The Symbol of the Bended Knee

Commentary Andrea Shelton, Ph.D.

The human knee has gotten a lot of press lately. Governmental authorities had a knee jerk reaction to the thousands of protestors around the country, ordering troops to prepare to curtail peaceful activities. Protestors have been kneeling, often with police, in solidarity for the reasons for the protest- years of police brutality targeted at African American males. Colin Kaepernick was also filmed kneeling at football games, four years ago, a silent protest for the same issue. The most famous knee, however, is that of former officer Mr. Derek Chauvin, kneeling on the neck of Mr. George Floyd. What do the two events have in common? The bended knee caused the loss of a job for the two men. That is the only commonality, however.

The world, not just residents of the city of Minneapolis or the state of Minnesota, or surrounding states, were outraged at the torture inflicted on Mr. Floyd. Globally, people are acknowledging the crude realization that police brutality against ethnic minorities is of pandemic proportions. Many Black citizens and immigrants to countries in nearly every continent on the globe for been targeted and treated unjustly, no knees about it.

What is different in 2020, that makes the matter so urgent? Police departments have been in existence since the time of slavery to protect slave owners from subordinate “workers”. The slave economy had to been protected at all costs. Nepotism was rampant in some units, with brothers engaging one another’s services to protect the family’s business holdings. More recently, a number of police officers were formerly in the military, trained to kill with bare hands.

There have been efforts to reform the police over the years while broadening their responsibilities, with mixed results. Unions have been organized for job security and protection. Different training for the various and numerous situations they may encounter have been instituted. Educational standards have been raised and psychological testing has been mandated. Typically, when an officer was dismissed from a unit in one city or state, he/she may have been able to secure the same position in another jurisdiction. Laws have been created to protect the police from some of the actions they initiated, that may have resulted in the loss of property or a life. There may have been little or no recourse for the victim, although the actions of the police were deemed inappropriate.

What has been done to reform policing to this point has failed to keep up with the changes in the community, states and nationally. Creating special units to respond to domestic violence cases or a mentally ill person are admirable, but not enough. Advocating that police officers live in the communities they serve or engage in community outreach activities have produced some positive results, but again, not enough. Adding body cameras and changing the equipment and tactics used to subdue a suspect, again, good initiatives, but not enough. The system of policing is to be commended for taking these and other initiatives, but, unfortunately, more change is needed, as it has not been enough.

Citizens need to be more actively engaged in police reform. They are the individuals for whom the strategies are intended, so there should be more input. Citizen advisory boards have been helpful in some jurisdictions. Adding more female officers was a milestone. African American men and women being promoted to higher ranks has changed police forces all over the country. What more can we do, you ask?

Incorporating more culturally competence training is a start. Denying positions to officers from one jurisdiction to another, when there have been substantiated complaints against that individual. Creating more positions to which individuals have to be elected by the citizens, with term limits. Encouraging citizens to vote for candidates at all levels with a reasonable and rational platform for police reform.

Documenting excessive force on camera is one strategy that has proven effective. Submitting letters of written complaints to authorities when irregularities in police behavior are observed, with the intent that some disciplinary action may be taken. The more letters, the more likely some action will be taken to investigate the situation. Donations to organizations whose mission it is to oversee police matters is another suggested strategy. Creating more volunteer positions at the police station, to maintain a better connection with the community may be another option. Encouraging more research of challenging matters encountered by the police and the various ways those situations were addressed may be catalogued for reference. A common repository to store the information may be created for use by all departments, similar to the files and records the police use to track criminal activities. Allowing police officers to demonstrate other skills- renderings of fine arts projects and displaying them in the stations to create a more community friendly atmosphere. You may say, that suggestion is going a bit to far, but …

The police have a big responsibility to “serve and protect”. The public is demanding that the motto apply to all, not just a select few. There may be more kneeling, but this time to pray that reforms work.

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