Police reform is necessary but safety nets are needed first

Ever since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin on May 25, 2020, a renewed drive for a change in the way policing works in the United States has been underway. Floyd was accused of using a suspected counterfeit $20 at a convenience store. It was never determined whether Floyd knew the bill that le​​d to his death was fake as he died under the knee of Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck in excess of eight minutes until his last breath.

Floyd’s death drove demonstrators to the streets in droves to protest the effect policing has had on the country — in particular the citizens who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color.

I said renewed, because the protests witnessed last summer are not new — only their size has grown. Many people have been fighting against police brutality for decades.

In more recent times, in 2016, also in the Twin City region of Minnesota, Philando Castile was shot by police during a traffic stop in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter.

Both men were Black and both were unarmed.

In 2015, The Washington Post began logging fatal shootings by police officers in the United States. As of July 28, 2021, over the previous year, 961 people were shot and killed by police. When the Post discovered that the FBI was undercounting the number of shootings by more than half, it started keeping track.

“The Post’s data relies primarily on news accounts, social media postings and police reports. Analysis of more than five years of data reveals that the number and circumstances of fatal shootings and the overall demographics of the victims have remained relatively constant,” the Post’s database says.

With the year more than half over, the Post’s data is trending toward fewer police shootings in 2021 than in the years since the project began.

The Post’s data also reaffirms the statistic that Black Americans are killed at a much higher rate than white Americans. While Black Americans account for less than 13 percent of the U.S. population, they’re killed at more than twice the rate as white Americans, according to the Post’s data. Hispanic Americans and Indigenous Americans are also killed by police at a disproportionate rate — though the latter was not considered in the Post’s data.

Since Jan. 1, 2015, 6,471 people have been killed by police in the United States.

According to Smithsonian Magazine, modern policing in the U.S. originated in the 1830s and ‘40s, with the Southern states developing its police organizations to capture runaway slaves. It’s no surprise the system has held on to its racist roots.

Much of the nation has been speaking of enacting police reform over the past year — the topic being one of the largest platforms discussed during the most recent presidential election.

This spring, the Washington State Legislature adopted a dozen bills aimed to reduce the incidents of police brutality and deadly force in the state and to initiate an overhaul of the state’s entire policing system. While I applaud most of the efforts taken, I worry about an aspect of particular importance to our community.

Your island newspapers’ editorial team has chosen to remove mental health calls from the Sheriff’s Log each week — to protect the patient as they’re typically not acting illegally. Because of this, you may not be aware of the number of mental health calls the San Juan County Sheriff’s Department responds to on a regular basis.

One aspect of police reform requires law enforcement’s presence at non-crime-related mental health calls be replaced with social workers trained in crisis intervention. In our community, this is a major roadblock to reform. Our islands, though wonderful in many aspects, lacks the mental health care safety net necessary to eliminate the need for law enforcement to respond to these calls.

Until then, it is important the Attorney General expedite his required writing of policy in regards to these new bills as some law enforcement agencies are misinterpreting the rules to mean they cannot physically restrain suspects in any way, shape or form.

Case in point: Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. In March of last year, a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy and two Tacoma police officers were involved in the death of a Black man — Manuel Ellis.

Originally, the sheriff’s department claimed Ellis had attacked the patrol car and officers leading to their use of force. However, video of the incident shows officers attacking Ellis, punching, choking, tasing and kneeling on him. Officers put a spit hood on Ellis’ head, hogtied him and an officer pinned Ellis down and was in a “seated position” on Ellis’ back for six to nine minutes, according to prosecutors.

Ellis’ cause of death, per the medical examiner, was hypoxia — a lack of oxygen — due to physical restraint, the prosecutors said. Besides the officers involved, there were eyewitnesses to Ellis’ death. In May of this year, the three officers involved were charged with manslaughter and second-degree murder.

Somehow, the “bad apples” of law enforcement need to be removed so that those who wish to live up to the “Protect and Serve” mantra are actually able to do so. My hope is that with each new bill, we can ultimately become a country where Black, Indigenous and People of Color citizens can interact with law enforcement without the fear of not surviving the encounter.