Politics

Would the Death Penalty Deter Killer Cops?

Protesters raise their fists in front of a mural of George Floyd.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Kerem Yucel/AFP via Getty Images.

Listen to A Word … With Jason Johnson:

This week, a Minnesota jury declared what many of us have said from the start: Ex-cop Derek Chauvin is a murderer. But can a conviction for the killing George Floyd lead to justice for other killer cops?

For many Americans, Chauvin’s conviction marked a milestone in the fight for police reform. On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with professor James D. Ward, who has spent his career studying racism and policing. He’s the editor and contributing writer for the book Policing and Race in America: Economic, Political, and Social Dynamics. He’s also the interim director of the master of public policy program and a visiting professor at Cal Poly. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Jason Johnson: When you heard that Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges in the death of George Floyd, what was your immediate reaction like? Were you relieved, surprised? Did you feel something else?

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James D. Ward: Well, I felt that it was a right decision. I was relieved only from the standpoint that I felt that it is a beginning. But if you look at the history of policing and race in this country, and at the history of police officers not been held accountable for thei actions, it is not something that’s going to bring about justice in the broader sense. It is something that gives a glimmer of hope, but I do not see it as justice from the standpoint of the wider injustice that has been done so far. A lot still needs to be done.

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How did that bring you hope? It just reminded me of the ridiculous threshold required for a Black person to even get a nominal scintilla of justice in this country.

What happened in Minnesota, as far as the conviction of this one police officer, it’s not something that we can automatically say, “Well, it’s going to happen now in every other state and every other jurisdiction.” That’s not the case, but I said that it is a glimmer of hope from the standpoint that it can be done if people do what’s right. If law enforcement officials, and public officials, if society says this is wrong, but I think it’s going to take a change in the American culture. It’s going to take a change as far as how the American culture sees race, and law enforcement is simply an extension of the greater American culture. So law enforcement does not operate in a vacuum. Until the American culture changes as far as implicit bias, as far as how it sees African Americans and other people of color, until that changes, you’re not going to have any kind of transformational change within the police department or within law enforcement.

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It’s interesting, you mentioned unconscious bias. So Monday, the presiding judge, Peter Cahill, instructed the jury to consider the role of unconscious bias in their deliberations. How rare is it for judges or prosecutors, during the trial, to tell the jury to think about unconscious bias? Is that common, or is that something new, and something we should expect down the road in this country?

It’s been very well-shown that implicit bias exists. And so when I was talking about the cultural change, as far as how society views race, and how that has to extend to law enforcement, I guess you could say it’s an extension of society that includes implicit bias or unconscious bias. We have to get to the point in this nation where it doesn’t matter what color a person is, what background a person is. Law enforcement has to come to the point where it applies its training equally across different neighborhoods, across different communities, regardless of socioeconomic status, regardless of racial or ethnic makeup of that community. And the same type of public safety, the same type of serve and protect mentality that law enforcement provides in middle-class white neighborhoods, it can provide in urban communities of color.

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All too often, we have to look at this in the view of how some white Americans look at this issue. And you said that you know white conservatives, even Trump voters, who thought that Chauvin was guilty. Are you concerned that white Americans across the spectrum are going to say, “See, the system works. He ended up being convicted.” And not be interested in long-term police reform?

Yes. I think it’s very similar to when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Many people said, “Well, now we have a Black president, so we don’t have racism anymore.” And I think that I can see that in a very similar situation.

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This is a big thing for me. And I came to this conclusion last summer after seeing what was happening and researching it. I’m in favor of abolishing policing as we know it. I don’t think it works. I don’t think that we can train people out of what’s going on. From your perspective, do you think that is possible? And from a theoretical standpoint, what would abolishing police and rebuilding a public safety system look like? Because it’s not like people don’t still need protection.

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I do believe that the language that’s used—as far as abolishing the police to defunding the police—is something that may not go over well with certain elements on the right wing. However, I do agree with you that because of the culture that exists within American society, because of the culture that exists within law enforcement, that it does need to be cut down, and then allow it to be built back up.

