It has been almost three years since the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests and started what became a national reckoning on race and on police and their relationship with communities of color. The recent killing of Tyre Nichols, which resulted in second-degree murder charges against five Memphis police officers, however, showed both that the problems are far from being resolved and that the country’s reactions may also have shifted, said a group of Kennedy School experts  who discussed policing and racial justice at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum on Monday. The panelists included: Cornell William Brooks, a professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice, director of the William Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Center for Public Leadership, and the former president and CEO of the NAACPP; Yanilda María González, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, whose research focuses policing, state violence, and democracy with a special focus on Latin America; and Sandra Susan Smith, the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and director of the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy, whose recent work has focused on the consequences of pretrial detention. Setti Warren, interim director of the Institute of Politics, moderated the conversation. The panelists’ responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.


On the difference in the public reaction to the murder of Tyre Nichols compared to that of George Floyd:

Yanilda Gonzalez.Yanilda Gonzalez: “I want to share three points. The first is that the case emerged shortly after aggregate data on police killings. Tyre Nichols was one of some 1,100 or so cases that happened over the past year. I think that this could be one of the unintended consequences of counting: It becomes easier for us to see these killings as a number, in some respects, normalized, as part of our reality. A second element that I think is important, as you know, is the race of the officers [the officers charged in the Nichols case are Black]. The third: there was some element of cynicism.”

Sandra Susan Smith: “It occurs to me that the response to the George Floyd murder was itself the anomaly, not the norm.  We were all captive audiences during a period where we were all locked up and getting a bit cabin sick. And here this thing happens, and we're all there, we're watching it, we can see it, and we don't have anything else to do.”

Cornell Brooks: “We need to be absolutely honest with ourselves as a country. Policing is in a state of crisis, and we still have people talking about reform, right? There's no other industry in the country that's literally in a state of crisis and to the equal degree in a state of collective self-denial. That's where we are.”


On the value of watching the graphic videos showing people being beaten and killed by police:

Gonzalez: “As somebody who, for about half of my life, has been working on issues of police violence, I don't feel that I need to see it to be convinced that this is a problem, nor do I think that, mentally, it benefits me. One of my students insisted on watching the film, invoking Mamie Till and her decision to have an open casket. The importance of bearing witness is powerful, so we need to think about how to find ground in between.”

Sandra Susan Smith.Smith: “We don't learn anything more about police brutality. We learn about the individual cases, but it doesn't tell us anymore. It doesn't bring us or get any closer to true justice, which is, I think, to get to a place where we don't experience 3 1/2 people being murdered by police every day. I'm not convinced that that is what is healthy for us. And I worry that as a culture, as a society, that we have become so desensitized that this has become such a spectacle that we literally sit down and wait for it to come on as if it's another program on television. It's on our latest reality program.”

Brooks: “I am in favor of watching it—all of it—not because there's any voyeuristic pleasure, but rather we need those who bear witness, but we also need witnesses. I'm a lawyer, I believe not everyone, but we need some people watching the tape. We need some people noting the facts, we need some people relaying the facts, because we have a great many people in this country who are in denial about what the facts are.”


On how to prevent these incidents from happening in the future:

Gonzalez: “Think about the case of Iceland where, in 2013, they had their very first police killing since their independence in 1944 and it was considered a national tragedy. And so, what if every time there was a police killing, we saw it as a national tragedy and we took every step possible to prevent it. I think that that kind of zooming out could help us shift how we think about these things and no longer normalize these kinds of practices.”

Smith: “I think we could effectively address so many of the social problems that we've asked our criminal legal system to take on. I do think we are very much in a place where we can de-center police. I think we can remove police from traffic enforcement—I think you can train a civilian force to do that work, and it would dramatically reduce the number of encounters between police and civilians. We have a growing body of research that shows that you could address crime, including violent crime, with non-police approaches. You can do that by dealing with the physical environment that people live in, greening spaces, dealing with abandoned buildings, lighting, some security cameras (which I'm feeling a little uncomfortable about). But research shows it makes a difference, so that's one area you can support. Kids—encourage them. Summer jobs actually dramatically reduce crime, including violent crime. And over many months, well beyond the summer, the impacts exist. And we know that the impacts are as strong, if not stronger than some of the approaches to policing that we know so much about.”

Cornell William Brooks.Brooks: “Make the public aware that there are things that have been done that work, such as closing down children’s “reform schools” in Massachusetts. We need to do more of them. What you call transformation is simply getting out of the business of things that don't work, that kill people, and that cost a lot of money, and getting into the business of things that do work, and save people's lives.”

A Conversation About Policing and Racial Justice

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