On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
“Defund the police.” It’s a phrase that’s been used in some activist circles for years and, during the ongoing protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, has echoed across the nation. But what could it look like in our region?
D.C. activists are calling for defunding and de-militarizing the Metropolitan Police Department, as well as taking police officers out of schools. In Maryland, the chair of the state senate’s Judicial Proceedings Committee has started the ball rolling on state-wide police reform bills. And in Fairfax County, the local NAACP is calling for increased accountability and transparency from local police after a black man was tasered on video.
We’ll hear how activists and legislators are thinking about police reform in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to the The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. Later in the broadcast we will hear about the experiences of Black police officers during the George Floyd protests. But first, you may have heard the phrase "defund the police" echoing at protests over the past week and a half. Police reform is at the top of lawmakers' and protesters' to-do lists.
KOJO NNAMDISo what could police reform look like in the Washington region? Today we're talking with activists and legislators who are reimagining what policing could look like. But this won't be our last conversation on the topic; we will hear other perspectives on a future show. Joining me now is Sean Blackmon, an organizer with the Stop Police Terror Project D.C. Sean Blackmon, thank you for joining us.
SEAN BLACKMONThank you for having me, Mr. Nnamdi.
NNAMDIThe D.C. council unanimously passed emergency police reform legislation yesterday, including making neck restraints a felony, a ban on rubber bullets and teargas to disperse peaceful crowds, and requiring the release of body camera footage within 72 hours of an incident. What do you think so far about the emergency legislation?
BLACKMONWell, you know, Mr. Nnamdi, when I first saw that legislation, it reminded me of when I was a young kid and I had a good report card, and I showed it to my mother and suggested that perhaps she take me to Chuck E. Cheese or something as a reward. And my mother lovingly, but firmly let me know that she had no intention of rewarding me for something that I should already be doing, for fulfilling a responsibility that she fully expected me to fulfill.
BLACKMONSo it's a similar thing with this emergency policing bill we see here from the D.C. council. I mean, when we look at things like the bodycam footage in particular, I'm put in mind of Kenithia Alston, who's the mother of Marqueese Alston, who the D.C. police claim attempted to fire on officers that justified them killing him a couple years ago, but they never released the footage.
BLACKMONAnd so the feeling I get is that, you know, the council put out this legislation of issues that they're frankly delinquent on, and probably should have already passed, really as a kind of distraction and deflection from more deeper and more critical systemic solutions to racist police terror here in Washington, D.C., which I think includes the defunding the police, demilitarizing the police, and banning stop-and-frisk tactics. So in short, I feel as though it's not enough.
NNAMDIWhat are those critical changes that you would like to see?
BLACKMONWell, I heard you on the intro talking about what people mean when they say "defund the police." I mean, your listeners should know, if they don't already, that the D.C. police already have a budget of half a billion dollars. And if D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser gets her way, then they'll get 19 million more.
BLACKMONAnd this is the lady who would like us to believe that she thinks Black lives matter, but perhaps that's another conversation. And people should know that they continue to not only give the police more money, but also want to increase the size of the police, even though it does not work.
BLACKMONThis increase in number in the police has not had any positive impact on violent crime, community violence, or anything like this. So why they continue to dump millions of dollars into an agency that's failing miserably, it's not making anyone more safe, at the same time they're cutting funding from agencies like the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement, which came about as a part of the struggle around the NEAR Act, and other similarly community-based type programs that really speak to public safety and violence interruption and things like this.
BLACKMONAnd so, what we'd really like to see in terms of Stop Police Terror Project D.C. is a divestment from policing, which does not work and is shown to not work, and a reinvestment into these -- excuse me -- into these communities and into the people, where we feel public safety really lies.
NNAMDISean Blackmon, D.C. is in the middle of its budget cycle, which is the time where a lot of decisions are made about which department gets what funding. How are you going to advocate within that process for the police reform you would like to see?
BLACKMONWell, to continue, basically, what we've been doing. To continue to put out the narrative that not only does more policing not work, not only does it not keep us safe -- because we wanna make clear that it's not enough to simply not give the police this money. It's really about a redistribution of funds and resources.
BLACKMONReally, a complete reorientation of where D.C. government prioritizes its money. And I think that's particularly important, Mr. Nnamdi, when you consider the fact that D.C. is one of the most rapidly gentrifying cities in the country, and also one of the most expensive places to live in this country.
BLACKMONAnd so this issue of policing, in our opinion, is directly connected to issues of affordable housing, and the fact that affordable housing also basically doesn't exist in this city; issues of healthcare and living wages and all these sorts of things.
