A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders

It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of  3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.

The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.

In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.

The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.

This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.

I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.

Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.

My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.

Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology,  I  realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.

The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further.  To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.

Dark-Skinned Whites Arrested More Than Those with Lighter Skin

A Cornell University study found that black men, no matter how dark or light their skin, get arrested at the same rate, but darker-skinned white men are more likely to be arrested than those with lighter skin.

The study draws on a persistent stereotyping phenomenon – which social psychologists have known for more than a century: People perceive more physical variation in individuals who belong to their own social groups than they do in people who belong to other social groups. It’s the idea that “They all look alike, but we don’t.”

The phenomenon kicks in especially during brief interactions where there’s not much opportunity to learn about another person – potentially including when a police officer is making an arrest.

The finding aligns with larger concerns that white police officers may perceive black individuals as more physically homogenous, says Amelia Branigan, a former postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Population Center.

“We rely on police officers to consider information about a potential arrestee that may be available only by looking at that person’s body, such as age or body size,” said Branigan, who is currently a visiting assistant professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“If police officers are less able to accurately read physical differences among people of a different race when making an arrest decision, that would constitute a critical information gap.”

Branigan’s co-authors include Christopher Wildeman, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell.

Branigan and Wilderman emphasize other research has overwhelmingly established that, overall, African-American men are arrested at a far higher rate than white men – even white men with darker skin.

The study breaks new ground for the field of sociology, the authors said. Historically the field has assumed that differences in skin color between whites are not socially meaningful, said Wildeman. “What we show is interesting, in large part, because it suggests physical features, including skin color, matter not just for underrepresented minority groups, which is where most of the emphasis has been, but also for non-Hispanic white males.”

Considering both whites and minorities in studies of skin color is important because certain patterns of bias may only be clear by comparison, the authors said.

“Finding no relationship between skin color and arrests among black men is a good thing on one hand. But when that finding holds only among black men, it fits with popular concern that white police may perceive black men as ‘all looking the same’ during split-second arrest decisions,” Branigan said. “Discrimination by skin color is inequitable for anyone, of any race, but we do want police officers to use accurate visual cues to make decisions about the people they encounter on the job.”

The researchers analyzed data from 888 white men and 703 black men who participated in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults Study in the late 1980s. The data included a measurement of the reflectivity of the study participants’ skin – the darker the skin, the less light it reflects – and the participants’ arrest records. Three-fourths of the participants lived in cities – Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago, Illinois; and Minneapolis, Minnesota – where more than 95 percent of the police force was white. The other quarter lived in Oakland, California, where 75 percent of the police force was white.

One way to chip away at the disparities found in the study could be policies that change how close police feel to the people they are policing. These could include requiring officers live in the communities where they work, the researchers said.

In many racially diverse communities where police are disproportionately white, most officers live outside the town or city in which they’re employed, Branigan said. “These white officers may be most frequently encountering minorities in the context of crimes committed, which just reaffirms the sense that someone who is nonwhite is inherently ‘someone not like me.’”

In contrast, requiring police officers to live in the communities where they’re employed could redefine their sense of belonging, Branigan said.

“It may provide officers with a basis on which to affiliate with community members of another race, because they are neighbors, instead of viewing them strictly as ‘other.’”

The study “Complicating Colorism: Race, Skin Color, and the Likelihood of Arrest” was published August 29 in the journal Socius.

Innocent African-Americans More Likely to Be Wrongfully Convicted

African-American prisoners who were convicted of murder are about 50 percent more likely to be innocent than other convicted murderers and spend longer in prison before exoneration, according to a report released today.

“The vast majority of wrongful convictions are never discovered,” said MSU Law’s Barbara O’Brien, the author of a companion report, “Exonerations in 2016,” and editor of the National Registry of Exonerations. “There’s no doubt anymore that innocent people get convicted regularly—that’s beyond dispute. Increasingly, police, prosecutors and judges recognize this problem. But will we do enough to actually address it? That remains to be seen.”

“Exonerations in 2016” found a record number of exonerations for the third straight year and a record number of cases with official misconduct.

The National Registry of Exonerations is a joint project of the University of California Irvine Newkirk Center for Science and Society, University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law. The registry provides detailed information about every known exoneration in the United States since 1989 – cases in which a person was wrongly convicted of a crime and later cleared of all the charges based on new evidence of innocence.

The 2016 data show convictions that led to murder exonerations with black defendants were more likely to involve misconduct by police officers than those with white defendants. On average, black murder exonerees waited three years longer in prison before release than whites.

Judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white person convicted of sexual assault. On average, innocent African-Americans convicted of sexual assault spent almost four-and-a-half years longer in prison before exoneration than innocent whites.

In addition, the report, officially titled, “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States,” found innocent black people are about 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes than innocent white people.

Since 1989, more than 1,800 defendants have been cleared in “group exonerations” that followed 15 large-scale police scandals in which officers systematically framed innocent defendants. The overwhelming majority were African-American defendants framed for drug crimes that never occurred.

“Of the many costs the war on drugs inflicts on the black community, the practice of deliberately charging innocent defendants with fabricated crimes may be the most shameful,” said University of Michigan Law Professor Samuel Gross, the author of “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” and senior editor of the National Registry of Exonerations.

Last year, there were more exonerations than in any previous year in which government officials committed misconduct; the convictions were based on guilty pleas; no crime actually occurred; and a prosecutorial conviction integrity unit worked on the exoneration.

Criminalizing Child Welfare: Retired Texas Ranger Takes Over Child Protection Agency


“Child welfare is a continuum of services that ensure children are safe and that families have the support they need to care for them”, according to the federal Children’s Bureau.  The complexities of serving children and families are many. But, depending on the perspective of the speaker, some are advocating for more law enforcement presence, more substance abuse treatment, or more parenting education and the list goes on.

However, the state of Texas is playing out this high stakes human drama in court, in its state agencies, in foster homes and the Governor’s office.

In the courts:

U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled in December 2015 that the state’s long-term foster care system had infringed on children’s civil rights and caused emotional and physical damage.  Recently, the Judge appointed two special masters to design plans to repair the embattled agency.

This month, U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the state to continue making plans, as Judge Jack ordered, to revamp the foster system.  The state has repeatedly gone to court to block the court-ordered changes in the foster system.  State officials have said improvements are needed, but the failings aren’t so bad that they “shock the conscience.”  The state’s lawyers wrote in their appeal:  “It is true that Texas’ foster-care system needs improvement in certain areas.  But the same could be said of most states’ foster-care systems.”

In the Governor’s office:

Texas Governor Greg Abbott was in office only six days in 2015 before a child in the state’s care and custody died.  In March, two more children in the state’s care died.  The Governor and his staff became involved in the daily operations of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

The Texas Tribune received thousands of pages of email correspondence between the governor and his staff and the child welfare agency.  To staunch the hemorrhage caused by protective service workers quitting, the Governor’s office has approved hire high school and community college graduates who have work experience in a human services field. Currently, 200 hundred jobs are vacant today.

