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What’s behind racial disparities in American policing — and how to solve them

Widespread protests over George Floyd’s death and the treatment of black Americans by police more broadly have dominated the U.S. in recent days. For analysis of the issues at the heart of the unrest, Amna Nawaz talks to Art Acevedo, Houston’s chief of police, Tracey Meares, professor and founder of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School and Samuel Sinyangwe of the group Campaign Zero.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The protests have become about more than just policing, but the big disparities in how law enforcement treats African-Americans and other people of color and how that has led to too many deaths is at the heart of how this all began.

    We are going to spend some time examining that again tonight with Amna Nawaz, and a range of voices.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, as we have seen, there's been quite a difference in how police officers have responded to some of these demonstrations and unrest, especially when they have become more chaotic or violent.

    Houston's police chief, Art Acevedo, has become known for condemning Floyd's death and walking with protesters early on. He also was critical of the president, arguing he should — quote — "keep your mouth shut" if he had nothing constructive to say.

    But in the past day, some protesters have also demanded the release of body camera footage tied to a half-dozen Houston police shootings this spring.

    Art Acevedo joins me now.

    And, Chief Acevedo, thank you for being with us, and welcome to the "NewsHour."

    I want to ask you about the response that's gotten so much attention.

    You have made empathy a central part of your response, to get out and walk with the protesters. Why did you do that?

  • Art Acevedo:

    Well, because, first of all, I'm an immigrant, and English is my second language. And, quite frankly, I live and work and serve a city that is the most diverse in the country.

    And I wanted to feel the pain, especially with my African-American community. And for those who don't think this community, that their pain is real, I would ask them to march with them and look in their eyes and look at the tears that are being shed and hear the stories, and you will be empathetic.

    If you're not empathetic, seeing what we have all seen, the world has seen, in terms of how George Floyd died, then I think you're probably part of the problem in this country as it relates to police relations and basically racism in our country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have talked about changing that police culture and the language.

    You have also talked about the need for more de-escalation training. And I want to ask you, in response to what we have seen across the country from some police departments, if you set aside the pockets of looting and violence, the vast majority of the demonstrations have been largely peaceful, even as they have grown.

    And yet we have seen again and again in image after image that peaceful demonstrators with signs and bullhorns are met with a police force in full riot gear that looks ready for battle.

    How does that contribute to de-escalation?

  • Art Acevedo:

    Well, here's the problem.

    During the day in most cities, protesters come out, people that want to — that want to focus on the death of George Floyd and on police misconduct and on making change in this country come out.

    But as the day grows late into the afternoon and early evening to the night, then what happens is, we — too many people come out that are more, like, involved in anarchy, that want to not protest, but they want to hijack. They want to hijack a legitimate movement, which is counterproductive.

    And, sadly, for our police officers, people aren't throwing bottles and rocks and Molotov cocktail, until they're throwing them. We had officers without helmets on Friday when things started flying, and we had about nine officers hurt.

    And so I understand the perception. It's a fine balance. But, at the end of the day, we have to keep our officers safe. And their number one priority should be to keep the community safe.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I want to get back to the videos we referenced in our introduction, because, as we have seen videos of you marching with the protesters, and in the last day we have seen video of protesters angry with you, calling you a liar and a hypocrite, as you were out there speaking with them.

    And they're making reference to your refusal to release some police videos, including body cameras in recent Houston police shootings.

    It should be noted, on the same day George Floyd was killed, it was the sixth fatal Houston police shooting in as many weeks. Even the editorial board at The Houston Chronicle has said it's time to release those videos.

    So, why haven't you?

  • Art Acevedo:

    Well, first of all, I think it is important for the community to know that the one thing that's missing from that narrative is that almost every single one of those officer-involved shootings involved armed suspects that were confronting our officers, one.

    One happened right after an 80-year-old woman was stabbed to death at a Walgreens parking lot, who then proceeded to attack our officer with the same knife back. And I go out down the line.

    There are always consequences to all of our actions. This is the most diverse city in the county and the country. And in the event that one of those officer-involved shootings leads to an indictment, if we release everything, and there's so much pretrial publicity, we run the risk of a trial — of a motion to move the trial to another county that is not as — that is not as diverse, that is not as progressive, that is not reflective of our jury pool.

    And the worst thing that could happen is that we have this — a case moved to East Texas, West Texas, a place that isn't reflective of this community — it's the most diverse in the country — and we have an acquittal.

    That, in and of itself, is a problem. Then, the other piece is that we have had two families now that one family had demanded release of the video. And as soon as they saw it, we spent three hours with them, showed them all the videos. They don't want the videos released.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Just to be clear, after that process is completed, you will release those videos?

  • Art Acevedo:

    Absolutely, with the exception that I want to make the argument that, for the families where there's no criminal charges that don't want them released, I think that has to be part of the conversation after all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Before I let you go, Chief, very briefly, if you can, we mentioned you have been very critical of President Trump's rhetoric calling for a ramped-up use of force, for law enforcement to dominate the streets.

    You have seen the protests grow bigger, even in the days since. And I wonder what your concern is that the effect will be if the president continues with that kind of rhetoric.

  • Art Acevedo:

    Well, first, I urge you to quote me properly and to add the proper context.

