the officer then pulled down the woman’s underwear and searched her anal cavity.  This search again found no evidence of wrongdoing.

The officers released the woman without charges.  Indeed, the woman received only a repair order for her headlight. The search was conducted in full view of the street, although the supervising male officer claimed he turned away and did not watch the violation of both the woman’s body and the Constitution.

There was no indication that the woman had violated any law or was secreting any contraband.  In this case, the woman filed a complaint and the male officer received only a “simple reprimand” and an instruction that he could not serve as an officer in charge until he was “properly trained.”

What were they taught?
Where did these officers learn that violations of human dignity and the Constitution were acceptable?  And how do we ensure that these types of violations do not take place anywhere in this country?

As we seek to change American policing, there is a need that the police, particularly police leaders and chiefs, step forward and admit there is a problem and that problem needs to be fixed.

All too often, the police, rather than confess so repentance can take place, circle the wagons and play the “yes-but” game. They admit that there might be a problem, and then saying, “but” – “but those are a few rotten apples”, or “but policing is tough,” or “but officers put their lives on the line every day.”

All of that is true. However, until the police are willing to cross the lines that divide them from the community of which they are a part – remember Sir Robert Peele – problems will only get worse.

More and more of our young people will learn to fear the police and the police will hesitate to take action when action is needed.  Neither is good for this country.

So I ask you to consider these interim recommendations to begin the conversation in earnest, and join me and a group of retired police officers who are working to make policing what it needs to be in a country that says it loves freedom.

Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, Ph.D., is assistant rector at Calvary Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Contact her and follow her on Twitter at @LadyCop19721992.

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