In the state agency:

Retired Texas Rangers Chief Henry “Hank” Whitman took over as commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services.  In Dallas, during the quarter September through November 2015, protective services staff were quitting at a rate of 57% per year.  This exit of experienced staff is associated with a steady increase in the number of investigations open for more than 60 days: from 571 in February 2015 to more than 1,300 in February of this year.  Beginning caseworkers earn CPS caseworker salaries are rock bottom, as low as $34,000 to start.

In foster care

In January the state removed dozens of kids from two residential care centers and dropped off at a shelter 400 miles away.  The disruption was so hard for the kids, some were placed in a psychiatric hospital after the move. Meechaiel Criner, was removed from his mother’s house at age 2 after he and his siblings were left alone in a home with no running water.  On March 24th of this year he ran away from his therapeutic foster home.  Ten days later, he attacked and strangled an 18 year old freshman on the University of Texas campus.

This month, Commissioner Whitman gave a long interview to the Texas Tribune and discussed his vision for protecting children.  He addressed a question about the appointment of a lawman to head the child welfare agency by saying,

“I ask staff ‘Which one of y’all think that a policeman is not a social worker?’ ..I’ve been an investigator 20 years… We have to be with those families during a time of tragedy.  We’re there with them many times to see what we can do because they’re poor.” 

One of Whitman’s first initiatives is to put 20 new crime analysts, trained by the Department of Public Safety, on board to provide background information to Special Investigators who step in after an initial assessment by a protective services worker.  The job description asks for: “experience interviewing perpetrators, children and witnesses, crime scene analysis, experience obtaining credible and reliable victim, witness and suspect statements ”….  98% of 140 the Special Investigators come from law enforcement.

The NASW continues to advocate for child welfare workers who are trained with either a Bachelors or Masters degree in Social Work:

Standard 2. Qualifications, Knowledge, and Practice Requirements Social workers practicing in child welfare shall hold a BSW or MSW degree from an accredited school of social work.

It is all bigger in Texas, but is it better?  Is Texas creating a new model of child welfare that puts an emphasis on investigation, law enforcement with social work assistants left to do friendly visiting?  Can social work reclaim the leadership in child welfare? This would be a nightmare in protecting 4th amendment rights of children and families from unreasonable searches and seizures because they seek or need help.

New Technology Provides Support for Sexual Assault Victims


Recent surveys have revealed that 85% of sexual assault victims do not report their assault promptly to appropriate authorities. When they later do report, their credibility is often questioned.  The authorities ask “Why now? Has your story changed?”

The I’ve-Been-Violated™ App is the first app of its kind to allow a victim of sexual assault to confidentially record contemporaneous evidence (with video and audio) of an incident. The evidence is double-encrypted and stored offline. The app also, utilizing geo-coding technology, stores information about where the user was when he or she recorded the video. As a legal safeguard, the video record that the user creates is only available through appropriate authorities (i.e. legal, health, school) or by court order and is never directly available to the user.

Should an unfortunate event occur, the I’ve-Been-Violated App is there to help. The I’ve-Been-Violated™ App eliminates most of these credibility questions and allows victims the peace of mind to know that reporting to authorities is fully within their control.

Instructions for a victim to run the I’ve-Been-Violated™ App:

  1. Get to a Safe Place: As soon as possible, get to a safe location before starting the app.
  2. Activate and Run the App: Turn on the app and begin to tell your story by following the on-screen instructions. The app will prompt you on what to say while recording video and
  3. Recording Encrypted & Stored: An encrypted record of your story is created and stored for future retrieval through the proper channels (not available directly to the user).
  4. Authorities Access Evidence: When you are ready to do so, contact the appropriate authorities and they can access the video recording. The fact that it was recorded contemporaneously with the violation helps a victim’s credibility be

The I’ve-Been-Violated™ App is part of a suite of apps provided by the Affirmative Consent Division of the Institute for the Study of Coherence and Emergence (ISCE.edu) to help change the context and conversations around sexual consent on college campuses. (See for more information). The suite is available for individual download and on a group basis for schools or school based organizations. The app suite is designed to assist schools to improve their Title IX compliance efforts.

Because it is incumbent on all of us to do what we can to help the victims of sexual assaults, ISCE.edu is making the I’ve-Been-Violated™ App available for free, and it is available for download on iTunes.

ISCE.edu is presently running no-cost pilot programs at selected institutions across the United States to demonstrate and potentially improve the efficacy of the entire app suite. These pilots include educational outreach and student uptake efforts designed help schools improve their Title IX compliance programs. ISCE.edu has a few slots remaining for schools who wish to run a similar no cost pilot program.

Police Abuse: A Serious Threat to the Rule of Law

Far too often, police officers in many European countries resort to excessive use of force against protesters, mistreat persons in detention, target minorities and otherwise engage in misconduct. This undermines public trust in the state, social cohesion, and effective law enforcement, which rests on cooperation between police and local communities.

It is difficult to ascertain whether police misconduct has become more common in some countries or whether the problem has become more visible and recognised. Clearly, demonstrations have become more commonplace in Europe, generating new challenges for law enforcement. Moreover, European societies have become more diverse and police forces have sometimes been slow to adapt. In other cases, political elites share much of the blame, as they have given the green light for bad policing through direct orders or rhetoric stigmatising certain groups.

A multifaceted phenomenon

In recent months, Europe has witnessed several glaring instances in which policing of demonstrations has gone beyond what is legally and ethically acceptable. In Ukraine, excessive use of force by police against peaceful demonstrators in late November 2013 fueled a massive growth in protests, which have since resulted in a growing number of deaths among both protestors and police.

After interviewing numerous victims and examining many medical records, I detected a clear pattern of targeting the head and face, which is completely unnecessary and disproportionate. In the context of the 2013 Gezi events in Turkey, I received numerous and particularly serious allegations of excessive use of force by the police, including excessive and improper use of tear gas and the use of gas canisters as projectiles. In both Ukraine and Turkey, police repeatedly targeted both journalists and medical personnel, who could be clearly identified by their clothing.

The excessive use of force during demonstrations and/or apprehensions is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Other forms of police misconduct occur out of the sight of the general public.

The treatment of persons while in police detention is a case in point. Ill-treatment, sometimes lethal, occurs in several European states, as documented by the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT). This treatment mostly takes the form of slaps, punches and kicks as well as blows with hard objects (such as baseball bats) to various parts of the body. The CPT has noted that the allegations concerning police violence tends to relate mostly to ill-treatment inflicted at the time of questioning with a view to obtaining a confession or extracting information.

I have been particularly concerned by the practice of police custody in Spain, where the incommunicado detention by the Guardia Civil (the national police) is a long-standing problematic practice, as noted in my 2013 report on Spain, which has led to serious human rights violations found by the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee against Torture.

