Mass protests of the murder of George Floyd have swept the nation and have even made their way to Washington County. In the past few weeks we have seen two protests in the city of Washington, another at California University of Pennsylvania and another scheduled for Canonsburg. All have been peaceful and have been organized by various activists throughout the county. But all of them have the same goal: to bring a voice to the black community regarding systemic racism, especially in regards to criminal justice and police brutality. And these protests have already brought about significant changes.
Statues and monuments that silently promote racism have been removed in many cities, including the statue of former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo. In England, protestors tore down a 125-year-old statue of a slave trader. Confederate statues are being removed in cities all over the South. The U.S. Marine Corps banned all public images of the Confederate flag from their installations and even NASCAR has followed suit, banning the image from all of its events and properties. Other major sports leagues have brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront in discussions of their resuming play, including the NFL, where Colin Kaepernick began kneeling in protest of police brutality toward minorities back in 2016.
Another issue that is gaining steam in cities that have seen the most unrest, such as Minneapolis, is that of “defunding” police departments. But the term “defund the police” has been haphazardly thrown around and is not at all accurate. A more apt saying should be “reform the police.” In 2016, Dallas Police Chief David Brown said, “We are asking cops to do too much in this country.” Reforming the police is not about abolishing the police, but making sure they are not the only tool that communities have to combat the issues that plague their area. Police should focus on crimes and criminals, but instead their job forces them to be social workers, medical professionals, education specialists, and mental health counselors, none of which most officers are properly trained to do. The “reform the police” movement would push police departments to employ more qualified professionals to alleviate the heavy burdens that fall on individual police officers, allowing them to focus on what they do best – solving crimes.
President Trump recently signed an executive order that would expand the use of grants for police departments to meet certification standards, create a national database on excessive force complaints, and encourage the use of mental health professionals in responding to non-violent cases. However, presidential executive orders are limited, and it should be up to Congress and state legislatures to pass laws to more fully reform law enforcement institutions.
To that end, the U.S. Senate put forth the Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey joined fellow Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, and others as original co-sponsors of the bill. A few of the key components of the bill include working to end racial and religious profiling, limiting the use of military equipment by local police, and reforming the culture of law enforcement with training to build integrity and trust. Senate Republicans are working on their own reforms, and it is imperative that the sides find common ground to pass bipartisan reforms.
This past week lawmakers in Pennsylvania were doing just that and began the process of passing legislation to help give police the necessary tools to do their jobs. Two separate police reform bills were unanimously passed out of committee and on to the next stages on their way to be voted upon. The first of these bills would mandate more thorough background checks for law enforcement officers, create an electronic database of reasons officers leave employment, including substantiated cases of misconduct, and require agencies to use the database in the hiring of officers. The other bill would mandate additional training for police officers in regard to reporting of child abuse and how to interact with people of various economic and racial backgrounds.
Police officers are held to incredibly high standards, and most do exemplary work protecting our communities. And while many say that a few “bad apples” do not represent all police officers, we must expect more. Doctors, pilots, and even our religious leaders are held to the absolute highest standards, and their mistakes, like those made by police, can have extreme consequences or even lead to death. We need to make sure that police officers are made up of the “best of the best” and have the training and skills to interact with the most vulnerable in our communities. Being a police officer is one of the most difficult, and dangerous, jobs there is, and it is unfair to them and our communities to put them on the streets ill-prepared to deal with the pressures of the role.
To combat racial injustice, elected officials need to act. Unfortunately, Washington County needs to rely on black state representatives and state senators from other parts of the state to speak for the minorities of our county. There are currently only a handful of minorities elected to local seats, such as school boards or city councils, and none hold any countywide or state seats. Hopefully these officials will look to run for higher office and help fight for change. But regardless of the lack of minority leadership in the county, it is the responsibility of all elected officials to fight for those who are the most at risk and fight to end racial injustice. It will not be easy, but changing hearts and minds never is.
Ben Bright is chairman of the Washington County Democratic Committee.