Athletes are protesting police brutality, so let's have a conversation

In this June 16, 2017 file photo, supporters of Philando Castile hold a portrait of Castile as they march along University Avenue in St. Paul, Minn. The vigil was held after St. Anthony police Officer Jeronimo Yanez was cleared of all charges in the fatal shooting last year of Castile. Changes to a Department of Justice program that had reviewed police departments in hopes of building community trust have dismayed some civil rights advocates and left some cities wondering what to do next. (Anthony Souffle/Star Tribune via AP File)/Star Tribune via AP File)

The abuse of power by police, especially against racial minorities, has long been a problem in the United States. The police were, undeniably, an overt tool of repression against African-American minorities until the late 1960s at the very least, as anyone who was involved in the Civil Rights Movement could tell you. And it remains fairly evident that there is still bias in our police force against blacks and other minorities today.

Studies have shown that black and Hispanic drivers are more likely to be pulled over for broken taillights, for instance. One investigation in San Diego revealed that Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to be searched at a traffic stop, but less likely to have contraband. I don’t believe it is a conscious racism on the part of most police officers. Instead, occurrences such as these are more likely the result of implicit bias, an unconscious process that causes people to have a strong negative association with certain groups without realizing it.

However, even if unconscious bias is what is at play here, it doesn’t change the fact that there is still prejudice. If the unconscious minds of law enforcement officers aren’t on board with the whole “don’t judge people based on the color of their skin,” then police need to make conscious efforts to make unbiased choices when it comes to their actions. The regularity with which they are pulled over by police is likely one reason that 48-percent of African-Americans  think police treat racial minorities unfairly or very unfairly. That level of mistrust is unacceptably high for an organization that is supposed to serve and protect.

Accountability for the unjust actions of police also needs to be strengthened. Minorities have accused police officers of excessive force or planting drugs on them for years, but are widely ignored by mainstream society because it’s their word against an officer of the law. When Philando Castile, by all accounts a model citizen, was shot by an officer in St. Paul,  the videos from the police car as well as Castile’s girlfriend showed that the officer was in no way justified in using deadly force. And yet the jury acquitted him. This is an excerpt from the transcript of the incident:

Yanez said, 'Okay, don't reach for it, then.' Castile responded, 'I'm not pulling it out,' and Reynolds also said, 'He's not pulling it out.' Yanez screamed, 'Don't pull it out!' Yanez quickly pulled his own gun with his right hand while he reached inside the driver's window with his left hand. Yanez removed his left arm from the car and fired seven shots in the direction of Castile in rapid succession.

At some point, African-Americans have to wonder what kind of evidence and situation it would take for there to be legal consequences. A decent citizen and licensed gun owner reaching to get his wallet out in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter was shot seven times and there was no conviction. A 12-year-old killed because he had a toy gun didn’t even bring about an indictment, meaning no criminal trial.

I understand the instinct to give police officers the benefit of the doubt and some leniency considering that many put their lives on the line every day for the sake of citizens like myself. But not punishing people in these situations is an affront to the victims, as well as the majority of police who capably conduct themselves. Police are given deadly weapons and authority and we must hold them to a higher standard, not a lower one, because of it.

There are definitive actions that can be taken to improve the conduct of police. Through community policing, police build ties with members of the communities they are assigned to. This not only helps cops to better understand the people they protect, but also builds trust in the police within the community. Better relations can go a long way towards addressing some of these issues. More extensive training should also be implemented. In North Carolina, for example, it takes more than twice as much training to be a barber than a police officer. This is ridiculous considering the comparative importance and dangerousness of these professions. Training aimed specifically at avoiding the use of deadly force when the situation does not require it should be highlighted. Investment in these initiatives is a strong step towards making this country safer for both its citizens and the police.


Jacob Kowalski is a weekly columnist to The Daily Campus opinion section. He can be reached via email at jacob.kowalski@uconn.edu.