Recent tragic police-related shootings have demonstrated yet again that sudden, violent deaths at the hands of police can capture headlines and public attention. But out of sight and forgotten are thousands of victims of illegal racially discriminatory encounters with police who survived, but who nevertheless ended up in prison cells.
Racial profiling incidents sometimes end with police violence, but more often they lead to a disproportionate number of people of color entering the criminal justice system. Once that happens, a cycle of prison, release and recidivism is likely to occur. This damages people, families and entire communities — and it costs us an enormous amount as a society, in dollars and lost human potential. Michigan is one of seven states that increased spending on prisons more than five times as fast as spending on education.
The financial impact alone of mass incarceration on our state is tremendous. According to a 2014 report by the Council of State Governments, Michigan spends 1 in 5 dollars on corrections. It costs $2 billion a year to run Michigan's prison system, whose population stands at 50,200 and is projected to top 56,000 within five years.
But the cost to people and families is even greater, especially for people of color. Nearly 2 in 5 black adults say that police have unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused them. In releasing this 2011 study, the American Psychological Association noted that "for black American adults, perceived racism may cause mental health symptoms similar to trauma and could lead to some physical health disparities."
Because many encounters with police result in arrests, convictions and the disproportional incarceration of people of color, the reform of our needlessly destructive criminal justice system as well as the end of the relentless expansion of our prison population must begin at the beginning — with police. The vast majority of police are public servants who do much good for their communities. But there are too many who aren't trained properly, or who are using outdated tactics that are deeply ingrained in their departments, such as racial profiling, harassment, and unlawful stop and frisk practices.
Case in point: Philando Castile, the motorist shot and killed by police in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, had been stopped 52 times by police since 2002 — an average of three traffic stops every year — amassing $6,588 in fines for the school lunchroom worker.
In 2008 — before the rash of well-publicized police shootings that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement — an article in Police Chief Magazine stated, "Communities of color suffer when aggressive and indiscriminate police tactics are imposed as well as when such tactics fail to bring peace and stability to their neighborhoods. Stepped-up enforcement of public ordinances and the use of aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics can increase tension between the police and minority communities, which view such tactics as intrusive, oppressive, misguided, and frequently based on racial profiling if they are not implemented appropriately and monitored closely."
In the past two years, as social media has enabled the dissemination far and wide of police shooting videos, things have gotten worse. Communities of color have become suspicious of police, even fearful.
To address these issues, ACLU of Michigan has developed a five-part approach that we have been urging law enforcement to pursue here in our state. Those steps include:
1. Engage qualified consultants to determine whether individual police departments practice racial profiling, and to prescribe a remedy.
2. Change police practice to prioritize de-escalation and disengagement during tense encounters.
3. Change police department culture that rests on stereotypes and outdated police practices like intimidation.
4. Begin monitoring of officers' mental health.
5. Discipline and prosecute officers when appropriate and warranted.
Statewide and nationwide reforms must be undertaken now for the safety of people of color, the safety of police themselves, and for the future health of a society that is suffering from the effects of our nation's decades-long failed experiment with mass incarceration.
This piece originally ran on Mlive.com.