Race, Police & the Pandemic


JELANI COBB: We really need a kind of gigantic systemic overhaul in so much of the country. Things that are seemingly unrelated, but from our educational system, our healthcare system, like all these things that ultimately culminate in the explosions that we've seen in the past week. 


RANEY ARONSON: That's Jelani Cobb, a historian and Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, and a writer for The New Yorker. He's also reported on issues of policing and race for FRONTLINE. 


COBB: You're never going to have a time where you have bad housing, bad education, poor quality of employment and low wage work, but you have pristine policing. 


ARONSON: I talked to Jelani about what recent events mean at this critical moment. I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.


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ARONSON: So, Jelani, you know, we've been texting over the last few days and we've been discussing what's up, but it's great to finally talk to you and thanks for joining me on the Dispatch. 


COBB: Yeah, thank you for having me. I wish it was a more upbeat subject matter today. 


ARONSON: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, you've covered tensions between the police and the black community for a long time and I was thinking last night as we were going back and forth that before Minneapolis, there was Baltimore before Baltimore, there was Ferguson and it goes back decades and hundreds of years. You tweeted this weekend, and I'll just read your tweet because I found it really profound. You said, you know, ‘We're in uncharted territory when something happens in Minneapolis, and they're setting cars on fire in Salt Lake City.’ What makes this moment different in your mind? 


COBB: Yeah, I think we've seen quite frankly, maybe I've been jaded because I've been doing this work for such a long time. And it's a horrible reality. But we've seen lots of black people die on video. We saw just not even a month ago, the release of the video in Georgia, in Brunswick, Georgia where Ahmaud Arbery was shotgunned.


ARCHIVE: ...Georgia and the latest developments in a fatal shooting we have been following. Police have arrested and charged two white men for the killing of 25 year old Ahmaud Arbery…  Ahmaud Arbery was killed after two men, white men chased him. Now, the video released… Video released yesterday has brought national attention to... 


COBB: It was really striking to me that so much response has come from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. And I think there are a few dynamics there, one of which is certainly the fact that we're in the middle of a pandemic. People are at home that people have had nothing to distract them from watching TV or looking at social media or the things that you know, everywhere that this video has proliferated. And I also think, in kind of retrospect, maybe it was more predictable that people would react this way, purely because of the length. It took nine minutes for this man to die. And throughout the course of it, he's narrating saying, you know, ‘They're killing me,’ and you know, calls out for his deceased mother, it's a really horrible spectacle. And people just were basted in that. And so, you know, these tensions overflowed. And we think about Minneapolis, it's been in the news before, you know, for issues around policing. But it’s not a place that you think of in terms of like, you don't immediately think of African Americans, although there is a significant African American history there. It's not Chicago. It's not, you know, Detroit or New York, you know, places where, you know, the kind of long history and significant numbers of people who've been there, you know, people of African descent who've been there and so this happens in Minneapolis. It could quite frankly, have gone underneath the radar and the way that some other situations have. Then the dynamics that we just talked about, made sure that it wouldn't. 


ARCHIVE: At this hour fires are still burning on the south side of Minneapolis after protesters took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, the unarmed, handcuffed black man who pleaded with a police officer to let him breathe, as the officer…  


COBB: And then it spread across the country. 


ARCHIVE: Protests have now moved to the Utah State Capitol. Here's a live look at what it looks like right now… (protestors chanting ‘I can’t breathe’)


COBB: For me, Salt Lake City was just a kind of point where I looked up and said, ‘What is happening here?’ You know, this is, you know, I don't know what the black population of Salt Lake City is, but it's not huge. And then even with many of the protests, the crowds there in some instances have been overwhelmingly white. And so this is a very different kind of situation. 


ARONSON: Yeah, I mean, I was thinking back about our own reporting with you and looking at other incidents. Have you seen anything like this happen before where there's such a convening across the country in protest?


COBB: Yeah, we have, you know, we saw Ferguson in 2014, which is probably the closest example of it. Although Ferguson interestingly enough, you know, there were, you know, lots of people of different backgrounds who were outraged by the situation in Ferguson. But I don't think that it was the kind of rainbow spectrum that we've had in reaction to Mr. Floyd's death. And, you know, then you go back, you know, a few decades, of course, it was Miami in the 1980s. And then you get back to the 1960s, where there was this whole spate of these reactions. And one of the things I think that made it interesting to work on Policing the Police is just the simple fact that this question has come up so many times, and it's like a test that we have failed on multiple occasions. And, you know, the real question in that film was, is it possible for people to get it right under any circumstance? 


