Principles for Racial Justice in Policing
The Center for Public Justice published its Guiding Principles: Racial Justice in Policing on June 3, 2020. They were written in response to the death of George Floyd, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, who have been charged with murder, and the subsequent peaceful protests and cries for justice that have occurred in all 50 states and around the world. These guiding principles address one specific aspect of systemic racism in the United States - the area of racial justice in policing - and, as such, articulate normative principles in that specific area. The Center for Public Justice recognizes that this alone will not sufficiently address the broader issue of systemic racism that is deeply embedded in many of the policies and practices of our government at every level and within our civil society institutions.
As an organization, we grieve the death of George Floyd and countless other black men and women who have died as a result of disparate or unjust use of force by police. The Center for Public Justice is an organization that stewards the Kuyperian theological and philosophical tradition. We acknowledge the grievous legacy of this tradition, namely the ways in which it was used to support structural and systemic racism. As we continue our stewardship of the Kuyperian tradition, we are committed to living out and conveying both the strengths of the tradition, as well as acknowledging and correcting its errors. From a posture of humility, we offer these principles as one such step in our commitment to equip citizens, develop leaders, and shape policy towards justice.
How should a public justice perspective inform the response of citizens and government to acts of racial violence by police? The following Guiding Principles for Racial Justice in Policing articulate CPJ’s vision for the task of government, the role of citizens, and how this applies to ensuring racial justice in policing.
Throughout our nation’s history, the United States has experienced countless incidents of violence directed at African Americans and other people of color. Many of these incidents of violence ended in death. For most of our nation’s history, African Americans were, in law, defined as property rather than humans. For over 100 years after the ending of legalized slavery in America, African Americans were defined in law explicitly as second-class citizens, and local police enforced these unjust laws. While the period of explicit legalized segregation ended in the 1960’s, black people in America continue to experience the lasting effects of these injustices in every sector of society, including in local law enforcement. Both statistical and anecdotal evidence tells us, on average, police are more likely to apply excessive force in encounters with black people than any other groups.
As citizens in a political community we share with our neighbors, we must work for the laws to be just and for laws to be enforced and applied justly. That black people experience police violence disproportionately is indication of rules developed and applied unjustly. Acts of racial violence perpetrated by police always have long-lasting impacts: on the individual victim or survivor, on families, on congregations, on schools, on community organizations, on local governments, on local police forces, and on the national political community. These long-lasting impacts across institutions must be considered by citizens and government officials at every level, before, during and in the aftermath of incidents of racial violence in policing.
While we as Christians know that the laws of our country cannot change the hearts of humans, laws can-and must-address existing injustice. Laws ought not be weapons of the powerful. As Christians, we must act as citizens to ensure that laws and policies governing policing conform to the norm of justice, and that those charged to uphold justice in the executive branch must enforce them justly, and the courts must interpret them fairly.
Guiding Principles for Racial Justice in Policing
- The injustice of structural racism in law and law enforcement is always a violation of the norm of justice within the political community. All citizens should experience equal treatment and protection under the law.
- All racist acts of violence and subsequent losses of human life, even when perpetrated by police, are always a violation of the norm of justice within the political community.
- Officers of the law who perpetrate acts of unjust use of force thereby fail to uphold their sworn duty to protect and serve all citizens. These perpetrators should face appropriate consequences merited by their unjust actions, known as retributive justice, as are articulated in the laws and policies governing their work.
- Accountability for police rests on those responsible for upholding the norms of justice that govern the work of the police. In the United States, local, municipal governments provide the first and most important layer of accountability for police action. When this first layer of accountability fails, courts must act to ensure accountability. State and federal legislation may also be needed to provide systemic reforms.
- Given the long history of violence by police in America towards African Americans, police and local sheriff’s departments must proactively attend to the work of restorative justice through continually examining and reforming themselves. Work to restore trust in public institutions must come continually from within local law enforcement, whether through anti-bias and other training, or the just actions of offering accountability through Internal Review or Use of Force Boards, community policing models, and partnerships with community organizations.
- While citizen oversight groups, community organizations and media can play an important role in providing information leading to better accountability for officers working towards restorative justice, those officials, elected or appointed to positions of authority over local police forces, are ultimately those responsible for ensuring that the forces under their authority ensure racial justice in policing.
- All citizens bear the responsibility to elect the local public officials who understand the nature of their authority as ensuring that every citizen, regardless of race, receives equal protection under law, and that when this norm is violated, enacts the process to hold the perpetrator to account and engages the difficult and ongoing work of reforming the police force under their oversight. Citizens elect these officials when they elect the local sheriff or police commissioner, or their mayor, who appoints the chief of police.
- Well-documented racial disparities in incarceration, coupled with widespread felony disenfranchisement policies, means that African American and black citizens with felony records are less likely able to select public officials who will work towards racial justice. When citizens eligible to vote fail to uphold the basic civic responsibility of informed participation in selecting our local public officials responsible for police forces, we fail to work towards racial justice.
- As citizens in a political community, the existence and application of unjust laws and policies always require our response to work to restore justice. This work may occur through efforts to reshape unjust policies and practices through oversight, reform, nonviolent protests to raise awareness, and/or the removal from office by those who fail to uphold racial justice in policing, by election loss or judicial action.
Christians are called to work for racial justice in policing. Christians also know that no law or its enforcement has the power to change the human heart -- only the power of God can do so. This reality should give Christians a cause for hope rather than despair. In addition to our work for racial justice, it should lead us to fervent prayer that God will transform the hearts of those who promote hatred, violence and unjust concepts of law to be changed to be promoters of God’s love, peace and a rightly-ordered understanding of law as that which upholds justice.