Another serious form of police misconduct is violence targeting minorities, in particular Roma, and migrants. In Greece, for instance, regular threats and racially motivated ill-treatment of migrants and Roma by members of the police and coast guard have been reported. Institutionalised racism also plays a major role in ethnic profiling resulting in abusive stops and searches targeting minorities and migrants. In a recent report on France, the Open Society Justice Initiative highlighted the very negative impact of this practice on “entire sectors of the population [who] are left feeling that no matter what they do, they will always be second-class citizens”.

There is a need to eradicate impunity

It is a fundamental duty of European states to combat impunity for human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials so that victims receive justice, future misconduct by law enforcement officials is deterred and public trust in and co-operation with law enforcement can be strengthened.

It is of utmost importance that all allegations of police misconduct are effectively investigated so as to lead to the identification and punishment of those responsible, as required by the well-established case-law of the European Court of Human Rights. Moreover, there is a need to impose dissuasive penalties on offenders involved in serious human rights violations, in line with the Committee of Ministers’ Guidelines on eradicating impunity for serious human rights violations.

Regrettably, many investigations of human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials are ineffective, as it is often members of the same force who are investigating into actions of their colleagues and there is sometimes a “code of silence” about protecting one’s own. The creation of independent police complaints mechanisms, which exist in United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark, could be one of the solutions to this problem. Other options include empowering national ombudsmen to investigate complaints about law enforcement forces.

Political leaders also bear an important part of responsibility. As the organisation of law enforcement is hierarchical, the discourse and attitudes of politicians, particularly ministers of interior, are rarely ignored by rank-and-file officials. It is extremely damaging to public trust in state institutions when law enforcement officials convicted of misconduct involving ill-treatment are pardoned or receive inadequate sanctions. Political leaders should instil the clear message that responsibility for ill-treatment extends beyond the actual perpetrators to anyone who knows, or should know, that ill-treatment is occurring and fails to prevent or report it.

Strengthening safeguards and restoring trust

States should develop clear guidelines concerning the proportionate use of force by police, including the use of tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and firearms in the context of demonstrations, in line with international standards.

In addition, practical and easily adoptable measures should be taken, such as the obligation for riot police officers to display identification numbers in a way which makes them visible from a distance and are brief enough that people can memorise and use them to report abuses.

Furthermore, in the selection, recruitment and promotion of police, special attention should be paid to reports of past misconduct, racist attitudes, and the ability of individuals to withstand stressful situations. The recruitment of officers among minority groups would also help reduce the risk of racially motivated violence and contribute to make the police more representative of society’s diversity. In this context, continuous, systematic human rights training as well as the adoption and implementation of the 2001 European Code of Police Ethics, are essential.

Police misconduct is a long-standing matter of concern, but is not inevitable. Effective means to combat this phenomenon exist and must be used by states. This is an essential requirement for restoring the public’s trust in state authority and safeguarding human rights and the rule of law.

Why Calling It Trauma Minimizes American Torture

On April 14th, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a proposal to established a 5.5 million dollar reparations fund for victims tortured by police which included electrocution, beatings, and suffocation to obtain confessions. From 1972 to late 1991, Police Commander Jon Burge and his midnight crew of rogue detectives tortured over 120 men who were largely African-American. After costing the City of Chicago over 100 million dollars in lawsuit settlements, Burge received only 4 1/2 years in prison while still being allowed to collect his tax payer funded police pension. From year to date, Burge has collected approximately $700,00.00 despite his illegal activities and conviction.

CClIL5yW8AQ8TrjAfter consulting with over a hundred international human rights advocates representing over eighty nations around the world, it has become clear that even those of us who are deeply compassionate advocates in America have been numbed to the circumstances that present themselves each day in the United States.

If we are to widen our panoramic view of the world, and step out of our relative cultural insularity, there will be a collective realization that Americans have truly entered and accepted (consciously or unconsciously) a torture culture.

The Black Lives Matter movement is responding to torture and genocide, and death penalty abolitionists are responding to torture and genocide. The immigration movement is responding to torture. Everyday citizens are responding to torture. People feel tortured. Not traumatized. Let’s call a spade a spade.

The notion of physical and psychological trauma are concepts that are evolving every day among medical, mental health, and the legal field. Research has grown tremendously to the point that we now know trauma extends to situations well beyond war and the conditions that veterans typically develop.

While predominantly white institutions credit Dr. Judith Herman and her book, Trauma and Recovery, for contextualizing trauma in other acute scenarios that occur within everyday civilian life, the work of Dr. Frantz Fanon predates Dr. Herman’s contribution to traumatized and tortured communities in his books,Wretched of the Earth, and Black Skin, White Masks.

Other important concepts such as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma, and compassion fatigue were born into a general school of thought when describing the level of burnout and high stress symptoms that doctors, clinicians, and human rights workers developed over time in their work. The collective effort to raise consciousness and awareness of this issue has been critical to the understanding of what can happen to service providers while working with client populations they serve.

Still, as we continue to wake up to the realities around us within the United States, this awakening process has largely been too slow under international human rights standards. The high rate of gun possession per capita in the U.S., use of the death penalty despite high rates of proven wrongful incarcerations and exonerations, America’s system of mass incarceration and deportation,the astronomical expansion of the prison system, inhumane practices of solitary confinement and deprivation, and the rising tide of police violence and killings within communities of color suggest that the use of the term “trauma,” simply minimizes and serves to desensitize what is really happening around us and more importantly to us.

Why Is Language Important?

Even highly trained trauma specialists who are conditioned to the culture in which we live have largely become desensitized, and often lack confidence enough to assert a reality for what it is. And it is not really their faults if they are required to function within systems that do not acknowledge, ignore, or minimize PTSD and Complex Trauma in the first place. The milieus in which they operate must be able to care and respond to trauma informed providers for them to gain footing in a collective reality that is occurring.

There is often also a persistent feeling of guilt among relatively privileged trauma informed care providers. This can often blind professionals from accurately seeing and identifying truths that may be different from their own.

When applying international human rights standards to issues such as violence against women, incarceration, detention, etc. the U.S. standard falls egregiously short in its medical semantics for domestic torture. In this regard, there is a sense of imperialism that is attached to the word, “torture,” as if it is something primitive and only happens within the boundaries of indigenous cultures, not westernized ones. Yet, it is a nation like the U.S. that is in the technological position to carry out torture practices whether in broad daylight and in plain view or clandestinely.

Enforcing the Convention Against Torture

Using the term, “torture,” in lieu of trauma also demands a more urgent response from those doing and committing the torturing and especially the masses of well-meaning people that have compassion but have collectively been taught to care less and minimize the problems their neighbors endure.

We have grown so culturally complacent with the horrors that are taking place, that labeling something as “torture,” would simply jolt us out of that complacency like a splash of ice water. We need to be jarred awake and perhaps calling everything trauma only makes us unresponsive.

The Convention Against Torture, in fact, is an international human rights instrument that enforces this notion and demands that we recognize the torture that occurs. From a legal perspective, if we look at the language, it rarely uses the term trauma.

We will only be equipped to adequately respond to various crises that are repeatedly happening and are seemingly unending when we wake up to the realities that are occurring, rather than using flowery language that serves to minimize or hide certain truths; that serves to numb us and desensitize us from the high degree of pain that people truly experience.