ARONSON: Right. And I remember at the time, you know, we promised each other that we'd keep reporting that because we didn't have a direct answer to that at the time. On that issue, you know, I was looking at the record of the Minneapolis Police Department and also this officer. And of course, their history really points to, you know, something should have been done earlier. So when you look at it through that prism, you know, what, what was at play here? How could that have continued to go on in that regard? 


COBB: Yeah, I think that this takes us directly from what happened at the end of that film, where we were in the country on the issue of policing in 2016, and where we were the following year with a different administration. And what we had essentially been looking at were consent decrees, which were the primary mechanism that the Department of Justice was using to reform troubled police departments and they come out of the 1992 uprisings after Rodney King was beaten by the Los Angeles Police. And what happened in the legislation two years later in the ‘94 Crime Bill was that the DOJ was given these broadly expanded powers to implement reforms in police departments. And, you know, its had kind of a checkered history, some successes, some places where they are less successful. But we were interested in seeing what exactly is happening now on the ground with this? Well, the following year, there's a different attorney general, it's safe to say that Eric Holder and Jeff Sessions saw these issues very differently. And so in a speech to a National Police Organization in 2018, Jeff Sessions, reiterated a point that he'd made at various other times throughout his tenure as attorney general, but he really did not believe there was such a thing as a systemically troubled police department. And he said there are occasionally police officers who do the wrong thing. But there's no real issue with departments themselves being rogue. 


JEFF SESSIONS: But in the last several years, law enforcement as a whole, has been unfairly maligned and blamed for the unacceptable actions of a few of their bad actors. 


COBB: And I mean, that just was empirically disprovable. I mean, we've seen departments themselves saying, we have problems and we were interested in having the Department of Justice come help us to create a different kind of rapport with the community that we're supposed to protect. And so that led to essentially curtailing the use of these consent decrees. And now, we've been in a period where the DOJ is very reluctant and in some ways, it doesn't have the backing institutionally to step in when a police department seems to be chronically problematic. And there's a line that we can see between 2017 and where we are in 2020.


ARONSON: You know, I am interested in you helping us understand a little bit more about this for people who don't know what a consent decree is, um, first of all, just talk to us about the concept of that.


COBB: So in essence, you can call for a department to be investigated. Sometimes these things happen through a bureaucratic mechanism. Sometimes they happen through communities, you know, petitions, people will ask the DOJ to take a look at a police department. The fact that the DOJ looks at the department doesn't necessarily mean that they will deem it as troubled. They've sometimes looked at the departments and said, well, there's certainly some things that are wrong here. But we're not going to say that the department is so rotten that it needs to be reformed, it needs federal intervention to get their house in order. And sometimes they do. You know, sometimes they'll say, ‘Well, yeah, these problems are substantial enough and chronic enough that we really do need to step in here.’ 


ARCHIVE: The goal is to put structures in place and requirements in place for police supervisors and police managers to do their job… It’s a 227 page document all because of the Freddie Gray case, but to those who work in the… The consent decree resulted from the protests that followed the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown… A consent decree is what they get, along with federal judicial oversight is a mandated tightening of police supervision… Complaints about officers who cause trouble and also address issues with excessive force, unconstitutional stops in the African American community, these are all problems that were outlined… 


COBB: They essentially prescribe a series of reforms. They'll look at what's going on in the department, what’s wrong, what the biggest issues have been, and they come up with a list of things that the department has to do in order to come into compliance, and that the reform process is then overseen by a federal monitor.  And this is a person that is usually selected by the DOJ, but with input from the departments themselves. So the federal monitors are people who actually oversee the implementation of the reforms, you know, whatever it is the DOJ says needs to happen, these are the people who are charged with looking at getting you from point A to point B as a department. And like any kind of program, you have some successes, you have some things that don't work out as well. The irony of this, maybe one of the most interesting footnotes in this, is that Los Angeles, which, you know, in the 1980s and 1990s, was notorious as a troubled police department was actually one of the best examples of the consent decree program working. And so over the ensuing decade, they rose much higher in the rankings of how community people saw them. And they actually started to implement things that were innovative kinds of policing. So sending out social workers with police officers on calls, for instances, yeah, instances where, you know, law enforcement isn't exactly what you need. If you have a person who has a mental health crisis, then maybe that's not the time that you know, a law enforcement person is best equipped to handle it and, and so all these things that were really kind out of the box thinking for how policing could be done. And you know, Los Angeles was a beneficiary of that. 


ARONSON: So the Trump administration comes in and Jeff Sessions runs the Department of Justice. What was the first sign to you that the ideas of the Obama Administration really trying to push forward on some of these consent decrees, what was your first sort of big signal that things would be different?


COBB: So here was a real sign that you know, there was, the winds were blowing in a different direction. And that involved a case which has become fairly infamous in its own right. And that was the death of a 17-year-old boy in Chicago by the name of Laquan McDonald. 


