The images were strikingly familiar to me: a bystander’s shocking video of police officers gathered around a defenseless Black suspect and inflicting great bodily harm, images that would capture national attention and calls for police reform.
This was not the George Floyd case, but the recorded police beating of Rodney King in the 1990s. I covered the King federal case as a journalist, and the recent Derek Chauvin criminal trial has dredged up memories of that time.
That case involved the actions of four white officers who repeatedly kicked and struck a kneeling, and unarmed King with batons and zapped him with Tasers.
Thirty years ago, many of us hoped that videotape evidence would lead to accountability and deter unwarranted police brutality and killings. It has not.
Currently, there is, again, some measure of hope for justice and police reform in the wake of the Chauvin conviction. I recall similar talk of hope after a federal jury awarded King $3.8 million for injuries he sustained. It was an important moment considering that a criminal case against the officers had ended in acquittal.
But how many more generations within the Black community will hear of coming reforms; see, at best, some degree of modest changes; then watch the issue disappear from the center stage until the next shocking video? How many more generations will have to bear witness to these horrific events?
In my lifetime this cycle of hopes raised and dashed began early on. While I was a teenager, police misconduct in my hometown in Oakland led my councilmember and civil rights activist father to play a critical role in the 1980s establishing a citizen review board for the police department, likely one of the first in the country.
As a reporter, in court daily for the King federal case and the O.J. Simpson criminal trial, issues of race and policing were front and center. As a Black person, the allegations of misconduct in both cases did not seem as suspect or far-fetched to me as they might have to my white media peers. Ask any Black person about stressful or potentially dangerous encounters with police in their family and they will very likely have stories to share.
Today, it seems, the next generations are coming of age with their own high-profile national cases and calls for reform, whether it is the Trevon Martin case, the Oscar Grant case, or, today, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Every day there are new names to add to the list.
What changes are needed to end this seemingly never-ending cycle?
We know what will not work: treating the issue as one of “a few bad apples” or simply implementing unconscious bias training. Also, the promise of videotape via police body cameras has not provided the results expected. We could send social workers or others out to respond to matters such as mental health calls, but we can anticipate that police calls will be made when that social worker or other person encounters a potentially violent situation that they are not equipped to handle.
Is more federal oversight the answer? Limiting traffic stops handled by police? Clearly, some change is better than continuing with the status quo. However, if we want to end this never-ending, generation to generation Groundhog Day cycle, clearly bigger and broader changes are called for.
At its core, these are cultural issues that involve the perception of people of color, especially Black men. There is that perception that police officers apparently have that they need to be on a heightened sense of alert when they encounter a Black person, especially a male. And many of us know too well the saying among police officers that it is “better to be judged by 12 than carried out by six.”
When it comes to unnecessary use of force, these are too often issues of bias and perception, matters we know to exist in our broader society, whether it is an assumption that a Black person in an upscale grocery store must be working there, or when a white person feels the need to cross the street or hold their purse tighter when encountering a Black man on a street.
What changes are big and broad enough to counter this racist and cultural indoctrination?
I would like to be optimistic. I felt a measure of relief with the Chauvin verdict. But there is a reason that I, and many other Black people, are skeptical about the verdict sparking any meaningful change. We have all seen this case before.