Reimagining a broken system of policing

A police officer reads a protester's sign. Photo by Tyler Buchanan.

America’s criminal legal system is broken. Policing is part of that system and is no exception. In fact it’s where it all begins. It’s hard to imagine that any system with roots in slave patrols, groups of armed white men who enforced slave laws, can be just. So it’s no surprise that we have seen the harsh reality of police violence time and again against people of color.

The ACLU and other advocates and activists have called for sweeping police reform for decades. Some cities have even implemented reform. But we must acknowledge that across the country, reform has not solved the problem of excessive force and the killing of Black people. Why? Sometimes when a piece of pottery shatters you simply can’t put it back together—especially when it was flawed at its casting. Police violence cannot be addressed without re-imagining their role in our communities and ensuring our system doesn’t enable flagrant misconduct.

Over the years, various laws have been passed to allow people to sue government actors who violate their rights through discrimination, police brutality, an illegal search, etc. This provision is now known as Section 1983 of the U.S. code. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has whittled down the original intent of this law through something called qualified immunity. Qualified immunity shields police officers from liability even in some of the most egregious cases and therefore permits police and other government officials to violate people’s rights with near impunity. For example, a court granted qualified immunity to Officer Terence Garrison, who let his police dog maul a homeless man whom he knew was innocent. Justice Sotomayor has lamented that qualified immunity is the authority for police officers to “shoot first and think later.”

Police unions and the way they use a closed door collective bargaining process also create hurdles to accountability and meaningful change. We don’t need to look far for examples. The Justice Department investigation into the Cleveland Division of Police was hindered because the union contract required the deletion of disciplinary records every two years. That makes oversight and actual accountability nearly impossible. 

This problem is systemic. There are no current incentives for police to respect our constitutional rights; and no current mechanisms to hold them accountable for when they fail to do so.

Over the past several weeks, we have seen tens of thousands of demonstrators take to the streets to demand justice in the name of George Floyd and all Black people whose lives have been violently ended at the hands of the police. In many cases, police have responded by using pepper spray, tear gas, bean bag and wooden bullets, sound weaponry, and other harsh “less lethal” crowd control measures. Hundreds of people across Ohio have been swept up in mass arrests. At least one person who attended a protest in Columbus died within days of being exposed to pepper spray. In response to protests about police violence, the police responded with violence. While the Columbus Police Department will no longer be allowed to use tear gas for crowd control and is limiting the use of pepper spray, it’s not enough. Replacing pepper spray with other weapons or surveillance tools isn’t progress. Nothing will change unless Ohio’s leaders stop turning away from the people crying out for change. Not just in one city, but statewide.

It is time for Ohio to stop discussing change and actually start investing in it. In Franklin County, the 2020 budget illustrates all too well where priorities lie. The current annual budget includes nearly $360 million dollars for police, $271 million for fire, under $30 million for Development, and a measly $26 million for Health.  It is easy to see why there is a growing movement calling to defund the police. What if even a fraction of the monumental funding police have received over the years was invested in community-based services aimed at improving health and education outcomes? What would Ohio look like if we divested from policing systems and reinvested those savings in communities historically harmed by police? 

Now is not the time to aim low, double down on failed policy or fall for the myth of training away the problems of modern policing. We are at a crossroads, and we have a choice to make. Are we going to stop failing Black people and people of color and put an end to police violence? This moment is centuries in the making. We have a once in a lifetime chance to stand on the right side of history.

Jocelyn Rosnick
Jocelyn Rosnick is the Policy Director for the ACLU of Ohio. She joined the ACLU of Ohio staff in 2012, where she has used her legal, communications, and organizing skills to move between departments and work on a variety of high-level projects. In addition to her work with the ACLU, she coordinates the Ohio Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild which trains individuals to be legal observers at demonstrations in order to safeguard protestor’s constitutional rights. Jocelyn received her B.A. in sociology with an emphasis on social inequality from West Virginia University. Although a Mountaineer at heart, Jocelyn moved to Cleveland to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law, where she received her Juris Doctor in 2012.