Stephanie Sy takes a deeper look at America's policing practices and the obstacles to meaningful reform with Christy Lopez. Lopez oversaw the "pattern-or-practice" investigations of police departments at the Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017, and now teaches at Georgetown Law, where she co-directs their Innovative Policing Program.
Critical questions about police response and the use of force are front and center around the country, it seems, every day.
Many voices in the communities that are most affected are challenging the rationale and explanations of law enforcement. Moreover, new and disturbing videos showing deadly confrontations have changed the landscape permanently.
As Stephanie Sy reports, this past week has dramatically underscored all of this again and is leading to questions about why more changes haven't taken effect.
And a warning:
This report includes some disturbing images from those videos.
Just over a week after Derek Chauvin's multiple-count conviction for the murder of George Floyd, a rash of other deadly police encounters have come to light.
Last week, 42 year old Andrew Brown Jr. was shot and killed in his car by sheriff's deputies in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They were carrying out a search warrant.
Say his name!
The shooting has led to growing protests, even as new details emerged today.
District attorney Andrew Womble said Brown hit officers with his car before police fired.
The next movement of the car is forward, it is in the direction of law enforcement, and makes contact with law enforcement. It is then and only then that you hear shots.
Also today, a judge denied a request for releasing police body camera videos from the incident to the public. Earlier this week, the Brown family and attorneys were allowed to view a 20-second clip and were granted access to more footage today.
They run up to his vehicle shooting. He still stood there, sat there in his vehicle with his hands on the steering wheel while being shot at.
He finally decides to try to get away. And he backs out, not going towards the officers at all. There was at no time in the 20 seconds that we saw where he was threatening the officers in any kind of way.
The Brown family also commissioned an autopsy that confirmed their view that the killing was unjustified.
Brown's son spoke on Tuesday.
Yesterday, I said he was executed. This autopsy report showed me that was correct.
Just coming to check on you, make sure you're OK.
Across the country, in Alameda, California, police released body camera video on Tuesday of an arrest from April 19. Officers had received a 911 call for a man who appeared drunk or disoriented.
Come over here. We don't want you to fall down. OK?
I got it.
When 26-year-old Mario Gonzalez didn't show I.D., officers attempted to arrest him. As Gonzalez struggled, they pinned him to the ground, with their knees and elbows on Gonzalez's back for more than five minutes.
Please don't do…
Please don't do what?
Gonzalez stopped breathing and soon died in an incident that conjures up images of George Floyd's death.
In Chicago today, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability released footage of a fatal police shooting of a 22-year-old man from last month. The video shows police in a foot chase with Anthony Alvarez and an officer yelling at him to drop the gun seconds before firing.
Hey, drop the gun! Drop the gun!
A handgun was found at the scene.
And in Loveland, Colorado, surveillance footage was made public Monday that showed police officer Austin Hopp joking about dislocating a 73-year-old woman's shoulder as he arrested her.
Did you hear the pop? When I had her up against the car when you first got there, I was like, OK, you're going to play. I was pushing, pushing, pushing, and I hear pop.
I hate this.
This is great.
I hate it. I hate it.
I love it.
I hate it.
Last June, Karen Garner, a woman with dementia, left a Walmart with about $14 worth of items without paying. She was stopped by police while walking and forcefully arrested.
Stay on the ground.
Her attorney says she sustained multiple injuries during the incident, including a broken arm.
We take a deeper look at America's policing practices and the obstacles to meaningful reform with Christy Lopez. She oversaw so-called pattern-or-practice investigations of police departments at the Department of Justice from 2010 to 2017. She now teaches law at — excuse me — she's teaches criminal justice at Georgetown Law, where she co-directs their Innovative Policing Program.
Professor Lopez, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."
It was bodycam videos worn by police that brought many of these incidents we just reported on to light. What is your take on the usefulness of these cameras and whether they are doing what they are supposed to do as far as police accountability?
Yes, thank you for having me.
As difficult it as it is to watch that bodycam footage, I do think it is a very important tool for transparency and accountability. It is not a panacea. It absolutely has to be supported by the right policies, the right training, the right leadership, so that we do more than just see those videos.