The Underlying Racism and Inequality Behind Ferguson


It has taken a great amount of time for me to process what has happened over the past several weeks in our country with regards to the events in Ferguson, Missouri. As a result, one of the messages I heard recently has been resonating with me which is “when women succeed, America succeeds,” spoken by President Obama at a women’s forum. What does this have to do with the underlying racism behind what happened in Ferguson? While analyzing the unfolding events of Ferguson, this quote provides a parallel and ideology for all disenfranchised groups in the United States. When inequality is eradicated, we all succeed, and America succeeds.

The inequality for African-Americans are generally no longer as blatant as the Jim Crow laws of the South, rather there is an underlying inequality that can be seen in the day-to-day lives and statistics for lives of African-Americans in the U.S. While watching the riots take place, it was hard to believe what was happening, but also made perfect sense at the same time. Anger, sadness, and most of all disappointment in the way our country handled the situation. Whether a cop, rioter, politician, professional, Christian, Jew, Atheist, black, white, male, or female, there was a wide array of emotions that were released.

I was most of all disappointed at the unfolding events because as a nation we were no longer unified, but torn in two. As President Obama stated in his address to the nation police vs. citizen trust, “regardless of race, region, faith we recognize that this is an American problem, and not just a black problem, or a brown problem, or a Native American problem…when anyone is not treated fairly under the law, that’s a problem.”

Although we have faith in our governmental systems on one hand, on the other hand we have the staggering statistics of social injustices done to the African-American community who feel like they have no voice within the United States. These social injustices were evident in Ferguson as primarily white governing bodies over the past year were giving the “boot” to the only African-American member of the school board and to the only African-American county executive while appointing their white counterparts. The African-American community believed these were racially charged actions by these governing bodies which is just one example of the underlying racism and inequality that lead to the unrest.

Racism and inequality is also evident in statistics across the board in key areas that lead to wide-spread poverty.  For instance, young African-American men are killed at least four times more by the authorities than any other race, are at least 1.5 times as likely to be a homicide victim than any other race, are incarcerated at a rate of at least six times more than whites, or that one in six African-American men will go to jail at some point in their life. These statistics could show one of two things, either African-Americans are engaging in more criminal activity or there is a huge inequality and race issue in these disparities. However, Mauer and King’s research suggests inequality and racial bias accounts for the disparities.

Their research suggests that African-Americans and whites commit crimes at approximately the same rate proportionally to their respective population, but that African-Americans are significantly more likely to be arrested. Carson’s research suggests similar findings showing that whites and African-Americans who are already in jail or prison are proportionally arrested at about the same rates for most crimes to their respective populations, minus violent crimes more African-Americans arrested and sexual assault more whites arrested. Not only are African-Americans arrested at substantially higher rates even though they commit the same percentage of crime compared to whites, but they are incarcerated on average twice as long as whites for similar if not the exact same crime.

In Ferguson, we see this especially being a problem because “over 80 percent of police traffic stops in the past five years have been of black drivers, despite blacks only comprising about two-thirds of the population.” Additionally, blacks are twice as likely to have their car searched than whites even though whites are about 1.5 times more likely to be found in possession of contraband. Not only do we see inequality in the justice system for African-Americans but we also see it in the economic system. For example, 21% of African-Americans in Ferguson live in poverty compared to only 7% of whites. These statistics highlight the sad racial disproportionately of the criminal justice system and larger societal system as a whole, since African-Americans make up less than 15% of the U.S. population.

African-Americans are often told by well-intentioned social welfare programs, “you don’t have to be a statistic”. I question to whom is this actually preaching to because it seems that being an African-American in the United States you are labeled as a “statistic” from day one in the eyes of the law and system. You can easily see how individual cases of inequality for the African-American population easily line up with many of the at risk statistics in our society. What this means is that all of the individual efforts produced by African Americans can be so easily overlooked, because of the perception and label that society has given them is perceived as “bad”.

Processing an event like Ferguson is not easy for anyone on any side of the debate.  Personally, I have been very invested in looking at all of the evidence I possibly could that was released by the Ferguson Police Department, the views of many conservative and liberal opinion and news websites, and hearing the voices from multiple perspectives especially from police officers and African-American men. The conclusion for this fairly all-inclusive investigation is that we all need to step back and realize these protests and riots are not just about Mike Brown, Ferguson, police shooting, or brutality against African-Americans in the U.S.

There is a larger conversation that needs to happen in order for our society to become equal successfully, and it is not a conversation that is based on whites vs. African-Americans, African American cops vs. whites, or white cops vs. African-Americans. Rather, the conversation should be based on how we create a more equal society for all to live, especially focusing on groups that are considered “vulnerable”, whether it is through policy, laws and on an individual level.

What is now becoming the start of a major social movement needs to be about “if the marginalized succeed, America succeeds”. It needs to address the small gains that African-Americans have made since the civil rights movement. As a country and especially a justice system, it does not seem that we care for the lives of African-Americans. As a society we have marginalized minority groups since the beginning of our country’s history, which was originally based on freedom, equality, and a sense of endless potential. One of the major underlying factors from Ferguson had nothing to even do with the justice system, rather it had to do with economic oppression. Those who believe that in the U.S. we have reached a point of equality, especially racial equality, should get their information not only from newspapers or websites, but academic journals and resources.

These journals are written and published by very qualified professionals and experts in their respective fields, not just politicians, news reporters, or overreaching corporations with an opinion. Not only has our society marginalized African-American and other immigrants, who came willingly or by force because of their skin color, we even did it to the native people because of slight differences in skin pigmentation or cultural beliefs. In the history of the United States and many parts of the world, we as a society have never reached a point of even moderate equality.

Racism and inequality impact the lives of African-Americans, but it is important to realize there are many more places these themes can be seen in every city in the U.S. The only way we can solve this problem is together as a society, country, state, or city by acknowledging the existence of an underlying inequality based on skin color or other identifying aspects of a person. Then, we need to fight for equality in all aspects of life.

As a social worker, it is my required duty to stand up for vulnerable populations. Beyond that realization, it should be every social workers job and goal to strive for equality for every race, gender, religion, or other social status indicator to create an America that is based in true freedom and equality. As a Christian, it is especially important to remember that in God’s eyes we are all one race, the human race. Regardless of any differences that we may have when “the human race succeeds, humanity succeeds” and this is the kind of equality and reconciliation we should be striving for.

The Trayvon Martin Case Foreshadowed An Increase in Police Homicides of Minorities

With the recent decisions of no indictment involving the police officers responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and John Crawford to name a few, America could not be anymore divided in how we analyze these events through our own filters. Current poll data articulates that 65% of minorities believe there is a racial construct within our police and legal system which disproportionately affects minorities while reporting the opposite belief by White Americans at roughly the same percentage.