BLACKMONPolicing is one of the more obvious and egregious contradictions, I think, within the capitalist system that it flows from, but it's deeply connected to the material conditions of Black people in the city of D.C., of the poor, working, and oppressed communities in Washington, D.C., and in truth, it's a real question of, well, do you want to invest in human development, or do you wanna invest in state-sanctioned violence, which is what the police represent. So again, if the city council and if Muriel Bowser say that Black lives matter, we intend to make them prove it.
NNAMDICliff emails -- and this is about a specific issue -- "We cannot solve the police problem until we end the war on drugs." How do you feel about that?
BLACKMONWell, that's a big part of it, because issues like the war on drugs was really about -- and I'm gonna break this down, because this may seem -- this could seem esoteric to people. What some in the movement called a "criminalization of blackness," right?
BLACKMONSo when we look at how the contradictions of capitalism have manifested in the social ills that we see, not only in the Black community in D.C. and the U.S., but also any poor, working, and oppressed community in the U.S. You know, people need to eat, have a place to stay, and all those sorts of things.
BLACKMONAnd if there's no sort of legitimate way for them to do that, then they'll do it illegitimately. So the war on drugs, I think, is just one part of that. It criminalizes poverty, really. And so people are coerced, I think, into certain activity, because of their economic situation, but instead of investing in things that would improve those conditions, they simply criminalize the people for engaging in it.
BLACKMONThis is something that goes way back to even the period right after slavery, when we saw peonage in this country, vagrancy laws, all of these things that were supposedly put in place to maintain, quote, unquote, "law and order," but in reality and substance, they were put in place to maintain Black people as sort of a surplus pool of labor, and to make sure that, you know, slavery basically remained a reality in everything but name.
BLACKMONSo what we're really grappling with here in 2020 is just a continuation of a centuries-long struggle, and it's appropriate to point that out, as the police, as an institution, have their very origin in slavery. And so again, you know, the material conditions of people lay at the heart of a lot of this, in our opinion.
NNAMDISean Blackmon is an organizer with Stop Police Terror Project D.C. Sean Blackmon, thank you so much for joining us.
BLACKMONThank you, Mr. Nnamdi.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Sean Perryman. Sean Perryman is president of the Fairfax County NAACP. Sean Perryman, thank you for joining us.
SEAN PERRYMANThank you, I appreciate you having me on the show.
NNAMDIAlso with us is William Smith. He's a Maryland state senator reporting district 20, which is in Montgomery County. He chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee of the senate. Will Smith, thank you very much for joining us.
WILL SMITHThank you very much, it's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDISean Perryman, last week, a white Fairfax County police officer used a stun gun on a Black man who was in distress. The incident was caught on police body cameras, and the officer, Tyler Timberlake, is facing charges for the incident. The Fairfax County NAACP has come out with demands for police reform and accountability. What are you calling for?
PERRYMANYes, we're calling for a number of changes, and those all relate and are rooted in transparency and accountability. So this incident happened to be caught on camera, but only a quarter of Fairfax County police even have body cameras, so we don't know what the story would have been had this not been captured by the body camera, and it was just a miracle that this officer happened to have one, since the majority of the force don't.
PERRYMANSo we're calling for body cameras, for transparency, we're calling for the police to be removed from schools, so that's the SROs. We're also calling for increased data on the demographics of people that they stop and ticket, so we can see how the police are operating on a day-to-day basis.
PERRYMANWe're calling for demilitarization of the police, frankly, because a lot of times when people are only armed with hammers, they see everything as nails. So we want to make sure that we are completely reimagining public safety. And we put out a list, it's available at our Facebook page, it's on Twitter, Fairfax NAACP, where it's eight simple things that we can do to reimagine public safety and restore trust in the police in this community.
NNAMDISenator Smith, you sent a letter to your fellow senators last week, outlining police reform legislation you would like to see in Maryland. Broadly, what are some of the areas that you would like to see addressed?
SMITHSure. So last week I sent a letter to constituents and my colleagues to essentially kickstart the legislative process in the senate, and the speaker of the house, Adrian Jones, had established a workgroup, saying that she's the first African-American speaker we've had in Maryland's history, and she signaled this as a top priority for her and put Vanessa Atterbeary at the top of that committee, from Howard County.
SMITHAnd they're gonna do some great work, I think, on reform. And so on the senate side, this letter was essentially meant to kickstart that legislative process and to provide a vision and a roadmap, so that the folks that have been doing this work for years -- in some cases, several decades -- can have an opportunity to have renewed momentum for their policies that they've been pushing for years.
SMITHSo leaders like Senator Joel Carter, Senator Charles Sydnor from Baltimore County, Delegate Erek Barron, Gabe Acevero, Washington -- I mean, I could go on. A lot of these proposals have been before the legislature for years, and I will say that in the last couple of years we've made some process with accountability and transparency measures.
