To turn around systemic racism, we’ll need to do more than defund the police | John Baer | #schoolshooting

There’s something about government’s rush to respond to calls for policing reforms that begs some serious thinking.

Not that reforms aren’t warranted. They are. They are overdue. And it’s clear the need stems from abuse disproportionately directed at people of color.

But what reforms, from tinkering to “defunding” police, get done? And how?

In Minnesota, where last month’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis triggered the current rush, lawmakers adjourned a special session last week without taking reform action. Their efforts failed along party lines.

Democrats sought sweeping change. Republicans wanted targeted change. They left their Capitol with no change. And Democratic Gov. Tim Walz voiced concern about “the message” sent across the country to those expecting “this one was going to be different.”

Probably, not a great message, governor.

But there is something of a track record of legislative reaction to horrific events.

The 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut left 20 children and seven adults dead, spurring a national outcry for tighter firearms control.

But the U.S. Senate the following year rejected an assault weapons ban and broader background checks for gun buys.

More recently and more on point, the 2018 police shooting death of a Black teen, 17-year old Antwon Rose, who was running away from a police officer in East Pittsburgh (ironically on Juneteenth), prompted reform proposals in Pennsylvania.

Many were offered in the legislature. None went anywhere.

And now?

Well, Congress seems mired in its usual political splits. R’s vs. D’s. House vs. Senate. Same old stuff.

Yet, in Harrisburg, it appears there is some bipartisan agreement to quickly pass and send to Gov. Tom Wolf at least a couple policing reform bills.

Yes, our lawmakers are leaving for their usual long summer recess. And talk of a special session on policing has subsided.

But there are reform bills fast-tracked in the House and Senate that could land on Wolf’s desk before recess officially June 30.

Among them: police agencies must adopt use-of-force policies and training; chokeholds banned except when deadly force is allowed; broader background checks for cop candidates, including review of records and complaints from prior law enforcement jobs; creation of a data base of officers’ misconduct, especially involving excessive use of force.

House Democratic Whip Jordan Harris, of Philadelphia, an outspoken advocate of much broader reforms, tells me these measures are, “Just a down payment, a deposit on what needs to happen.”

But he says lawmakers will work through the summer, maybe even come back to session, because “there is a determination” to do more, and “I don’t see the protests stopping.”

Still, no matter how, if and when reforms progress, thought should be given to guarding against any impression that racism rests solely at the feet of law enforcement.

As I’ve noted in a previous column, there are decades of evidence documenting racism in every aspect of criminal justice, from profiling to arrests, from sentencing to incarceration, and in police killings.

There are no excuses. That must be fixed.

But racism and its effects can be seen everywhere.

And our politicians, generally speaking, are more than willing to talk about ending racism, never willing to accept any blame for it.

We have a political system, driven by money, special interests and self-protection that shapes public policy, for example, that funds education by zip code.

Or that never seems moved by annual Center for Disease Control data showing Black infant mortality rates double those of whites; or pregnancy-related deaths of Black women almost three-times those of white women.

Or U.S. Census figures showing Black children live in poverty at triple the rate of white children; or white households net worth being 10 times greater than Black households.

Cops didn’t cause that.

More laws, maybe even fewer statues, can help. But systemic change won’t come from the same old political system. Or from one party or the other. Or from ideological gridlock. Or from various legislative chambers.

The kind of change that makes policing and all aspects of life fairer and more just will come from the streets and homes of every community. And from elected public servants interested in serving all citizens. And the sooner the better.

John Baer may be reached at

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