However, I would challenge future pollsters to parse out additional data on party affiliation when polling White Americans because it is my the over polling of conservative white Americans may create a skewed and unfair depiction of White America. Before we can develop solutions and move forward, we must first define the problem and acknowledge the symptoms in order to design and implement interventions to reduce risks. However, this process proves to be even more difficult due to our inability to discuss racial issues in a country whose prosperity and place in this world was made possible as a result of racial injustice.

252311-masked-french-special-unit-policemen-leave-after-the-assault-to-capturIt’s been almost three years since the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the relevance of his death could not be more apparent today. I remember one of my white friends asking me “Why Trayvon Martin…what so special about him”? I didn’t take offense to the question because I knew it was coming from a place of “I really don’t understand, and I want to know what you think”. Translation: What is the significance of his death, and why is it so important to you?

I reflect on Trayvon’s death because it foreshadowed a future that struck fear into many black families across the nation. George Zimmerman, a man with no police authority and no legal right to follow or detain anyone, established a legal precedent lowering the bar of jurisprudence in the killing of a minority. Despite illegally following Trayvon with a firearm, Travyon was denied the right to fear for and defend his life as any other reasonable person would do.

In past case law, the reasonable person test is the standard applied when looking at the actions of a suspect or victim in self defense cases which asks the question “what would a reasonable person do under the same set of circumstances”. However, this standard was was not applied to Trayvon Martin or George Zimmerman. In review of the facts, it would be reasonable to conclude that any person being followed by a stranger at night, first by vehicle then on foot, on their way home would fear for his/her life, and they should retain the right to defend his/her life as provided by law. I can only imagine the fear Trayvon felt wondering if he maybe leading a murder, rapists, or pedophile to his family’s home. Also, this case changed the trajectory of how police departments and prosecutors would respond to future cases demanding legal action as a result of public outcry. Without public protest, there would not have been a trial for a non-law enforcement/private citizen who killed another American citizen, and the bar is becoming even lower for seeking indictments in the rise of police involved homicides of unarmed minority American citizens.

The Trayvon Martin case came with a scary realization for many minority families. If a regular citizen with no police authority can gun down an unarmed person, what will this mean for minority interactions with the police? The Trayvon Martin case also set a new legal standard for the victim by establishing the good black person versus the criminal black person. Basically, if you are a criminal, have a criminal record, history of drug abuse or drugs in your systems essentially the police or anyone with presumed credibility can come to your home, neighborhood, work or retail store and shoot you dead with no questions asked.

The killer only has to articulate they feared for their life or that the dead victim threatened them. For some reason, the killers in these situations are not drug tested or histories released unlike the victim who can no longer speak or defend themselves. It appears one can murder without fear of having a trial and can be cleared by their local police department who may choose not to preserve any evidence on the slim chance there maybe a trial.

The media attention of the Trayvon Martin case and his treatment as a victim publicly exposed the persistent racial divisions between black and white America. If you can honestly substitute a white woman, a white man, or yourself as a place holder for “what appeared to be a big black man” describing Trayvon, proceed to add back in George Zimmerman following you in his car, then following you on foot with a gun, and still arrive at the same conclusion, then race is not a factor in how you analyze events.

Supporters of Officer Darren Wilson view Mike Brown as the antithesis of Trayvon Martin, and they argue Brown was a violent criminal seen on camera being threatening toward another minority then attacked a police officer inside of his patrol car. Let’s say for the sake of argument this version of events is true. The question we should be asking is whether Darren Wilson used deadly force on an unarmed fleeing suspect once his safety was no longer being threatened. After Brown fled from the police car, what actions could Darren Wilson have taken to apprehend the suspect and minimize the loss of life as well as the potential loss of life of bystanders from shooting a hail of bullets?

Police officers do not have the authority to shoot fleeing suspects who are not in the act of harming another person despite what prosecutors lead the grand jury to believe. There is a fleeing felon law provision which exist only for the Bureau of Prisons in apprehending escaped convicts. Police officers with proper training would have call for back-up, set-up a perimeter, called in the K-9  units to track the suspect, put out a city wide alert with description of the fleeing subject, and followed in his police vehicle to keep a visual of the suspect.

In this case, Officer Wilson was unaware of Mike Browns’ involvement at the convenient store, and his involvement resulted from Brown walking in the street. Police officers possess the ability to obtain warrants for a crime based on a suspects physical description and clothing without having a name. Officers are trained not to go on a lone pursuit after a suspect because it increases the risks of your safety being compromised. There were many tools and options at Darren Wilson’s disposal as police officer other than exiting his vehicle and immediately begin shooting at a fleeing suspect. What if one of the stray bullets killed an innocent bystander?

An officer who can not do a risk assessment under pressure and cycle through the options at their disposal should not be a police officer. Retreating, surveying the scene, and calling for additional back-up are all options available to officers who want to minimize risks to their own life and the loss of life for others. Officers jumping out of their vehicles without arriving at a safe distance to assess the scene with guns blazing fail to take measures to minimize risks to themselves and others. In my opinion, Darren Wilson was not operating in effort to apprehend a suspect because he had already chosen to use deadly force before exiting his vehicle. Officers are not trained to wound when they pull their service weapon because they are trained to kill, and this tells me that Officer Wilson had already decided he was going to kill Mike Brown when he fired the first shot.

This case has become about what Mike Brown did to cause his death instead of whether Darren Wilson followed police procedure, whether the evidence corroborated his account after exiting his vehicle, and whether his actions were consistent with the discharge of his duties under the law and departmental policy. Instead, the prosecutors’ office focused largely on Darren Wilson’s account and eye witness testimony while leaving out pesky items such as forensic evidence and police protocol.

Did Wilson call out his stop of Brown and his friend to dispatch? Did Wilson have any communication with dispatch prior to Brown’s death? Where is the radio traffic and 911 recordings for the time of the incident? Where is Darren Wilson’s text messages and call logs following Brown’s death? Where were the shell casings found? Did he reload his weapon?

In other cases such as with John Crawford and Eric Garner where there is video evidence disputing initial reports by the police, officers in these cases still escaped a grand jury indictment. George Zimmerman’s exoneration from murder has set the standard so low that it will be virtually impossible to prosecute a law enforcement officer with a history of abuse of authority and use of force who kills an unarmed citizen.

The prevailing arguments give the impression that the police should not be questioned because they are charged with protecting us or officer safety is an automatic defense that does not need to be corroborated by evidence and police protocol. Many Americans who do not see the institutional racism and constructs disproportionately affecting minorities either are unaware, want to ignore, or want to rewrite the American history documenting the utilization of police and the criminal justice system by the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) to harm black Americans.

According to documents on PBS,

The Klan grew quickly and became a terrorist organization. It attracted former Civil War generals such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the famed cavalry commander whose soldiers murdered captured black troops at Fort Pillow. The Klan spread beyond Tennessee to every state in the South and included mayors, judges, and sheriffs as well as common criminals. The Klan systematically murdered black politicians and political leaders. It beat, whipped, and murdered thousands, and intimidated tens of thousands of others from voting. Read More

In the past, society was able to develop interventions because there was the acknowledgment of racial bias operating within our criminal justice system. What makes current times even more scary is the argument that we are in a post-racial society while dismissing the existence of racists and racial bias within police department and our legal systems across the country. Failure to implement measures, safeguards, and consequences within these systems will result in more loss of freedom and life that will disproportionately affect minorities. With the advent of for-profit prisons who are suing States for failure to maintain full capacity of their prisons, the current racially biased system is further incentivized to maintaining the status quo and resist change.

