Grab your gardening tools and let’s get to work.
During the unrest in Minneapolis in the spring of 2020, I had the privilege of living with my best friend for a few months. It was fantastic! She has a great house not far from where we both grew up and a wonderful came-with-the-picture-frame family. I cannot overstate enough how much I adore them! My bestie is an avid gardener and I…am not.
I sat on the deck out of the way and watched her garden, repeatedly asking her, “What’s this?” and “What’s that?” in relation to the plants. She has all the gardening tools like shovels, hand trowels, rakes, and gardening shears. “What’s that for?” I’d ask continually. (I’m lucky she loves me!) She patiently explained each tool is designed for a specific purpose, but in totality, they’re used to maintain the garden so it’s not only aesthetically pleasing, but also so each plant has a chance to thrive.
After a few months, I moved into the city. I now Iive in the shadows of the Hennepin County Government Center where the murder trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derick Chauvin is taking place. The former officer’s murder of George Floyd has ratcheted up the heat under the already-existing debate on police reform, not just in Minneapolis, but across the country. And in the last week of the trial, national news broke the story of 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario who was pulled over and cruelly assaulted by Virginia police. In that same week, just 15 miles north of Minneapolis, Daunte Wright was shot to death for the egregious offense of Driving While Black. Days later, the world learned Chicago Police murdered a child.
In the wake of this broken record of police misconduct, individually and collectively, I am reminded of the words of former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in the Dred Scott case:
“They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
In 2021, it’s blatantly clear police in the United States have taken Justice Taney’s words from the 1850s to heart.
Between all of this and the recurring mass shootings, I am mentally and emotionally spent. Now I’m not much for the outdoors (and clearly plants) so, admittedly, I didn’t retain much about the gardening sessions with my bestie except for this tidbit: if it’s a dying plant or a weed, yank it out by the root and for trees and bushes trim them back so they don’t choke out the other plants. It is long past time the United States tends to its garden to rid itself of the relics of slavery, and this includes police. But what can we do about it? Well, let’s head into the gardening shed and see what we have to work with:
1. End qualified immunity. Too much fertilizer is dangerous for the overall environment and that’s what qualified immunity has been. For the uninitiated, qualified immunity is, in short, what allows police to brutalize, intimidate, and murder folks (particularly in minority communities) with impunity and claim, “I feared for my life!” The worst part about qualified immunity, as explained to me by a lawyer friend, is that police have to first violate your rights in order to be told (usually by the courts) that they cannot violate your rights. If subsequent violations are not done in the exact same way as the initial violation, they can then claim “Whoops! My bad. I didn’t know.” The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act aims at helping to narrow this legal loophole, but it needs to be cinched shut entirely. Ending qualified immunity altogether means police officers would be held criminally and civilly liable for their transgressions just as any other citizen would be given the same actions. Without this excuse, police would be more apt to behave more professionally and judiciously in situations that would otherwise cause them to allegedly “fear for their lives.”
2. Disband police unions. Police unions are the weeds that look like flowers and need to be snatched out by the root. Combined with qualified immunity, police unions are chiefly responsible for what allows the bad apples to destroy the entire bunch. They consistently and continuously allow bad actors to keep their jobs by concealing and covering up heinous acts of brutality — and worse — engaging in state sanctioned murder with impunity. If we are to have a meaningful conversation about the future of policing that leads to consequential action, police unions have no place in our quest for public safety. None. Period.
3. Defund the police. Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen this phrase as it’s bad marketing. As you sit there and clutch your pearls at the very idea of it, it doesn’t mean what the average person thinks it means. We are a society, and societies have laws that need to be enforced. We are also a society of people with differing needs. Unfortunately, to police, every problem is a nail to which they are the hammer. We don’t need police responding to well checks and mental health calls. As citizens, we need to get it through our heads that we cannot — and should not — be calling police with the same entitlement we call for a manager because we’re upset with the store clerk. If police are to actually “protect and serve,” they need to create effective partnerships with activists and community leaders to reallocate funding to sustainable initiatives that actually aim and succeed at keeping the community and public at large safe. We’ve created root rot by overwatering municipal and state law enforcement agencies with more money, personnel, and militarized weapons.
4. End pretextual stops. There’s no need to kill a perfectly growing plant. Pretextual stops are what led to Daunte Wright and Philando Castile being pulled over and — as we all now know — murdered. Pretextual stops are what allowed Officer Jeronimo Yanez to say, “Your tail light was out.” and former Officer Kim Potter to stop Daunte Wright for “bad license plate tabs” in the middle of a global pandemic and Officers Gutierrez and Crocker to pull over and subsequently viciously assault a member of our armed forces threatening his life and career because he was lacking a readily visible temporary license plate. As Public Defender Mary Moriarty argued in her 2019 column, these sorts of stops disproportionally affect non-white motorists and are nothing more than a fishing expedition to find criminal activity. Put another way, police can pull you over for Driving While Black and lie about the reason for doing so. Despite what you’ve been led to believe, these stops are not as dangerous for police as they are for motorists of color.
5. Demand initial and ongoing implicit bias and anti-racism screening and training for police. As we work toward a more just society, we need to recognize and admit that systemic racism has poisoned the well. It’s time, like we do with weeds, to rip it out by the roots. Black people can’t stop being Black, but police sure can quit being police if they are seen to harbor and or begin to harbor racist and phobic sentiments toward any segment of society. This also means working to reform our criminal justice system that doles out unequal penalties to non-white folks. Does implicit bias training change anything? The jury is still out on that, but it’s another tool in the shed to cull the bad apples from the bunch.
6. No more guns. We have a gun problem in the United States. Full stop. The overall debate on gun control is another discussion for another time, but as it relates to policing in this country, it is a conversation that needs to be had forthwith. It is a discussion, in fact, I recently had with a friend of mine who is an immigrant to the United States. He’s all for training and education, but because I’ve seen this film before, I’m a little more radical about the change that needs to happen. We do, however, both agree on one thing: American police shouldn’t be able to carry weapons. If a 26-year police veteran so carelessly — and I’m being generous — “mistakes” a gun from a taser, she doesn’t deserve to carry either. If police are trained in de-escalation tactics and yet their inclination to solve an issue is to escalate by enacting deadly force by means of a firearm, it’s time to rethink trusting them with the hefty responsibility of patrolling our communities with a deadly weapon. It’s widely known that police in the United Kingdom don’t carry weapons and are able to effectively enforce laws, but they are not alone in this. Additionally, there are 18 other countries in the world with police forces that do not carry weapons. If it works in those countries, then it can work in the United States.
7. Abolish the police. I grew up south of the Minnesota River. The river valley is a beautiful sight with wetlands and native grasses that can sometimes grow out of control. To keep ecological balance, the Department of Natural Resources uses a time-tested method of what’s called a “prescribed burn”. In short, they set fire to prairie areas to rejuvenate growth. Police departments across the country have proven they cannot and will not be reformed, which means we don’t have just a few bad apples. We have a rotting and festering orchard. If all else fails, perhaps we do need to go scorched earth to fix our current model of law enforcement and rebuild it from the ground up so that each and every citizen of this country is protected equally, justly, and respectfully in every regard. That cannot and will not happen if we continue on the current path.
None of these ideas are fool proof, but it’s clear the status quo cannot continue. It’s time to grab our shovels and shears and other tools from our gardening shed and start tending to our garden. It’s going to be dirty and messy, but it’s necessary work so we can all thrive.