Five years after Ferguson, and four years after a national commission, the controversy over police use-of-force against unarmed civilians has entered the politics of a presidential campaign.
The issue emerged poignantly Thursday night during the second round of debates among Democratic presidential contenders, when South Bend, In., Mayor Pete Buttigieg was assailed for the recent fatal shooting in his city of Eric J. Logan, who is black, by a white officer.
Although the episode was overshadowed by a riveting attack by Sen. Kamala Harris on former Vice President Joe Biden’s support of busing in the 1970s, the Buttigieg moment arguably could help frame the 2020 presidential campaign’s approach to justice issues.
Buttigieg, in a startling admission, said efforts by his city to improve policing and respond to criticism by local African Americans of police bias had clearly failed.
“I couldn’t get it done,” he admitted.
He said earlier, “It’s a mess and we’re hurting. I could walk you through all the things we have done as a community, all the steps that we took, from bias training to de-escalation, but it didn’t save the life of Eric Logan.
“Until we move policing out from the shadow of systemic racism, whatever this particular incident teaches us, we will be left with the bigger problem of the fact that there’s a wall of mistrust put up by one racist act at a time.”
Challenged by Rep. Eric Swalwell of California why he didn’t use his executive powers to “fire” the police chief, Buttigieg glared back without answering.
Other contenders chimed into the debate, with Harris pointing out that as California Attorney General, she had ordered all of the state’s officers to be equipped with body cameras.
(The bodycam assigned to the officer in South Bend was not turned on during the incident.)
But Buittigieg’s frank admission of how police were affected by “systemic racism” is likely to resonate, particularly with civil rights advocates who say that little has effectively changed over the past five years, despite high-level efforts to reform police training, improve police-community relations, and create police forces with more diversity.
Another candidate, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, and a former mayor of Denver, said his city formed a civilian police oversight commission and diversified its police force in two years following a police shooting.
“I think the real question that America should be asking is why, five years after Ferguson, every city doesn’t have this level of police accountability,” Hickenlooper said.
“I’ve got to respond to that,” Buttigieg replied. “Look, we have taken so many steps toward police accountability that, you know, the FOP (Fraternal Order of Police) just denounced me for too much accountability.
“We’re obviously not there yet, and I accept responsibility for that because I’m in charge.”
Buttigieg received some support from his hometown for his candor, reports the South Bend Tribune.
“He’s not the person who is going to shout out and say shut up. He’s always been a civil person,” said Talisa Cortelloni . “He’s always been a person who gives everybody the right to speak their mind.”
The May 2015 report of the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, commissioned by then-President Barack Obama following the shooting of an unarmed civilian in Ferguson, Mo., called on police to transform from a “warrior” to a “guardian culture.”
“Building trust and nurturing legitimacy on both sides of the police/citizen divide is the foundational principle underlying the nature of relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve,” the report said.
But since the report, there have been dozens of fatal use-of-force incidents by police of around the country, underlining the conviction by community leaders that little has changed.
Police misconduct has received little attention from the current presidential contenders, reflecting the fact that these are largely local issues, but it is likely to become a major factor for African American voters in crucial primary states.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of the few who attempted to address the problem publicly during Wednesday night’s debate in Miami, when he pointed out that he had to counsel his son, who is the child of his interracial marriage, to be careful around police.
“I’ve had to have very, very serious talks with my son, Dante, about how to protect himself in the streets of our city … including the fact that he has to take special caution because there have been too many tragedies between young men and our police,” said de Blasio, who is in charge of the country’s largest police force.
The president of New York’s Police Benevolent Association (PBA), Patrick Lynch, released a statement condemning the mayor’s remarks, reported Fox News.
“Mayor de Blasio has apparently learned nothing over the past six years about the extremely damaging impact of anti-police rhetoric on both cops and the communities we serve,” Lynch said.
“The hostile and dangerous environment we now face on the street is a direct result of the demonization of cops by de Blasio and other elected officials.”
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report.