Race and Policing

April 2021

(Washington, DC) : Benjamin F. Wilson, Chair of the Environmental Law Institute’s Board, and Scott Fulton, ELI President, released the following statement in light of recent, tragic events that continue to unfold in our Nation:

Even as the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin serves to return focus to George Floyd’s public killing last Spring and to the calls that followed for reforms in policing tactics, we see in recent events that needed reforms remain elusive and that the status quo in policing practices continues to prevail. Rule of law depends on, among other things, protection of fundamental rights. Without such protection, respect for law itself and the organs of government charged with effectuating law necessarily suffers, and rule of law erodes. The status quo in policing is eroding rule of law before our eyes.   

Recently, Daunte Wright, a black man, was shot and killed by a Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, police officer, just 10 miles away from the murder of George Floyd last May. The tragedy began with a routine traffic stop because of expired plates, and escalated with discovery that Wright had an outstanding warrant. It would appear that Wright was resisting arrest, and, after the arresting officer shouted “taser” three times, Wright was shot and killed by a single bullet from the officer’s gun. The stated reason for this clearly avoidable incident? That in the heat of the moment the officer had mistakenly grabbed her gun instead of her taser, thus pulling the wrong trigger. 

Video released this week of the March 29th killing in Chicago of 13-year-old Latino Adam Toledo revealed another fatal error. The teenager, while earlier seen holding a gun while being chased by the police, had apparently tossed the gun behind a fence before turning, empty hands up and clearly visible, in response to the officers command that he do so. The officer nonetheless fired a shot that killed the boy. No explanation has yet been offered for this shooting. 

And then there was the recent arrest in Windsor, Virginia, of second lieutenant Carlos Nazario, who is Black and Latino, and was stopped for driving because his temporary tags were allegedly not visible to the officers involved. The video of the arrest, which combines the officers’ body-cam footage with the footage from Nazario’s dashboard camera, is must-watch viewing for anyone seeking understanding of the policing dynamics that continue to lead to tragedy. Here we see a guns-drawn intervention and an abusive, violent shakedown of a man wearing the fatigues reflective of committed service to this country — all precipitated by the most pedestrian of traffic stops.      

We have arrived at a perilous place where armed interventions lead us over and over again to crises of judgment and/or conscience, with often fatal consequences, borne disproportionately by people of color.

At a minimum, these cases cry out for more national police training with respect to the handling and use of firearms by police officers. In addition, the need for training with respect to how one should conduct an arrest and on the  urgency to “de-escalate” confrontations between the police and the community they are charged to protect is undeniable. Beyond this, we need to rethink which circumstances warrant the intervention by armed officers of the law and which arguably do not, recognizing that each such intervention carries with it the potential for escalation, judgment issues like racial profiling and differential response, and human error or abuse. Might technology offer a possible solution for at least some cases? For example, imagine if the issue with Nazario’s temporary tag was resolved by a photograph rather than guns, akin to how we now routinely process speed and red light citations. Might this have avoided a late-at-night confrontation unnecessarily putting at risk both the arresting officers and the driver?

The training and rethinking of which we speak is not tomorrow’s work — it is today’s work. Until we get after it in earnest, there is no basis for expecting a change in outcome, and avoidable tragedies will continue to occur. As Einstein is credited for saying, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Time to change the approach.