SMITHI did some research. In the Maryland general assembly, we've passed 21 bills in the last two years, but that's simply not enough, and there's still so much more to do. So just very quickly, some of the top-lines is personnel records, disclosure of personnel records.
SMITHThose are protected by the Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, which is a collectively bargained-for document. I wanna make sure that we have public access to that. Reforming our use of force, so banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, requiring training, so implicit bias training. In the University of Maryland, they have a fantastic institute by Rashawn Ray, he's a professor there. Dr. Ray has been doing some fantastic work with implicit bias training.
SMITHDemilitarization of the police, excessive bystander intervention, independent review, and so many more things that are not on this list. It's really time to, you know, seize this moment of national, international, and local energy around this issue that was born out of another high-profile just tragedy, to make this real reform.
SMITHAnd I wanna say that what Mr. Blackmon said about people in elected office and policymakers kind of doing the right thing and not expecting to be rewarded for that, I couldn't agree more.
SMITHAnd yeah, I mean, the (unintelligible) yeah.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. You mentioned Rashawn Ray. You talked him up; he will be joining us in the next segment of this discussion. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're discussing what police reform would look like with William Smith. He's a Maryland state senator. And Sean Perryman is the president of the Fairfax County NAACP. Here is Talipa (sp?) in Laurel, Maryland. Talipa, you're on the air; go ahead, please.
TALIPAHi, thank you for taking my call. There's been a focus on defunding the police and or even ending police forces. However, I feel like the focus really needs to be on data collection, so that the funding can be performance-based. It seems unrealistic to defund completely the police or even have them completely removed.
TALIPA(unintelligible) types of data collection is banned by lobbyists or other interest groups, and it seems like we can't improve what we don't measure. So I don't see a lot of focus on databases, having information, and setting key performance indicators.
TALIPAI feel like some key performance indicators should include reporting all kills executed by police, and having geographic and demographic data associated with that, having minimum goals for police officers originating from the ZIP code that they're supposed to serve ...
TALIPA... are just a few. And I just wonder where the budgets are for having statistical analysis, data analytics, all of that reporting.
NNAMDIWe don't have a great deal of time, so I'll ask Senator Smith to respond to that. Will Smith?
NNAMDISure. I think that's a fantastic point, and part of that -- a critical component of our reform. So one piece is that making those personnel records available to the public so that they can be databased and catalogued and evaluated. Another piece is the complaints that are around by jurisdiction.
NNAMDIWe have 187 municipalities in Maryland, and we don't necessarily collect all the information for complaints. And if we were able to do that, we could see where the problem areas are, what municipalities are performing or underperforming.
NNAMDISo it's a critical piece of reform that I'm proposing as well. We have -- there are some really good databases that you can look at; Campaign Zero has got one, "The Washington Post" has another. But you're right, we don't have enough of a granular information to kind of really incentivize the change at the local level. So that's a fantastic idea, and I couldn't agree more.
NNAMDIOn the defund the police portion, I couldn't agree with you more on that as well. But what we need to do is repurpose some of those resources so that if someone's experiencing a mental health crisis, maybe a mental health professional or social worker is the person to respond, and not the police officers.
NNAMDIWe're asking too much of our law enforcement officers. We're asking them to be social workers, mental health professionals, and the like. So the point here for that defund the police movement, or at least for a spectrum of that movement, is that we should reallocate and reevaluate how we allocate our resources.
NNAMDIAnd Montgomery County, where -- sorry, just real quick -- Montgomery County, where I represent, we have a budget of about $5.9 billion. The police budget here is 288 million. It's about 4.8 percent of the county budget. I know that the councilmembers and the county executive are taking a hard look at where that money should go in the future.
NNAMDISean Perryman, what does defund the police mean to you, and is it a concept you support?
PERRYMANI appreciate you asking that. I personally don't use the word "defund the police." I think we need to either reimagine public safety or divest from the police. But I'm not criticizing anyone who does. I want people to understand what we're saying is that we need to radically change how policing is viewed.
PERRYMANThat means less weapons, less police getting involved in schools and incidents that they have no business being a part of. So that's what defund the police is. And when we think about it, we think about how we defund education, the general assembly here in Virginia recently cut all the budget for counselors in schools, but we still have police roaming the halls.
PERRYMANSo I think that we need to think about how we are policing, and having a degree of transparency. I completely support having a database, a public database, where you can see not only the crimes that certain police have committed, but then the policy violations, so that they can't move from police department to police department.
PERRYMANWe wouldn't hire an accountant who had embezzled in the county over, and have them come be our accountant here in Fairfax County, and the same should be true for public services officers like the police.
NNAMDIWe got a tweet from John, who says, "The NEAR Act has funded more and more violence disruption programs, yet violent crime and murders have increased year-over-year. Why are these programs asking for more money when they have no proven track record and only expect us to accept anecdotal stories?
