Open letter to my fellow members of law enforcement:
I do not want to dismiss the importance of training and the emphasis on the recognition of implicit bias that is ingrained in American Law Enforcement culture. Making illegal the carotid artery hold, commonly referred to as the “choke hold”, is low hanging fruit and should be legislated out of policing nationally for it is an equivalent to lynching without a rope but at the hands of persons sworn to protect and serve the community. Necessary changes, however, in and of themselves fall woefully short of the complete overhaul that is needed in law enforcement in the United States of America.
The disproportionate numbers of black, brown and disenfranchised Americans that are over-policed fundamentally will not change if we only focus on tactics and training without acknowledging the structural and systemic racism that policing in America is responsible for. The over-incarceration of black and brown Americans and ostensibly criminalizing being poor are inequities ingrained in American policing that cannot simply be trained out of the hearts of the 1.5 million plus law enforcement officers that work in over 19,000 different police agencies across the United States of America.
I would submit to you that after 33 years in law enforcement; I joined the Detroit Police Department at 19 years old with the noblest of intentions as I would opine that the millions of Americans that have served in that capacity have done and will continue to do as they heed to the call of serving their communities. At the age of 52 I realize that even with the noblest of intentions of police officers in America; we are surreptitiously the instrumentation that enforces the structural and at times exacerbates the social inequities of systemic racism that starts with the first organized police forces in America; slave patrols from Bull Connor to the War on Drugs; the Omnibus Crime bill to the seminal moment
in our history where America witnessed a tipping point moment when George Floyd was murdered by four Minneapolis police officers right in front of what had been for 401 years our proverbial lying eyes.
Anything short of comprehensive reform to American policing is unacceptable. I do not want to be a part of a system that simply causes its officers to be less forceful in its implementation; we cannot afford to simply have systemic racism with a smile. Any meaningful reform of the criminal justice system as it relates to the engagement protocols for police and communities of color to address the disproportionate contact and over-policing of these communities minimally must address and correct the following:
1. The predication for police stops in communities of color. Police Officers have unrestrained discretion as to the predicate for their stops and that discretion is abused in communities of color. As an industry we have not demonstrated the ability to have such unregulated discretion in the predication for police stops that are not directly attributable to a 9-1-1 call for service.
2. Arrestable offenses. There must be a delineation in probable cause arrests that are for offenses that do not pose an imminent or immediate danger to the public. When an offense is not a crime against person and the potential suspect can reasonably be identified; such offenses need to be processed through the not in custody warrant process.
3. Decriminalization of traffic offenses that do not go directly to a physical and tangible potential of imminent danger to the public if continued operation of the motor vehicle were to not cease.
4. Elimination of “no-knock” warrants except for circumstances wherein imminent danger of death or critical injury to persons is reasonably articulated.
5. Review of compensation policies that cause for overtime for officers for their appearance in court based on citations issued. An alternative compensation policy must be adopted to compensate officers accordingly but gives no greater incentive to enforcement with a profit motive for the officer.
6. Equitable sharing formulas for civil asset forfeiture re-engineered for reinvestment in the community wherein the funds were seized as opposed to the coffers of the forfeiting agency; again, removing any profit motive for enforcement.
These measures are in no way all-inclusive of comprehensive criminal justice reform, however, structurally reframes how in a meaningful way the disproportionate benefit of the doubt that has been extended to law enforcement over the persistent and righteous calls to equitable treatment of people of color and the disenfranchised by police. Black people particularly in America have been subjected to 401 years of unspeakable trauma from a system that has not protected them consistently, fairly nor equitably. As law enforcement executives we must own our contribution to this trauma as a profession realizing that there are three physiological stress responses to a trauma which are fight, flee or freeze.
Two of the three responses do not work in favor of the traumatized in a police encounter. Black and brown officers in particular and all officers of good moral character must own these unfortunate facts and be a part of the solution; we can no longer hunker down and proclaim we “bleed blue” while the blood of the least of these we are charged with protecting runs in the streets of America. We cannot fix it until we own it and address it. We may in mass be “good cops” but we are working in a “bad system”. Black lives matter.
Ralph L. Godbee, Jr.
Chief of Police (Detroit Public Schools Community District)
Chief of Police Retired (Detroit Police Department