There is no doubt that progress has been made because black Americans no longer fear death for stating one’s opinion. However, progress is not an event rather than a continuum in which we must stay the course. We must always strive to be diligent in our assessment, reassessment, collection of data as well as establishment of benchmarks to prevent making the same mistakes of our tainted past. Even if you believe there is no racial construct within our police and criminal justice systems, you should still be advocating for the institution of measures to prevent it.

The poor collection of data on use of force, abuse of authority, citizen complaints, and mapping of high risk areas using GIS technology should be a priority in order to implement effective interventions that protect both citizens and officers. Body cameras are a great intervention tool to help protect both the officer and citizens in their interactions with the police, but it will also be ineffective if body cameras are not being used in the departments with the highest rates of incidents and complaints.

Ferguson Sparks Cross-Campus Dialogue about Racialized Police Violence

By Irene M. Ota, College of Social Work and Irene H. Yoon, College of Education

The unfolding events in Ferguson, Missouri sparked a cross-campus dialogue at the University of Utah to discuss racialized police violence and what concerned community members can do about it.  We were already planning this informal gathering to create a space to dialogue about Michael Brown and Ferguson, Missouri, co-sponsored by the University of Utah’s College of Social Work, College of Education, and the Women’s Resource Center.  Then, just days before the planned event, in Saratoga Springs, Utah, about 35 miles from Salt Lake City, a young mixed race Black man named Darrien Hunt was shot and killed by the police.  With this local case, the need for community connection and action on campus became even more palpable.

Irene Yoon
Co-Author and Facilitator Dr. Irene Yoon

We knew the University needed a campus-wide opportunity for people to find each other, dialogue, process concerns, and identify effective forms of action and engagement to press for change and collective urgency.  But, we didn’t know if anyone would come.

We have a largely commuter campus, so many students work jobs during the day.  We are in a state with relatively little community outcry over racialized violence.  We told ourselves that even a conversation with five people was important, in order to build connection and start a series of conversations and action.

The response was greater than we had anticipated, with over 40 people attending from numerous areas of the University of Utah and the greater community.  We were a diverse group in age, ability, academic discipline, profession, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity.

Students, staff, and faculty identified themselves as coming from sociology, chemistry, environmental science, psychology, theater, business, communication, and the U.S. Army (Fort Douglas, an Army Reserve base, is on campus), in addition to education, social work, and the Women’s Resource Center.  As each person introduced themselves, they shared their reasons for attending.

Many people felt they didn’t know who else to talk to, who else cared about the situations in Ferguson and in our own backyard.  Some people were there for very personal reasons—friends of Darrien Hunt, mothers afraid of what fatal police shootings mean for their children and grandchildren of color.

Others were angry about injustice, not only for Michael Brown, but for many other people of color, and had found their outrage was falling on deaf ears in other parts of campus or in their other communities.  Finally, almost all agreed that they wanted to be part of collective action and public pressure on local government and police departments, public and elected officials, and local media outlets.

Our Goals

In addition to meeting the needs above, we were explicit about our goals.  We felt a dialogue was necessary for our campus climate—for concerned individuals to have a space to have difficult conversations where they were allowed to speak their emotions.  We knew that, on this large campus, individuals would want to network and find each other.

As educators, we facilitators also wanted to be available to participants who needed to unpack competing accounts, imagery, media narratives, and statistics about Ferguson and racialized police shootings.  Finally, as individuals who had participated in many dialogues in the past that had petered out over time, we wanted to make sure we didn’t stop at talk, but also brainstorm constructive collective action.  We decided one first action could be a joint letter to the editor of several newspapers.

Our Approach

For a dialogue with individuals who wouldn’t know each other or have relationships with each other yet, we started with a structured two-hour process.  We began by establishing “ground rules,” or norms for participation and dialogue.  Next, we briefly situated the conversation in a long history of (officially or unofficially) sanctioned violence against young Black men.  About 10 minutes into the session, we were ready to begin.

For the first hour and a half, participants shared who they were, why they were participating in the dialogue, their emotions and concerns and questions about how and why Michael Brown’s and Darrien Hunt’s deaths had occurred.  We observed that the diverse group had a range of needs, from working through personal identity to wanting to show up in quiet support.  Some individuals shared what had pushed them over the tipping point from passive personal concern to joining a group dialogue for action.

Before moving on to our collective action item, we brainstormed tips and wisdom about what we could do in response to the shooting of Darien Hunt, as well as addressing racialized police violence more broadly.  Participants suggested:

  • Calling and emailing elected officials in this midterm election season (drafting a “script” for people who were worried about getting tongue-tied)
  • Writing letters to local police departments
  • Tweeting and leaving Facebook posts on pages of local police departments and elected officials
  • Forming an action group to serve as a “home base” for sharing information about events, action items, and resources
  • Speaking up within our own existing networks and communities (e.g., classes we teach, places of worship, our families).

Finally, for the last half hour, we presented drafts of several letters to the editor that we had tailored to each newspaper’s coverage of Ferguson and of other fatal police shootings like Darrien Hunt’s.  Participants read the letters, gave comments or suggested revisions, and had a few moments to consider whether or not they wanted to sign their names (or sign as “Anonymous”).  Virtually all participants signed on to these letters.  More have signed on since.

Implications for the Future

So what can we say now?  Was the event a success, in terms of our goals and needs?  We think so, because our main intention was to create space and build networks for the future.  Many connections between individuals and organizations were made – we noticed people staying after the event, crossing the room and shaking hands, exchanging emails and phone numbers.  Two social work students are creating a phone tree, which would alert individuals to incidents, concerns, and issues, and encourage them to write, email, and/or phone their legislators with possible resolutions and action.  Those letters to the editors will go the local newspapers, which we hope will be printed.  We plan to share them over social media networks regardless.

As with any grassroots community organization that is spurred by a single event, it can be hard to keep things like this dialogue going over time. One of our goals and guiding questions was how not to forget, but to stay engaged, despite everyone’s own busy lives and community engagement in disparate spaces.  We are cautious until the suggested initiatives take hold.  We will continue the dialogues and calls for action.  We are committed to supporting each other, staying socially conscious, and we are dedicated to moving forward.

Note: We would like to extend special thanks and appreciation to Debra Daniels, Assistant Vice President of Women’s Enrollment Initiatives and Director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Jennifer Nozawa at the College of Social Work, for their support and collaboration in planning and facilitating the event and this essay.

