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There Are Good Policing Rules—Why Won’t Officers Use Them With People of Color?

“The good stuff never applies to people of color, ever.”

After the death of Michael Brown in 2014, and ensuing demonstrations and police response in Ferguson,MO., the Obama Administration created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a report including 150 recommendations for law enforceme,Scott Lum / Flickr.

Do you know Peel’s Principles of Policing? I didn’t. That is, until I spoke with Melvin Carter Jr., a retired St. Paul, Minnesota, police officer who wouldn’t talk to me about the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez in the shooting-death of Philando Castile until I read up on Peel’s Principles.

Here’s what I learned: In 1829, a member of the British Parliament named Sir Robert Peel wrote nine principles for policing communities. They include, “the police must secure the willing cooperation of the public” and “the police should use only the minimum degree of physical force necessary on any particular occasion.”

Every cop in the United States should have learned them. Carter did when he joined the St. Paul Police Department in 1975, after the city was sued for failing to hire Black officers. He served 27 years on the force, first as a patrol officer, then as a detective, then as an Internal Affairs investigator. Carter comes from a celebrated African American family in St. Paul. His father, Melvin Carter Sr., was a jazz musician (who died earlier this month), and his son is running for mayor of St. Paul. Carter created the organization Save Our Sons, a mentorship program for young men of color, and was instrumental in creating the Juvenile Detention Alternative Center. 

He’s now an elder-figure on matters of race and policing in the Twin Cities.

Voices in and around law enforcement seem to agree that Peel’s rules are good ones. Carter wanted me to know them, because he wanted me to understand that Peel’s Principles don’t apply to Black people.

“The good stuff never applies to people of color. Ever,” he said.

Carter distills the division between Minnesotans of color and their police departments down to the difference between policing and law enforcement. Policing—as defined by Sir Robert Peel—only applies to white people. People of color are subject to law enforcement, a phrase that “flip-flops policing, from prevention to suppression.”

Carter described the death of Philando Castile as “the cruelest, most inhuman” act from police he’s ever seen. Today, the man who shot him is free, and police are justifying the result. A Twin Cities officer said of the verdict, “Police didn’t make that decision. The jury made a decision based on the law.” When the public hears officers defending Yanez, said Carter Jr., “we as Black people hear them defending the right to stop us, to execute us.”

Black Americans, Carter said, can’t trust law enforcement, because law enforcement is not about public trust. “Without trust and the confidence of the community served, it’s not policing. It’s law enforcement.”

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Can Law Enforcement be Reformed?

Policing and law enforcement are often used interchangeably. As Carter defines them, they are different. Policing is about prevention, while “law-enforcement is a direct descendent of the culture and the conditions that came to us through the system of slavery and Jim Crow.” This is true across the nation, but Minnesota carries its own Jim Crow legacy, Carter said, referring to the lynching deaths of three men in 1920 in Duluth. The crime shocked a nation that didn’t believe such things could happen that far north.

Decades later not much has changed.

After the death of Michael Brown in 2014, and ensuing demonstrations and police response in Ferguson, Missouri, the Obama Administration created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which issued a report including 150 recommendations for law enforcement agencies in the U.S.

“When we talk about police reform, we’re talking about the guidelines of that task force,” said James Densley, criminologist at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul.

Among the demands of reformers have been calls for more officers of color, required use of body and dashboard cameras, and access to video footage. The case of Philando Castile, then, would be a likely place to see reform efforts succeed. A Latino officer pulled over a Black man. His dashboard camera and microphone recorded the entire encounter, which led to a rare indictment from Ramsey County prosecutor John Choi.

Still, Yanez was acquitted. Not because these reforms failed, but because “Black male identity is inherently dangerous,” says Bill Woodson, who studies police reform at the University of Minnesota. Police reform cannot solve that problem, Woodson says.

This inequality exists in law enforcement because it exists across American society. Until “society as a whole changes,” the death of a Black man will remain an acceptable price for maintaining our existing justice system. “It’s unpleasant, and it’s sad,” Woodson said, “but it’s not disturbing enough to demand law enforcement show up in a different way.”

Jim Crow North

Six days after Officer Yanez was acquitted, dashcam video surfaced out of Worthington, Minnesota, of an officer pulling over a vehicle, opening the car door and pummeling the driver before pulling him to the ground and violently arresting him. The driver, Anthony Promvongsa, is a Laotian American. The circumstances of that arrest remain largely unknown, but the ACLU has called for an investigation. Once again in Minnesota, questions about police abuse have emerged, and with them, the common refrain about cops.

“These guys just want to get home at the end of the night,” a former deputy sheriff from Minnesota, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me. Officers are doing an “impossible job,” Densley said.

The notion, true as it may be, obscures what Bill Woodson believes is the underlying reality of Officer Yanez’s acquittal: “Officers value their own lives more than the lives of the people they protect.”

While the tenets of Peel’s Principles are “championed by most law enforcement educators and practitioners in the United States,” Densley said, the relationship of law enforcement and people of color have yet to benefit from those rules.

After Yanez’s not-guilty verdict, civil rights lawyer and former Minneapolis NAACP President Nekima Levy-Pounds had something to say about that relationship. “We call it the Jim Crow North, here,” she said.