Every legislative session, politicians discuss and debate proposed changes to the many policies that govern the nation’s institutions. Taxes, health insurance, education, criminal justice, child care, Social Security adjustments and farm benefits are some of the issues often on the agenda. Notoriously absent, however, is any real discussion on altering the culture of the municipal or state police. Yet rarely does a week pass without some journalistic account of egregious police conduct in some major city. Gov. Charlie Baker’s leadership could help change that statistic.
After a Fort Worth police officer shot and killed a black resident Atatiana Jefferson by shooting through the window of her house when there was no lawful justification, the New York Times did an extensive assessment of the conduct of the police force. Reporters found numerous accounts of police abuse of black citizens. The report claimed that while black residents account for only 18 percent of the Fort Worth population they were 40 percent of those arrested in 2017.
Criticism of the police is usually directed toward the frequency of unwarranted shooting deaths. Since Michael Brown was gunned down in Ferguson, Mo. five years ago, blacks now remember the names of some of those on the rolls of police victims: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Philando Castile and Laquan McDonald.
Challenges from the public on the legitimacy of police shootings often raise issues that complicate the establishment of guilt. However, some of the extreme payroll issues that are clearly fraudulent do not invite official scrutiny. Violations are more easily established with payroll records for hours that simply do not add up. The Massachusetts State Police have recently been involved in an extensive payroll scandal that implicates 46 troopers.
Despite that high cost of police fraud and mismanagement, the public has not vigorously protested. The Wall Street Journal published a report that in 2015, the top ten cities paid $248.7 million dollars to compensate victims of police brutality.
It is time for Americans to change the culture of the police. Gov. Charlie Baker with one of the highest approval ratings of any U.S. governor, has attained the level of political support that would enable him to assert national leadership on the issue. He can start by implementing policies to enable the Mass. State Police to recover the national respect it once held. Such improvements would then trickle down to the police departments in large cities in Massachusetts.
Politicians are leery of antagonizing the police because of their disciplined political organization. Police unions make campaign contributions and their members are helpful to political street workers. But who can object to programs to improve police professionalism and generate greater respect from the community?
The New York Times report on Fort Worth indicates that city residents are afraid to call the police. This reluctance is a common attitude in many of the nation’s black communities. Imagine feeling less safe as a citizen because the police are coming. Gov. Baker has an extraordinary opportunity to begin the process of altering for the nation the role and status of the police.