The past 18 months have seen an unprecedented debate in the United States over the police and the use of force. The killing of unarmed African-Americans by police has thrust the racial tensions that many white people were unaware of or ignored into the national spotlight.
Tremendous damage has been done in African-American, Latino, and Native American communities by police forces. These communities are targeted at a much higher rate than white communities and are subjected to the use of force much more frequently. Police in the United States in general use lethal force far more than in other industrialized countries.
Why is this the case? Some argue that the U.S. has more violent crime than other countries, and that harsh policing in the areas where crime exists is necessary. But China, a country with an overall population more than four times that of the U.S. and a similar number of homicides, saw only fourteen deaths caused by police in 2014. In that same year nearly 1,100 people were killed by police in the U.S.
Policing without the use of lethal force is common across Europe and Canada, as well as other parts of the globe. What is preventing the U.S. from implementing such policing?
Police reform in this country faces many obstacles, including many people who refuse to acknowledge the disproportionate use of lethal force based on race. In addition, the federal government supplies local police with military-grade weapons. The Pentagon’s 1033 program has sent $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment to local police departments since 1990. Such equipment includes items that greatly enhance the use of force such as grenade launchers, mine-resistant vehicles, and assault rifles. President Obama placed temporary limits on the program last year, but these limits can easily be removed with a new president and are not enough to de-militarize our police.
As Anabaptists, what can we do? We can advocate for laws that do not conflate police with the military, such as the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. We can educate our elected officials and communities about the dangers of a police force that focuses too much on force and targets communities of color. We can look for ways to positively engage with police, even though their work may seem at odds with Anabaptist values at times. We can recognize that there are many police officers who want to keep communities safe without putting others at risk.
Reforming our police forces will take time and involve advocacy at a number of levels. It is not impossible to have a police force that treats all people fairly, without a default to the use of force, and maintains public safety.
Peace on the Hill is a monthly column in PeaceSigns written by staff of the MCC Washington Office highlighting congressional developments and detailing ways the church can continue to be engaged in the work of peace and advocacy.
Joshua Russell is Legislative Assistant and Communications Coordinator for MCC’s Washington Office