ARCHIVE: The video of Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald 16 times was enough for prosecutors to charge him with first degree murder. But tonight newly released documents detail the very different story Chicago police officers told right after McDonald was killed. 


COBB: He was shot by a police officer. And the report of what happened in the course of the shooting differed substantially from what video later showed, but the police department and in many regards the administration of the Mayor, Rahm Emanuel, succeeded in suppressing that video for over a year. And when the video comes out, you know, there are huge consequences, you know, politically, socially, to find out about other things that were going on with the Chicago P.D. operating a black site where essentially torture was happening, people who they suspected of crimes, all sorts of things that just qualify as it grossly unconstitutional. And one of the things that was kind of slam dunk, it was a given that this was a Police Department that needed to be reformed, that there needed to be a consent decree, this was exactly the kind of scenario that this program was created for. 


LORETTA LYNCH: I'm here to announce that the Department of Justice has opened an investigation into whether the Chicago Police Department has engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law. Specifically, we will examine a number of issues related to the Chicago Police Department's use of force, including its use of deadly force, racial, ethnic and other disparities and its use of force and its accountability mechanisms. 


COBB: But then there became questions about whether or not this consent decree actually would happen once the new administration came in. And so you saw Chicago and Baltimore which also had had issues because of the Freddie Gray incident there, and so those cities were racing to get their consent decrees completed before Jeff Sessions stepped in as attorney general. And so there was a sign from the top that there was going to be a kind of a different dispensation as it came to those issues, almost from day one.


ARONSON: So considering the fact that the Department of Justice may not be pushing forward on these consent decrees, I mean, it's always also up to the local police department to be looking at the systemic issues inside their own department or an officer in the case of Minneapolis. So what also could be going on in addition to the Department of Justice's actions?


COBB: So, here's where it gets interesting. In more than one circumstance, you know, I've seen departments where there were issues or problems, and you have a police chief who is aware that there are problems there. And the issue is, often you think that the issue is with the police chief, it actually is not. The problem is more lies more with the police union. And so you have sometimes conflict between chiefs who want to reform the departments and police unions that are much kind of staunch, much more staunchly inclined to defend whatever it is that's happening with police officers there. And so in that instance, the ability to create things like Police-Civilian Review Boards is really significant. And, you know, that kind of gets fought out on a local basis, you know, with city councils and whomever you know, is empowered to make those kinds of decisions. Certainly not everything lies in the hands of the federal government. But, you know, the mechanisms for creating accountability within your own communities can be done to the extent that you can navigate around the kind of institutional pushback that you get from groups like the Fraternal Order of Police very often. 


ARONSON: When you were reporting our film out of Newark, you know, I remember that you said something that always stuck with me, which was, you see relations between the police and African American community as a gauge of race relations in general. So I mean, you're seeing this through the prism of the larger story of race in America. And I'm just wondering if you could comment right now, as you're seeing this unfold in Minneapolis. What is this telling you today?


COBB: Yeah, it’s telling us that we are, it's like the kind of culmination of the things that we've seen in the past few years and the past decades. It's a barometer, that this is still something that can happen. And the other point is, I think when we were talking, I've said this, too, that in some ways police departments bear a disproportionate burden as it relates to these issues. And the reason being that whenever you see something explosive happen, overwhelmingly it is in response to an issue of police use of force. We can just kind of go back in case after case after case after case and it's a you know, a police officer who hits someone, a police officer who shoots someone, in this case, a police officer who appears to have asphyxiated someone, and people react. And it just kind of detonates these social tensions that were there before. But the reason why I say that that's a kind of undue burden on policing, and I don't mean to let people off the hook for that, is that when you report in these communities, and I've done a lot of these stories now, many more than I would have liked to, but when you report in these committees, the first thing that people tell you is not necessarily about the policing incident. And so as an example, when I went to Ferguson, people there wanted to talk about schools, they wanted to talk about unemployment. They wanted to talk about the poor quality of housing there. They wanted to talk about all kinds of other institutional disparities and institutional failures that fell along lines of race. And I went to a rally which was ostensibly about the police shooting in Ferguson that had kind of culminated all these tensions, and I was talking with people who were saying, ‘We're suspending too many teenagers from the high schools. You know, the suspensions just seemed to be the first thing that comes to mind. You're throwing kids out of the schools,’ and so on. And so people were looking at a much broader slate of social and socioeconomic issues. And the policing was just one of them. And so I think that was important personally to understand how the police then became kind of a barometer like when once you looked at the way that policing functioned, it was almost an indicator of the way lots of other institutions were functioning in those communities.


ARONSON: I'll be back to talk more to Jelani Cobb after this quick message.