Letter to the Editor: A Social Worker’s Thoughts on the Killing of Michael Brown

This is a Letter to the Editor that I received from a member of the social work community. Although I disagree with the opinion and facts of this reader, I believe this Letter to the Editor provides a perfect example of how conservatives and non-minorities conduct their analysis of the events in #Ferguson. I will be writing a response in order to open a dialogue on the competing viewpoints. You may also want to view “Social Work Appears Absent from Ferguson Global Conversation”~Deona Hooper, MSW

Here is the Letter to the Editor in full:

Hi I’m a licensed clinical social worker who has been working in the field since 2000. I read your latest article “Social workers Appears absent in #Ferguson Global Conversation”. I appreciate your opinion on Michael Brown’s shooting & I know there is a tremendous amount of pain in the communities of color because of years of experiencing prejudice & discrimination. At the same time, different opinions need to be discussed openly for the conversation on race relations & police brutality to progress.

I consider myself a very socially liberal person, but I strongly feel most of the media, far left wing activists, & some prominent members of the black community were quick to label the PO a murderer without hearing all the crucial evidence from both sides.

surveillance_mike_brown_1I know Brown’s friend (Dorian Johnson) was a key eye witness from the beginning, but since the shooting, it has become clear he has a history of lying to the police. For example, Johnson told the police & the media after the shooting that Brown & himself were not doinganything wrong when they were confronted by the PO.

The video from just minutes earlier proves that Johnson was with Brown while Brown was committing the robbery & nearly assaulting the shop keeper. From my understanding, if Brown was still alive, he might be charged with a felony. We also now know Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of the confrontation which might help us understand his mindset at the time.

It’s also really difficult to take Johnson’s testimony of the shooting seriously. It was widely reported that in the past, he was accused of stealing a backpack & I believe lying to the police regarding the incident.  The PO also experienced a swollen face with a possible broken eye socket from his confrontation with Brown.  This information flies in the face of Brown being called a gentle giant.

Of course, Brown did not deserve to be killed at only at eighteen years old & I feel very sorry for him & his grieving & traumatized family. At the same time, there is a strong possibility that the PO would most likely not get charged with homicide because of some of the contradictory evidence I described.

I think one of the most important things to remember right now is for people to continue protesting for justice in the case, but at the same time not be so quick to jump to conclusions about the PO being a murderer & a racist. I’m aware there are still very racist cops throughout the country, but it does not mean the PO was not within the law to protect himself if Brown used physical force against him.

No matter if the PO is found guilty or not, we must allow our criminal justice system to examine all the evidence & make a final verdict. I just wanted to express my opinion to you & I hope I was respectful because I did not mean to be insensitive to anyone. I’ve never written an email to a social work site, but I’ve been following the Brown killing very closely.

Giovanni Forcina, LCSW

Police: Serving and Protecting the White Middle-Class and Mentally Well

A violent threat, a criminal, a gangster, a drug-dealer, a menace, it seems these are all the things the police see you as in the United States of America if you are a black male. If the current media coverage of the shootings of Mike Brown and more recently Kajieme Powell have taught us anything, it is that to be a young black man in America is to know, despite much progress, you will still be treated as a second-class citizen.

Police fire tear gas in Ferguson Missouri
Police fire tear gas in Ferguson Missouri

The first thing to note is that the cases of Mike Brown and Kajieme Powell have brought media coverage that is long over-due. These killings are in no way unique. Kimani Gray (aged 16), Kendrec McDade (aged 19), Timothy Stansbury Jr. (aged 19), Sean Bell (aged 23), Aaron Campbell (aged 25), Wendell Allen (aged 20), Ramarley Graham (aged 20),  Oscar Grant (aged 22). The list goes on.

All these young men were unarmed and all of them were killed by police officers. Just because these incidents have not made international headlines, does not mean that similar cases are not happening all across America on a frequent basis.

Many of these shootings are the result of deep-rooted racial stereotypes of African-American men. The racism is subtle and implicit. However, on other occasions the racism has been overtly hateful, such as in the case of Orlando Barlow.

In 2003, Barlow (aged 28) was surrendering on his knees in front of four Las Vegas police officers when Officer Brian Hartman shot him dead. During the investigation into the shooting it was revealed that Hartman and other officers had printed T-shirts labeled “BDRT,” which stood for “Baby Daddy Removal Team”.

Serious questions need to be asked about when firearms can be used by Law Enforcement Officers. Even if Kajieme Powell did steal from a convenience store, that does not warrant lethal consequences. As someone who disagrees strongly with the death penalty, I do not believe that the state should have the authority to kill its citizens. Even the death penalty, when implemented after years of careful consideration by a Court, still can and does get things wrong (the case of George Stinney being particularly heart-breaking).

How we expect police officers, responding to high-stress, high-speed situations with minimal information, to demonstrate clear judgement in the use of lethal force, is an impossibility. Police should of course have the right to defend themselves but this should be in the form of skilled de-escalation and disarmamant techniques. We know that it can be done.

Every 28 hours in the United States of America, someone dies at the hand of the state. This is an alarmingly high figure, especially as the state has proven, time and time again, that it cannot be trusted. Police statements from Mike Brown and Kajieme Powell’s shootings have not matched up to later released videos. In another recently highlighted case, police were shown to be lying about the arrest of Marcus Jeter. If the dash-cam video had not surfaced, proving the police had tampered with and concealed evidence, Jeter would just be one more African American male in prison victim to an unfair and unjust system.

The shooting of Kajieme Powell also raises alarm bells with regards to the police’s approach to people with mental health problems. Whilst I am not suggesting that Kajieme was mentally unwell, it is clear from the police report that they were aware, prior to arrival on the scene, that Kajieme was acting erratically and talking to himself. When they arrived, Kajieme shouted at the officers to shoot him, which of course, they did. Anyone currently feeling angry or depressed, who watched the video footage, will know now that the easiest way to commit suicide in America is to provoke the police. The police have to be trained  on how to deal with vulnerable and mentally unwell people without killing them, otherwise there will continue to be tragic consequences. Ronald Maddison was a forty year old man with severe learning disabilities who, on hearing police gunshots, ran away and was subsequently shot and killed by police officers.

Equally important, however, is the fact that the highly publicized killing of Mike Brown has rightly caused extreme anger across America and the rest of the world. Kajieme Powell did not have to be mentally unwell to act the way he did. Mike Brown’s killing sent a clear message across America that the system is racist, corrupt and murderous. It is entirely possible that Kajieme Powell was trying to further prove the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, that have for a long time reverberated around black communities: “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”

It is all too easy for the Political Class to become complacent over the issue of race. Since the election of Barrack Obama, there have been cries that racial equality has been achieved and that the Civil Rights Movement has come to a complete and happy conclusion with America’s first black President.

This could not be further from reality. Obama’s success story is the exception, not the rule. One out of nine African American men will be incarcerated between the ages of 20 and 34, and this is the rule. The fact that there are more black males in prison than enrolled in university should not be the rule. Malcolm X sums it up best when he said: “No matter how much respect, no matter how much recognition, whites show towards me, as far as I’m concerned, as long as it is not shown to every one of our people in this country, it doesn’t exist for me.”

