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What Will It Take To Protect Black Americans From Police Violence?


The death of George Floyd in police custody has intensified the debate about racism in the criminal justice system. Floyd's death, on video, follows the deaths of others whose names have been chanted by protesters over the past few days - Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, just to name a few - death after death after death. And after each one, we talk about systemic racism or talk about police training and police discipline - the same discussion over and over again.

So are police departments making any progress? Let's talk to Paul Butler, who's a law professor at Georgetown University and a former federal prosecutor, as well as Kim Burke, a researcher at the Center for Policing Equity. Good morning to you both.

KIM BURKE: Good morning.

PAUL BUTLER: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And, Paul Butler, I want to start with you. I want people to know, if they don't, that you wrote a book called "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." So you've studied this intensively. What are you thinking about the death of George Floyd?

BUTLER: This weekend, we saw many acts of selective enforcement and excessive force by cops in dealing with protests that were about selective enforcement and excessive force. So in some cities, we saw both civilian riots and police riots. Cops in Minneapolis arrested a black CNN journalist for being in the wrong place, politely asked a white CNN journalist to - in the same place - to move. In Atlanta, cops stopped a car with two black college students, pulled the students out of the car and shot them with a stun gun for no apparent reason.

But then we also saw remarkable acts of courage and patience and grace by some cops. Houston police chief marched arm-in-arm with protesters. Police officers in New York City and Spokane and D.C. took a knee, a sign of solidarity, with the demonstrators. So, Steve, 18,000 different police departments in the U.S. and we're seeing almost that many approaches to dealing with these systemic issues about police use of force, arrest policies, relationships with the community.

INSKEEP: Kim Burke, I want to follow up on that word - patience. Is that the key here for police when it comes to their discipline, when it comes to their training? Is that the difference between life and death, protest and no protest, is whether a police officer is patient enough and disciplined enough in what can be a hazardous situation?

BURKE: It is definitely an important role. Steve, at the Center for Policing Equity, we do extensive research on the role of implicit bias and police officers' decisions to use force. And we have found that taking a beat, that patience that you mentioned, can be the difference from deploying excessive, unnecessary force or not.

INSKEEP: I want to ask, though - this is a thing that baffles me; it must baffle millions of people. We've seen this videotape. Many of us have. We have the incident in which George Floyd died. And it's not just that he died, but that the knee on the neck went on for so many minutes, and there were multiple officers there, and nobody seems to have said, wait a minute - a minute or two has passed; let's calm down here.

BURKE: Exactly. This was not a case of that officer needing to take a beat, as the Minneapolis chief said last night; this was an act of violence - not just the officer who was kneeling on George Floyd, but the officers who stood and did nothing. Their silent in this case was not passive complicity; it was an act of violence that led to the death of George Floyd.

INSKEEP: Paul Butler, given the mixed record that you described for police - many different police, many different responses over the past week - should we feel collectively like nobody's making any progress, given that there has been this string of deaths?

BUTLER: Absolutely not. There are better practices and there are worse practices. These issues became prominent when President Obama was in office, and he commissioned a task force that came up with some very constructive recommendations that the Trump administration put in the garbage can. So Obama talked about the need to change the culture of policing.

Think about guardians versus warriors. Warriors is what you have now - us against them. Police feel like they're almost enemies to the people who they're supposed to be protecting and serving. So what about a guardian? If you think about who wants to be a guardian, that's a whole different model than who wants to be a warrior.

Their commission also recommended de-escalation. Police have to know how to talk to people. Nobody likes to be arrested, but there are ways that officers can diffuse tension. The other really important thing is police should only use violence to make arrests when it's absolutely necessary. Mr. Floyd was being arrested for using a fake $20 bill. Is that a crime that should lead to that kind of force? Mr. Garner in New York, he was put in a chokehold. Police were trying to arrest him for selling a single tobacco cigarette.

And we have to be smart on crime, not tough on crime. And I think there - again, there are better policies. This isn't rocket science. We know lots of police departments are doing the right things now. Problem - no national standards regarding competency, training, use of force. And so, again, we've got these 18,000 different approaches to these fundamental problems.

INSKEEP: Kim Burke, I'm going to give you, I think, the last word here. Where do generations of history fit into this? Because this isn't just a problem of the last five years, to state the obvious. Where does the history - how much does that weigh here? And how do people manage and deal with that?

BURKE: The outpouring of grief and outrage cannot be understood in the eight minutes and 46 seconds it took to murder George Floyd. It is, like you said, the product of 400 years of theft and rape and murder of black bodies. And it is the product of a debt owed to black America that we know with certainty can be repaid, that systemic change can, in fact, happen almost overnight, as evidenced by the changes that happened during this global pandemic, and it is undeniable now. And what we're seeing in cities across the nation and the world is an unwillingness to wait for progress any longer.

INSKEEP: Kim Burke is with the Center for Policing Equity. Thanks very much for your remarks this morning. Really appreciate it.

BURKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And we also spoke with Georgetown University law professor Paul Butler, who's a former prosecutor. Thanks to you.

BUTLER: Great to be with you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "LUCIDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.