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ARONSON: You know, you mentioned the COVID-19 crisis earlier as well. And I was just wondering, do you think that some of the outrage around this in addition to just the absolute vivid and horrible nature of what happened is also that you know, we're seeing that scores are black and Latino Americans are really being hit hard by the coronavirus. Is there anything about the sort of collective outrage right now that you can see playing out in protests across the country? 


COBB: Sure. I don't think that we can understand what's going on right now outside of understanding COVID-19 and the disproportionate numbers of people of color who are becoming fallen victims to it. And I think that, for one, and there’s a kind of connection between COVID-19 and the death of Mr. Floyd. And the thing that ties them together is empirical evidence of a phenomenon that had been dismissed otherwise. When we look at just, you know viruses don't discriminate. They don't care who they infect, they don't care who they kill. They're just looking for the next host. They just want to replicate themselves and when we look at the numbers, it should be a kind of random distribution. Maybe people who were in the densest places, or the people who went to, you know, the events where they were the most people. But then we find this breakdown is just kind of a culling in some communities. I have a co-worker, who lost two family members within the span of a week. And there are lots of people who are experiencing this. So what we're talking about now is just the cumulative impact of other kinds of racial biases. And where people said, there's a kind of dialogue that we, an interminable debate that we engage in, in this country about, you know, is there racism or are people kind of overblowing the extent to which racism still exists? And then something happens like COVID-19 and you're going like, ‘Wait, why are people dying at double and triple the numbers of other people and in other populations?’ And then we add into this that, you know, our essential workers. When we looked at when the cities shut down, and you would see that occasional person on the street, or if you looked on the buses and you see a handful of people on those buses, those buses were overwhelmingly populated by people who were black and brown and being driven by people who were black and brown. And the scaffolding that allowed the society to continue to function was disproportionately made up of people who later turned up in disproportionate numbers among the dead. The same thing with Mr. Floyd within just this month as a sample size, we saw the death of Ahmaud Arbery, whom I mentioned earlier, the death of Breonna Taylor, who was an EMT in Louisville, Kentucky, who was fatally shot in her home by Louisville Police who were enacting a no-knock warrant at what appears to be the wrong address. And we saw an incident in Central Park in which a black birdwatcher requested that a white woman put her dog on a leash and I guess she took umbrage to that, and then said that she was going to call the police and say that, you know, a black man was threatening her life. 


ARONSON: And she did call the police. 


COBB: And she did call the police. Right. Yeah, it becomes difficult to kind of say, ‘Yeah, we don't know, but there's no there there.’ We can look at these things and say, ‘Well, this is obviously but what happens, what is happening is connected in some way, shape and form to how the society functions along the lines of race.’


ARONSON: You know, Jelani, I remember in our film, you know, and this is four years ago, and it's been, you know, a long four years. You asked this question, what would it take for policing to ever be different? And did you ever come closer to that answer?


COBB: I don't, you know, I wish I did. And I think that we are just kind of trapped in this cycle in which, you know, we have not committed nearly as much time and intention to getting out of the situation, not nearly equal to the amount of time and intention we committed to creating it in the first place. And so something like a consent decree program, at its best, can kind of come in and clean up some parts of the problem. But we really need a kind of gigantic systemic overhaul in so much of the country, things that are seemingly unrelated, but from our educational system, our healthcare system, the number of people who didn't have health care coverage in the midst of a pandemic, like all these things that that ultimately culminate in the explosions that we've seen in the past week. 


One last thing I think, I was talking to a friend years ago, and she said something that I think is really salient. She said, you're never going to have a time where you have terrible institutions serving a community where you have bad housing, bad education, you know, poor quality of employment and low wage work, but you have pristine policing. Those things will not happen. Until we're able to address things in a much broader spectrum of ways, we won't be able to get policing, you know, to where it needs to be either.


ARONSON: Jelani, when you look at the next step for you, what do you think the most important reporting targets should be for yourself but also for all of us out here?


COBB: I mean I think it’s really important that we start taking a look right now at what has been happening in the DOJ and whereas Minnesota or Minneapolis, the police department that has garnered the most attention, there are probably lots of case of police departments where consent decrees have not been pursued. I’m curious about that, are there communities where other petitions, as you saw in Newark and the film that we did together, that came as a product of the ACLU investigating the police department and then telling the DOJ that we have these particular issues here. You know, where else? What other rocks have we not turned over? And what’s lurking underneath there?


ARONSON: It sounds like another FRONTLINE.


COBB: It does.


ARONSON: Well, this is great, Jelani. I look forward to talking with you more. Thanks for your time and for being on the Dispatch with us. 


COBB: Thank you.


ARONSON: You can see Jelani Cobb’s film with FRONTLINE, Policing the Police, on FRONTLINE dot org.


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress.


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


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