By: Urban League of Louisiana 

The relationship between the law enforcement community and the African American community has been strained. Contrary to the commonly expressed belief that the values of African Americans are to blame for this tension, the African American community has a well-informed distrust of law enforcement, due to the historic role it has played in perpetuating white supremacy in our society. From its early iterations as slave patrols who stopped, questioned and punished enslaved Africans in order to maintain our ancestors’ condition as chattel, to its role as enforcers of the Black codes (a system of draconian laws to restrict the autonomy of free African Americans during Reconstruction), the law enforcement community has made a coordinated effort to thwart the improvement of the African American condition in America. Our community’s distrust of the police was further bolstered by its enforcement of the unjust Jim Crow system, its surveillance, infiltration, disruption and brutality of actors and organizations in the civil rights and Black power movements, and its current practices of stop and frisk and other unconstitutional tactics that fuel the mass incarceration of African Americans. This distrust extends beyond the police to other players in the judicial system, from the elected officials that propose and enact unjust laws that disproportionately impact communities of color, to the judges who uphold these laws at their discretion and the lawyers who activate them in their efforts to dole out their version of justice. Add to that list, a bail system that keeps poor, African Americans in jail for nonviolent offenses awaiting trial, because they cannot afford bail. The African American community has little reason to trust in a system that consistently violates our humanity and actively destroys our community.

One need not look any further than the empirical evidence to see that the system of public safety is rotten and needs an overhaul. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than whites. According to the “Fatal Shootings By US Police Officers in 2015: A Bird’s Eye View,” unarmed, African American men are seven times more likely than unarmed white men to be killed in officer-involved shootings. Similarly, a Center for Police Equity report reveals racial disparities in use-of-force by police. According to the 2016 study, the police use-of-force rate is more than three times higher in the arrest of African Americans than whites. These disparities persist in drug law enforcement as well. The ACLU reports that while Whites are five times more likely to use drugs than African Americans, African Americans are 10 times more likely to be imprisoned on drug offenses. Similarly, African American males are given sentences 20 percent longer than white offenders for similar offenses. In Louisiana, the African Americans serving life without parole for nonviolent offenses is at a rate of 23 times higher than whites. African Americans are disproportionately represented on death row at 42% although they represent only 13% of the US population.  In many instances, these disparities can be explained by prosecutorial discretion, meaning that prosecutors often impose more severe charges against African Americans than whites in comparable situations.  And in the far too frequent case of officer-involved shooting deaths of African American males, officers are rarely prosecuted and (even then) almost never found guilty. Based on existing laws designed to ensure the protection of police involved in shootings, it is nearly impossible to legally hold police accountable for seemingly unjust shootings of civilians. Worse yet, law enforcement often cite so-called “black-on-black” crime, but have only managed to attain a “clearance” rate for murders in New Orleans of less than 40% – leaving the most dangerous people on the streets, while arresting & prosecuting thousands of residents for non-violent offenses.

Laws have also made it easier for whites to use lethal force in their interactions with African Americans through the enactment of “stand your ground” laws. According to a Urban Institute study, a white shooter using the “stand your ground” laws are 350% more likely to be found justified if their victim is Black than if the victim was white. In states with “stand your ground” laws Whites were justified in shooting of African American victims 17% of the time. The same cannot be said for African Americans. In the case of African American shooters with white victims, only 1% of these murders were deemed justifiable. This trend extends beyond states with these laws. Scholars argue that the national narrative that African Americans are violent and threatening has led to anti-Black, implicit bias that plays out on juries in American courtrooms. Thus there is no surprise when African Americans place little faith in the judicial system that is supposed to protect all citizens. These are just a few noteworthy disparities that frustrate the tensions between African Americans and law enforcement and illustrates the inequities in the judicial system that fuel the African American community’s distrust of this system.

In the most recent shooting death of football star and family man, Joe McKnight in Jefferson Parish, the handling of this case has drawn national scrutiny and outrage. Just hours after he murdered McKnight, Ronald Gasser was released without charges in what the community viewed as a grave injustice. Based on the facts before us, it appeared that there was enough evidence to arrest Gasser, especially when considering the standard that has been used in previous cases. So, how does a man admittedly shoot and kill a person in a “road rage” incident and walk free the same day? The community’s demand for answers was met with resistance, hearing that no “external forces” would influence the investigation. Furthermore, it was made clear that there would be no transparency regarding the details of the case in order to “protect the integrity of the investigation,” and that the community could expect that this process would not be expeditious “out of an abundance of caution” and “respect” for McKnight and Gasser. Respect? Four days later, and after significant public pressure, Gasser was arrested for manslaughter.  And while in a perfect scenario, such a delay may have been warranted, data suggests that if the races were reversed the delay would not have been the same.  We have come to expect exactly what we got from law enforcement. Little transparency, demands for calm, threats of arrests of protesters, and dismissing concerns of African American citizens alongside slow moving justice. 

It has been our position that officers require more training on implicit bias and greater oversight from an autonomous agency to improve transparency and accountability within law enforcement agencies. But training and more oversight won’t solve the real cultural dilemma impacting this tension between the African American community and law enforcement. The culture often times found within law enforcement (and American society at large) upholds the notion that African Americans are inherently violent, untrustworthy and their lives have less value than others. This manifests itself in the inequitable (mis)treatment of African Americans in the judicial system. These cultural beliefs are embedded in the judicial system and they must be addressed to reform the system so that it may serve all people and to begin the work of repairing relationships between law enforcement and people of color. The Urban League is committed to pursuing this work and compels the law enforcement community to join us in our efforts to bridge the divide between our communities.  We invite you to the table to engage in a healing process to uncover the root of the discord between our communities and to partner with us to develop strategies and policies to improve our relationships and strengthen our communities. 

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