NNAMDII do have to say that John repeated what has become known as a falsehood, and that is that violent crime and murders are increasing year-over-year. But the fact that we see them on television virtually every day tends to make us believe that's what's happening. But Will Smith, I'd like to hear you respond.
SMITHSure. The opposite is true, you're right. So violent crime statewide, for instance -- and nationwide -- is actually on the decline. But we have several programs that are evidence-based, and we have several measures of oversight of those programs. And one that comes to mind that operates in Baltimore city is Safe Streets.
SMITHAnd the results have been nothing but significant and amazing, and they've proven to be very effective. What we just haven't had the political will to do is to shift enough money to programs like that. So the data's there, the reports are online. There is significant state oversight for these programs. So I just would have to disagree with kind of the underlying premise of the caller's question.
NNAMDIHere is Paul in Arlington, Virginia. Paul, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULThank you so much, Kojo. Listen, I hope I misunderstood. I'm a retired Fairfax County teacher. I was in the school system before the SRO program started. That's how long -- well, 1990 is when I started. I'm in disbelief that our NAACP rep would say that the SRO program was gonna be discontinued.
PAULI hope I misunderstood that. I saw great things accomplished through our SROs. I worked with fine officers, African-American, male, female, Hispanic, Asian, white. I was -- I'm in shock that someone would wanna discontinue that program. I saw it encourage the ...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, if you're shocked, then you would want to know why. So let's go to Sean Perryman and have him answer that question. Sean Perryman?
PERRYMANYes, and that's an excellent question, and I think it goes back to what we talked to before, that a lot of times we're making policy based on fear or the illusion of safety that if you have police there, you're safe. The data doesn't support that.
PERRYMANYou can look at a GAO study from 2018. When we insert police into schools, we don't guarantee that we're gonna stop police shootings, we don't guarantee safety. What we know for sure is that we're going to see an increase in Black, disabled, and Latino students being arrested, because the way they police them are different than how they would police white students.
PERRYMANSo when we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, this contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. And this does not mean that you can't have police across the street, that you can't have police that will respond to incidents. It means that they are not roaming the halls of the school, policing inside our schools.
PERRYMANSo that's a distinction that's very important for people to understand when we talk about removing SROs. We're talking about data-driven policy that you are going to stop the school-to-prison pipeline and get rid of this idea of illusion of safety, just because you see an officer and that makes you feel good.
PERRYMANSo that's what I would say to the caller. I think that we need to, again, reimagine how we think about public safety, because just because you feel safe doesn't mean that every Black student in that school feels safe. And just, if you'll allow me, we were able to reduce arrests in school by 60 percent by changing the memorandum of understanding between the schools and the police, where they couldn't arrest and police people for things like disorderly conduct. Because what we're doing is we're turning behavioral issues into criminal offenses, and that's what we wanna prevent.
NNAMDIWill Smith, you would like to see legislation that addresses officer training and use of force. What do you wanna see in those areas?
SMITHSure, for the training, it's, again, the implicit bias training. And I talked a little bit about how the University of Maryland has a fantastic program, and a lot of jurisdictions have moved forward in actually implementing some of those recommendations that have come out of that institute run by Dr. Ray.
SMITHBut I just think about it -- when you're in the military and you deploy overseas, you are given cultural competency training, and that enables you to kind of understand the customs and the norms and the mores of where you're going.
SMITHWell, if law enforcement officers are a product of their community, meaning there's a local person in uniform, if they understand that they have implicit biases, then they're able to correct them, to an extent, and that's an important component of policing in community policing models. For use of force, a number of the things that are on the books, again ...
NNAMDIOnly have about 40 seconds left.
SMITHSure. Just real quick, banning chokeholds, strangleholds, a lot of these things are -- as you talk to some of the professors, it's not effective and are only applicable to people that have already been subdued in the first place, so really have no place on the books. So we're looking to make reform in that area.
NNAMDIIn the 20 seconds or 30 seconds we have left, Sean Perryman, Margot says, "I believe that defunding police departments throughout the U.S. should be reframed to emphasize demilitarized police departments throughout the U.S. Sean Perryman, in the last 20 seconds, how do you feel about that?
PERRYMANWell, I think it's up to people to understand what they mean when they say the phrase, "Do some research on it." I'm not here to get into the marketing of it. What we're talking about is reprioritizing public safety in a way that benefits us all, that you're not making criminals of people ...
PERRYMAN... who aren't criminals, that you're not abusing Black and brown people.
NNAMDIWill Smith, Sean Perryman, thank you both for joining us. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll hear about the experiences of Black police officers during the George Floyd protests. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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