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Policing must change

In June, I sat on a criminal justice reform panel with some distinguished guests from around the Commonwealth. During this discussion, we discussed many issues plaguing our criminal justice system, not only in Virginia, but also around the country.

I reasoned that we have to look at the culture of law enforcement; we have moved from a culture of “protecting and serving” to a culture of enforcing. As I observe the things transpiring around the country, it seems to be becoming more prevalent by the day. After reviewing the Sam DuBose video dozens of times, I find myself thinking about the history of “policing” in America; these individuals have consistently policed the disenfranchised in a disproportionate manner.

It has often been documented that contemporary American police departments are derivatives of slave patrols and night watches (Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas by Sally Hedden). Even though Robert Peel’s police reform tactics encouraged community relations and proactive patrolling, American police departments have always been reactionary. The “first” American police departments were created to ensure that slave revolts like the ones that transpired in Southampton and Harpers Ferry, W.V. were anomalies. They also wanted to keep boundaries between the settlers, Native Americans and immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. They didn’t want the “Wild Wild West” to become the norm in the United States.

With the turn of the century, the role of law enforcement officers evolved as the disparities in America became more ubiquitous. After the New Deal introduced Aid to Dependent Children (welfare) in 1935, police officers were used in welfare raids to guarantee compliance of the Social Security Act. Welfare benefits were limited to children of unemployed mothers; men weren’t allowed to live with women receiving benefits. During these raids, if one article of male clothing was found in the home, the police and social workers concluded that a man lived in the residence. One article of clothing was just cause for the elimination of welfare benefits.

Much like the previous two centuries, 21st century policing has been synonymous with disparate enforcement against disenfranchised populations that has often left citizens dead.

I have a great appreciation for the role that police officers could and should play in American society; however, I have a disdain for the culture that exists and is perpetuated by many of these departments around the country. As we see in the Sam DuBose tragedy, the officers corroborated a fabricated story to protect their own.

The culture of policing in America must change before we can truly move forward as a nation. We need our police to protect and serve instead of just enforcing. We can do this, but it will take a collaborative approach from both police departments and citizens. Let’s organize a forum to begin the revolution, right here in Farmville.

Taikein Cooper is a native of Farmville and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he majored in public policy analysis. He is a community servant, educational speaker and entrepreneur. His email address is taikeincooper@gmail.com.