We cannot underestimate what is happening here. Police officers are killing innocent citizens and lying about doing it. We must get over our disbelief and stop looking for other explanations as to why these atrocities have occurred and realize, what many communities in America knew already, that the police do not protect everyone equally. It is time to stand together regardless of race or religion and say enough is enough. We will take no more!


A Monster At The Heart Of British Policing

I have postponed writing this piece for several months now. However as more stories emerge on an almost daily basis, it has become clear that there is something rotten at the core of British Policing. This will, unfortunately, come as no surprise to the Black and Minority Ethnic Communities living in England who have been victims of institutional racism, intimidation and victimization for many decades. However, the stench of police corruption has now reached the nose of the political class.

scotland yardIn February of this year, several police officers were dismissed for criminal conduct after attempting to smear the reputation of Conservative Politician Andrew Mitchell. Whilst this of course is no more important than the daily injustices of Stop and Search, perversely it does mean that we now have national recognition of the problem and finally stand a chance of tackling it.

The police are an essential aspect of any civilized society and a core component in the battle between liberty and security. It is a job that I do not envy but one that I admire. Whilst people continue to harm others, we need people who are willing to stand up and be the ‘good guys’. Unfortunately, the line between good guys and bad guys is being irreparably blurred in the UK.

Last month, the final report of an internal investigation in to the work of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Demonstration Squad was presented to the public and the findings are highly alarming. It was revealed that from the mid 1980s to 2005, undercover police officers were secretly gathering intelligence on 18 families who were fighting to get justice from the police after their relatives had been murdered or had died in police custody. The report highlighted the fact that the information gathered by the police should only have been stored if it could have prevented crime or disorder and concluded that ultimately the information “should not have been retained and certainly not for the period it has been.”

What is particularly worrying about this and other cases is that it was not a one-off individual- a lone ranger- it was an organized group of people all willing to ignore and reject government guidelines, best-practice and human decency. This cannot be something that is simply swept under the carpet. It is terrifying to know that those we pay to protect us will put more energy in to protecting their own reputation. The notion of ‘police before public’ reeks of gang mentality.

As further stories emerge about police misconduct, I have been shocked to discover the true level and scale of police malpractice in Britain. I feel embarrassed that so little has been done to iron out the injustices that the BME community has struggled with for so long. Whilst it would be unfair to say that there are no honest and decent police officers, you only need to scratch the surface to realize that there is something significantly and dangerously wrong with the structure and ethos of the British Police Service.

In June of this year, a Court found that Firearms Officer Carol Howard had been subjected to discriminatory treatment by the Met Police due to the fact that she was black and female. The Court case revealed that the deletion of records of sex and race discrimination was common practice within the Met and was used as a means of ensuring that there are no findings of discrimination against them.

There are countless other examples that I could list. So many, in fact, that the Home Secretary Tereasa May was forced to do the previously unthinkable in May of this year. At this years Police Federation, she abandoned the usual deferential treatment given to the police force and rather read out a long list of recent police scandals. The Home Secretary made it explicitly clear that unless the police take heed of the recommendations of the Normington Report for police reform, the Government would have to impose reform upon them.

Courageously, Tereasa May directly addressed the Federation to say:

I want the police to be the best it can be. I want you – the representatives of the thousands of decent, dedicated, honest police officers – to show the public that you get it, that you want to take responsibility for the future of policing and you want to work with me to change policing for the better.

I hope that this speech was not mere rhetoric but genuinely marks the beginning of a determined effort to reform our police service. We cannot claim to live in a democracy if we do not prioritize accountability of those in positions of power.

There is a dark monster within the heart of the British police force and it is growing ever larger. We must act immediately. It is our duty to fight this monster. We owe it to the grieving families who have been spied on; we owe it to those women and men who join the police force to genuinely protect and serve their communities and we owe it to ourselves, because whilst this problem may not affect you directly today, if the monster is allowed to continue to grow, it won’t be a matter of if it will affect you but rather when it will affect you. And by then it will be impossible to defeat.

This is a serious problem and we can ignore it no longer. As Cornel West states: “The country is in deep trouble…We need the courage to question the powers that be, the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice.” We need as many voices as possible to speak out in order to create change and we need to speak out now.

It’s Called Community Policing Not “Hug A Thug”

Earlier this month, a 14-year-old Venzel Richardson was shot to death on the South Side of Chicago. After the shooting one of the commanding officers in the district asked for a list of all gang leaders in the surrounding area. After receiving that list, he visited their homes requesting they stop the shootings.

Chicago PD Superintendent Garry McCarthy

While other news outlets have referred to this strategy as “Hug a Thug”, officers are stating that this strategy is an intervention which consists of officers who visit gang members, referred to as custom notifications, to persuade them to stop the violence while providing positive resources.

They give contacts for jobs, social services referrals, and they also try to speak to family members too as well as encouraging the gang members to stay out of trouble.

According to the National Gang Center,

  • From 2007 through 2011, a sizeable majority (more than 80 percent) of respondents provided data on gang-related homicides in their jurisdictions.
  • Highly populated areas accounted for the vast majority of gang homicides: nearly 70 percent occurred in cities with populations over 100,000, and 19 percent occurred in suburban counties in 2011.
  • The number of gang-related homicides increased approximately 10 percent from 2009 to 2010 and then declined slightly (2 percent) from 2010 to 2011 in cities with populations over 100,000.
  • In a typical year in the so-called “gang capitals” of Chicago and Los Angeles, around half of all homicides are gang-related; these two cities alone accounted for approximately one in five gang homicides recorded in the NYGS from 2010 to 2011.

I believe that this intervention could work because community policing is a widely held best practice model. However, since 9/11, police departments have moved away from the community policing model which allocates funding to preventive programs in favor of militarization. As a result of increased funding from Homeland Security, police departments started purchasing tanks, armored cars, and more firepower while decreasing funding to community policing prevention programs. According to the Community Policing Dispatch website by the US Department of Justice, community policing should be one prong of a two-prong approach acting as counter balance to enforcement.

Rather than responding to crime only after it occurs, community policing encourages agencies to work proactively in developing solutions to the immediate underlying conditions contributing to public safety problems. Rather than addressing root causes, police and their partners should focus on factors that are within their reach, such as limiting criminal opportunities and access to victims, increasing guardianship, and associating risk with unwanted behavior. Read More

As a result of the increase militarization of police departments, police officers have a great deal of trust to gain within these communities, but community policing and events such as National Night Out can help to begin the process. The reputation of law enforcement officers have left many communities in fear of the public servants who are tasked with protecting them for various reasons such as racial profiling, police corruption, and unlawful shootings.

I believe police departments should be expanding their community policing models and hiring social workers to work in those Agencies to help design prevention programs based on their community practice expertise. After officers are able to regain the trust of not just gang members, but the community at large, I am convinced this model can make a different in all our lives. They may also be able to help facilitate the formation of support groups that could bring in other former gang members as mentors within the communities.

Whatever critics may think, it appears to be working:


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