November 29, 2014

by Hedy Weinberg

Shame. Outrage. Frustration. No surprise. These are the emotions I felt and I heard expressed by many after the grand jury's failure to indict the Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. However, the grand jury's decision must not distract us from the broader issue: Police in America disproportionately use excessive — sometimes fatal — force against people of color.

Many of these encounters are the direct result of racial profiling — both when police officers stop people solely based on race, and when they engage in selective enforcement of nonviolent infractions disproportionately in communities of color. A recent USA Today analysis of FBI arrest records underscores these racial disparities in arrest rates across the country. Nearly 1,600 police departments across the country arrest black residents at rates even more disproportionate than the arrest rates in Ferguson, including two dozen jurisdictions in Tennessee.

Ferguson is symbolic of communities of color nationwide that have a profound disconnect with local law enforcement because they experience racial profiling, excessive force and misconduct by some, though not all, police officials. These age-old experiences have led to a breakdown in community-police relationships, with devastating results.

Michael Brown's death highlights the need for confronting racial injustice in America. The best response to the grand jury decision is to ensure that no more young men of color are needlessly killed by police, through implementation of meaningful, systemic law enforcement reforms.

The challenges we are confronting are monumental, but we will not let up in our tireless pursuit of structural change. Specifically, needed reforms include adoption of a zero-tolerance policy toward racial profiling and an increase in training, including training on implicit bias; greater transparency and accountability by law enforcement agencies; annual data collection and analysis of excessive force and racial profiling; and law enforcement agencies composed of people from the communities they serve.

In times like these I am inspired by the next generation of civil rights activists — young people who are standing up for fairness and justice and speaking out against police brutality. Students from Fisk University, Meharry Medical College, American Baptist College, Tennessee State University, Vanderbilt University and others have organized or joined in peaceful protests. They stand on the shoulders of those students who more than 50 years ago trained under Rev. James Lawson, sat down at lunch counters in downtown Nashville to desegregate them and traveled to Alabama to register voters.

In times like these it is also important to remember that many law enforcement officers carry out their jobs admirably and with respect for the communities they serve. For example, on Monday before the grand jury announcement, Metro Nashville Police Chief Steve Anderson met with community leaders to prepare for the rallies that would follow. In addition, all reports indicate that at Wednesday evening's rally, police officers supported protesters' First Amendment rights to gather and speak out.

The needed reforms to our criminal justice system should be driven by the communities directly harmed, key civil rights groups like ACLU and NAACP, law enforcement agencies, clergy, and elected and appointed officials. Michael Brown's death was tragic and it is our collective responsibility to ensure that what happened in Ferguson never happen again.

We are committed to helping build community-police partnerships with the shared goal of justice, fairness, respect and public safety. We invite you to join with us.

Hedy Weinberg is executive director of ACLU-TN.

This op-ed appeared in The Tennessean on November 29, 2014.