So, this is my theory on how you do it, right? You take a look at your average police department, you say, “All right, what percentage of the time are you making traffic stops? What percentage of the time are you dealing with domestic disputes? What percentage of the time are you actually preventing violent crime? What percentage of the time are you hanging out at local high schools?” And you look at what police are actually doing. Then you re-create forces that are specifically designed to handle those issues. Like, I don’t need an armed cop showing up at every single traffic stop.

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I think the whole fact that police officers have guns, they have a badge, they’re empowered by that, allows them to use excessive force, and it allows them to kill people and get away with it because of qualified immunity and other protections. There are certain instances where police officers should not be involved. So defunding the police, abolishing the police, or whatever term you want to use to make it more palatable to American public, I think is the way to go.

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What, in your own personal experience, led you to focus on race and policing? Something always drives us. What drove you look at race and policing?

Well, when I was a young assistant professor, I was stopped by a police officer around 11 at night. I had just finished teaching a class and had gone for a jog—had on running shorts and sweaty T-shirt—and I’m thinking, “Well, something must be wrong with my car. Maybe there is a taillight out something.” So I pulled over, waiting for the police officer to come and tell me what’s wrong with my car, and I noticed I was staring down the barrel of a gun, ordered from my car at gunpoint, mistreated like a common thug. I did not get a ticket, once he found out that I didn’t have a criminal record. That was my first encounter with policing and race. It all goes back to implicit bias.

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Martin Luther King said a long time ago that “A changed law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me.” And I think that it gets to changing the laws to the point where police officers know that they cannot engage in certain types of behavior and go unpunished. It gets back to the laws because you cannot pass laws that will make people say, “Well, we’re not going to be racist anymore. We’re not going to treat people badly because of the color of their skin.” But you can pass laws to make them say, “Well, we’re not going to treat people badly within law enforcement.” Like, “I’m not going to engage in this kind of force that can lead to a death because I will be punished for it.”

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And I think that the emphasis has to be on changing the behavior from the standpoint of the penalties that these law enforcement officials know they will face if they continue to engage in this type of behavior. If you can continue to convict these law enforcement officials, these police officers, if it’s aggravated, uncalled for, give them the death penalty. That’s how you change the behavior. That’s how you make a law that keeps police officers from shooting and killing unarmed Black suspects.

Which is an interesting theory, because again, most activists would tell you that the death penalty is not a deterrent for violent crime. So, why would the fear of the death penalty have any greater impact on a police officer than it would on the average person who’s trying to carjack?

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Because with law enforcement, it’s a profession. And I think that they know if they want to advance in the profession, if they want a future in this profession, when they go through training, they will become very familiar with the fact that certain police officers have gone to jail, have been sentenced to death, or these types of actions. And I think that when you look at it from the standpoint of a law enforcement profession, then you begin to change the culture. That’s how you change the culture within the profession.

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I think about police, military police officers, and the rate of death in interactions with military police officers—it’s hard to get access to this information. But it is significantly lower than what we have amongst regular private citizens. I’ve always thought that’s because if you are a military officer and you get a call about a domestic dispute on base, that is the most high-risk situation you could be in, right? Because you know, you’re dealing with a trained soldier, at least, you know they might be armed, and yet we don’t hear about military police officers often having to use deadly force.

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And I think the core of that is because they see that other person as a fellow soldier, and they’re going to do whatever it is that they can to try to deescalate the situation and bring that person in before taking their life. That’s not how your average white cop sees your average Black person. They don’t see them as sharing a similar bond. So when you talk about how we need to make a cultural change, how the heck are we going to do that? Is that a Joe Biden speech? Is that electing a lot more Black people to office? How are we going to make that cultural change?

Well, you talk about the culture that exists with the new military, and that same culture that exists with the military does not exist in civilian law enforcement. If civilian law enforcement were to see every suspect, Black, white, Asian, regardless of race, as an equal, as this person can be my relative, this person could be my brother, this person could be my sister, they don’t see that. They see that Black person or that person of color as a threat. If that way of operating and the military police could be transferred to civilian police, that would make a difference.

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