We have to see those videos, and learn from them, and change the way policing happens.
They don't seem to be acting as a deterrent in some cases.
A lot of these incidents actually happened around former Officer Chauvin's trial and his conviction.
Why has it been so difficult? After all of these years and discussions about police training, implicit bias, changing police culture, why has it been so difficult to change police response, especially when it comes to the use of lethal force?
Well, there is some education that body cameras do change behavior.
But we need to do so much more than just change some behavior. One of the reasons it's so hard to change policing is that there are 18,000 police agencies, and there's no centralized, really, regulation of them.
So, you can do be doing things completely right in one place and completely wrong in thousands of other places. The other reason that it's really difficult to change policing is that much of what is wrong with policing comes from outside policing.
To some extent, police do what we asked them to do. And we have made a lot of incredibly harmful policing perfectly legal. We ask them to respond to situations all the time that really they're not the best tool for the task.
When you have that, and you have that happening millions of times every year, you're going to have some really negative outcomes that could have been avoided.
Well, I want to talk a little bit more about what you're referring to there.
You wrote recently in an opinion piece for The Washington Post that: "We have turned policing into an impossible endeavor, one that underprotects communities, even as it needlessly provokes conflict."
You talk about how police are responding to everything from traffic stops to active shooters. How can that lead to more police violence? And what can be done about that?
Yes, the problem is that we have come to over-rely on policing for our public safety needs. And, sometimes, we rely on them for all sorts of things we shouldn't be relying on them for, for example, raising revenue.
And so just to take the example of traffic enforcement, a lot of police stops happen every year, 20 million of them. And many of those stops, millions of those stops have nothing to do with traffic safety.
They might have to do with an agency being used to raise revenue for its city. It might have to be — it might be happening because officers are urged to use stops as a pretext to search for drugs or guns. When that happens, the individuals being stopped know they're not being stopped for any genuine public safety reason. They're annoyed.
Sometimes, like Lieutenant Nazario, who we saw in a video a few weeks ago, they're terrified. And police, they're very used to these stops. They aren't sensitive to the harm that people feel. And they're used to having their way.
And so they — that's just a recipe for conflict.
And we saw in one of those videos that, in some cases, they're referring to people — they're being called on cases where people clearly have dementia or some other sort of mental illness that they're also having to cope with.
I want to talk about federal oversight, because you actually led a federal investigation after the killing of Michael Brown in 2014 into the Ferguson Police Department. We now do have federal agencies looking into several of the incident and a few of the police departments involved in recent incidents of police violence.
What can these probes and consent decrees do and what can they not do to reform police?
Yes, it's a really good question.
And you're absolutely right. We don't need police responding to individuals who have dementia who took $14 worth of goods from Walmart. And that's exactly what decrees like this are meant to address.
I thought it was really encouraging that both of the investigations announced by the Department of Justice of Louisville and of Minneapolis specifically talk about the fact that they're going to look at the police response to individuals who are in behavioral — who have behavioral health disabilities.
That includes people in mental health crises. That includes people with dementia. That includes people with autism. And those are the kinds of interactions that probably — we know, most of time, do not need a police response.
And when you get a police response, they don't have the training. They can often traumatize people just because they have guns and handcuffs. And that's not the kind of response we need. So it's really encouraging that the Department of Justice seems to be hearing what communities have been saying, that we need a different response besides police for individuals who are in behavioral health crisis.
And, hopefully, they will be working with Minneapolis and with Louisville to come up with better responses to situations like that, rather than sending police.
As you have said, there is no one panacea that's been identified yet.
Christy Lopez with Georgetown Law, thank you for joining us with your insights.
Thank you for having me.
Watch the Full Episode
Stephanie Sy is a PBS NewsHour correspondent and serves as anchor of PBS NewsHour West. Throughout her career, she served in anchor and correspondent capacities for ABC News, Al Jazeera America, CBSN, CNN International, and PBS NewsHour Weekend. Prior to joining NewsHour, she was with Yahoo News where she anchored coverage of the 2018 Midterm Elections and reported from Donald Trump’s victory party on Election Day 2016.
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