National Opinions

Tie police reform to federal funding

Sherrilyn Ifill
Sherrilyn Ifill NAACP Legal Defense Fund

“That looks like a bad dude.” This was the assessment of a Tulsa police officer of motorist Terence Crutcher as he walked toward his stalled vehicle.

It was made from a police helicopter hundreds of feet in the air. All that could be seen clearly was that Crutcher was an African-American man with his hands in the air. Seconds later, officers used a Taser on Crutcher; less than five seconds later, an officer shot and killed him. As he lay on the pavement bleeding, the officers backed away, offering no medical assistance. Crutcher’s hands were still up — raised on both sides of his head.

As we struggled to absorb these images, Keith Lamont Scott was shot in Charlotte. Scott was waiting in his car to meet his son’s school bus when police, including the plainclothes officer who shot him, pulled up in an unmarked car. Police say Scott exited the car carrying a gun.

While it remains unclear how events unfolded, North Carolina is an open-carry state. But Scott was black. So the officeres were unlikely to regard him as a citizen exercising his Second Amendment rights. He was assumed to be “a bad dude.”

Once again, we have been plunged into the nightmare of videos of police killings of African-Americans. And the narration of the officer in the helicopter in Tulsa, his split-second assessment of Crutcher, is a window into how bias, explicit or implicit, plays a powerful role in how police view African-Americans. All too often, this bias has fatal consequences.

Communities fear that the officers who killed these men will suffer no punishment, a familiar outcome in almost every recent high-profile police-involved killing. The swift indictment of the officer in Tulsa who killed Crutcher may signal the beginning of an important shift in what has been a tradition of impunity for police- involved killings.

But it is also critical that we tackle racial profiling and bias in law enforcement at the root by demanding that local police participate in a national regime of mandatory training — including proper supervision and assessment of bias and, where necessary, discipline and removal of officers from patrol who demonstrate strong and unmanageable indicators of bias.

While policing is largely a state and local function, the federal government annually confers at least $2 billion in grants to police departments. Tulsa has received $14 million since 2010; Charlotte has gotten $4 million. Larger jurisdictions receive considerably more. The Chicago Police Department has received $40 million since 2010.

The federal role is the most efficient way to change policing practices in the more than 18,000 jurisdictions. Federal grant money should be cut off for jurisdictions that refuse to adopt serious and sustained anti-bias training, while those that take the imperative seriously and show improvement should be rewarded.

Under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the federal government has an obligation to ensure that federal funds are not conferred on programs that engage in discrimination. Title VI of the act was instrumental in compelling school districts to begin desegregation, especially in the North, where desegregation was largely driven by the fear of losing critical government funds. Unfortunately, legislation creating police grant programs has language purporting to exempt them from obligations that might threaten funding. This loophole should be closed. No state or local agency should be allowed to make an end run around our hard-won civil rights laws.

The federal government should compel police departments to keep data regarding stops, arrests and use of force, disaggregated by race. It should also compel them to carry out anti-bias training, as well as training in deescalation and managing encounters with the mentally ill, the disabled, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and the young.

Jurisdictions that refuse to engage in these efforts or show consistent lack of progress in measures of bias, racial profiling and disparate policing practices should expect to lose federal funds. It’s time for the federal government to meet its obligations and ensure the billions we give to those entrusted with public safety and the power to take human life are not entangled with discrimination.

Sherrilyn Ifill is the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.