Over the past several months the news has been full of stories about police violence and protests against it. Ferguson, and Michael Brown. Cleveland and Tamir Rice. New York and Eric Garner. There have been protests around the country, and a lot of discussion about not just police racism, but racism in society as a whole. We can point to the amount of use of deadly force by police around the country, often as a first resort, not a last. The protests and discussions have finally made it clear that “Things aren’t right,” even though they haven’t been all along. People are fed up, and they have every right to be. The protests are a first step. They’ve called attention to the problem, made it clear that it’s not just a “fringe issue,” and that action is required.
Action, though, is going to take a while. It’s going to be slow, spotty, and at times frustrating. It’s not enough to march in the streets and demand that things change, it means the hard work of getting that change into place. Here’s the problem: There are over 17,000 police forces in this country. They aren’t controlled by the federal government, they aren’t even controlled by a state government. They’re local police. County sheriffs, town, village, and city police forces. They’re controlled by local governments.
That is who is negotiating contracts, setting policies, and doing the hiring. They’re the ones who appoint chiefs, set budgets for training, and whatever accountability those police agencies have. You want to change how police behave, and hold them accountable? You have to change the people who set the policies – the local governments. Sometimes just protesting will get them to act, but other times you’re going to have to change who is sitting on those city/town/county councils and the mayors/executives. That means that now we should be looking around for people like that, if they’re not in office.
You see, next year is also an election year in many parts of the country. Not the “big elections” that grab everyone’s attention, but the local elections. Local officials like mayors, district attorneys, county sheriffs, judges, and council members. If the current ones are not willing to address the issues, then get someone who will. It won’t be easy, or quick. Let’s be honest, many areas don’t want to change, and many police agencies won’t. Changing a departmental culture takes time, and often requires new contracts. It’ll take time, and continuing pressure.
Does that mean that it’s not worth doing? Of course not! It also doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t be pressing the national government and their state governments. Both not only pass laws, but they also set standards and a portion of the local police agencies budgets. Even the most recalcitrant place will find it within their hearts to implement changes when failing to do so means … less money.
Protests are a good first step. Thousands of people marching in the streets is a definite wake-up call. But, now begins the long, slow work to get changes made, and its going to take years. Elections matter, but they’re not all the time. Cultural shifts take time as well. It takes determination and patience to make it happen.