    I actually said, please, that no one sees to be putting into the conversation. I think I was pretty direct when I said shut up. And I really want to say be quiet.

    But I know for a fact that men and women, and lives are on the line, this is a time for leadership. This is a time for reconciliation. And this is a time for a call for peace. And, most importantly, it's a time to use words that de-escalate the situation and moves the conversation forward.

    And no one's better positioned to either do it the right way or the wrong way and to have the most impact than the president of the United States. And we're calling on him to be an agent of positive change in community relations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chief Acevedo, thank you so much for being with us.

  • Art Acevedo:

    Thank you.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Let's focus in now further on some of these questions.

    A few numbers that underscore the disparities here: More than half of all people killed by police are black, according to recent numbers. And one of every 10 black men in his 30s is in jail or prison in the U.S. on a given day, according to The Sentencing Project.

    Now, two of our guests are engaged in this closely.

    Tracey Meares is the founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. She was a member of President Obama's Task Force on Policing. And Sam Sinyangwe is an activist and a policy analyst who studies this. He's also a co-founder of the group Campaign Zero.

    Welcome to you both, and thank you for being here.

    Sam, we hear those numbers. We report them again and again. You study the data, so help us put them into context. Have they been getting better or worse over time?

  • Samuel Sinyangwe:

    So, we built Mapping Police Violence, which is the most comprehensive database of people killed by police, built in 2015.

    Since then, we have been tracking every single incident that happens in this country. And what we have found is that the number of people killed by police each year has not gone down since the protests began in 2014. About 1,100 people are killed by police each year. That has been constant going back before the protests, going back to 2013, and going all the way up to 2019.

    However, there have been some changes that are notable. Police killings in large cities have declined about 30 percent since 2013. Meanwhile, police killings have increased in suburban and rural areas.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Meares, let's talk a little bit more about some of those policy reforms, because, obviously, a lot of people have been hearing, about them after video after video documenting some of those devastating numbers that we talked about.

    When you look at the policy reforms, everything from body cameras to banning choke holds and strangleholds, there are still some places where they don't work, even in New York, where those kinds of choke holds were banned. We know they still go on, and in some cases with impunity.

    So talk to us about the policy reform angle on this. What is still needed to be done?

  • Tracey Meares:

    I think what's needed to be done is to have a national baseline standard around use of force.

    I think Sam's observation that big cities, which have a lot more resources to engage in policy change and to actually train officers on strategies like de-escalation, banning choke holds, teaching and training officers on how to better engage with citizens to deal with the least — least forceful response, using citations, rather than arrests, or just talking to people, rather than citations, those are the kinds of strategies that big cities are engaged in.

    Smaller cities don't always necessarily have those resources or access to the technical assistance to do that work. And in the last four years, the current administration has not devoted resources to doing that work in the way that the cops office in the Obama administration did.

    Finally, I think what you're seeing in some of the major cities is a change in orientation of how to do policing as a general matter. That is, instead of focusing on ferreting out wrongdoers and focusing on deterrence-based strategies of getting people to obey the law through fear, instead, people are focusing on strategies that promote trust and legitimacy, a real change in the job of the police officer as we know it.

    But more needs to be done.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Sam, the big question here is accountability as well, right, that when bad actors, as they say, act badly, something happens. It sends a message.

    When you look at the accountability factor, what stands in the way of that accountability? And how can that part of this be fixed?

  • Samuel Sinyangwe:

    So, nationwide, only 7 percent of all reported excessive force results in an officer being held accountable, according to the Bureau of Justice statistics, which means, in 93 percent of cases where citizens report misconduct involving excessive force, officers aren't disciplined for it.

    Now, when we understand why that's occurring, we need to start talking about the systems and structures of accountability and the ways in which police unions in particular play an outsized role in informing what those structures look like.

    So, we did a project where we looked at the 100 largest cities in the country and examined their police union contracts, the contracts between the police union and the city that are usually in effect every four years, and then they get renegotiated.

    What we found was that, in contracts in cities like Chicago, police misconduct records are destroyed every five years. In other contracts, they're destroyed on schedules of between one and two years. Those places with those contracts are less likely to hold officers accountable, more likely to have misconduct, and more likely to shoot people.

    So, we have to talk about limiting the power of police unions to have a role in shaping the way in which communities can even possibly hold the police accountable. Even if you have the best police chief and the best mayor, in many cases, they are limited in what they can do, because the accountability system has already been negotiated away, and the unions have veto power over any changes to that structure.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Professor Meares, I apologize for a big question with just a few seconds left.

    But you have talked about the need for not just policy change, but culture change. Where does that begin?

  • Tracey Meares:

    I think that begins actually by making an effort to achieve some of the things that we just talked about today.

    It requires the fact that we need to have a serious deliberative democratic conversation, as I was saying before, about the shape of policing in the context of the state, whose job it is to support its citizens in ensuring the vitality of their communities.

    And that's not just a conversation about what police do. It's a conversation about the shape of public education, health care, housing. All of these things are related.

    And so, when people are focusing on policing right now, they need to understand that that is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the way in which people interact with the state.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Professor Tracey Meares of Yale Law School and Sam Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero.

    Thanks so much for being with us.

  • Samuel Sinyangwe:

    Thank you.

  • Tracey Meares:

    Thank you.

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