Ubuntu policing: from brutality to humanity

I am a Black woman, born and raised in Soweto, South Africa, during the reign of apartheid. The racial abuse and violence happening here today in the United States was routine as I grew up, part of everyday life. The fact that my grandfather was exiled from the country for 27 years because he opposed the apartheid government was not extraordinary. Sadly, neither was the murder of my father, an attorney fighting for civil rights for all people of color. My father was shot in the head with an AK-47 and left to rot — and that was simply the way things were.

Through it all, my mother and grandmother, who raised me, kept telling me to focus on making good choices and doing what I could do — which was to hold my head high, study, and cling to my faith — on the off chance that the future might offer more opportunities for people like me. Even when my father was murdered, I only allowed myself one good cry. Then I wrenched my focus away from the horror and back to my studies and my faith. Similarly, my maternal grandfather, with whom I also lived, taught me to embrace the ubuntu tradition, which teaches us that life is about community and interdependence. Ubuntu urges us to recognize the humanity of each and every individual rather than judge on the basis of group actions.

The years passed. I earned three degrees and became a tax lawyer. I moved to this country, earned another degree, and proudly became a citizen of the United States. I saw the wisdom of the advice my mother and grandmother had given me, for I was well-prepared to move ahead when apartheid crumbled.

To this day, I pride myself on being rational and optimistic, judging everybody based on their personal conduct and character. What my family taught me, I have tried to pass on to my children.

But then the events of the past couple of weeks hit, and my positive outlook crumbled. I cried as I have not cried since my father’s murder. I cried for George Floyd. I cried for his kids, for I know very well what it is to face life without a father’s love and guidance. I cried for George Floyd’s loved ones. I cried for the pain that this and other murders have triggered in millions of people across the country. I cried for my adopted country that I love, and I cried for the future. I surrendered to my emotions as I can’t remember ever doing since losing my father — and now I’m done, for now is the time to remember what my family taught me: do what I can do and hold on to faith, hope, and love.

The first thing to do, I believe, is to remember that today’s events are not happening in a vacuum, whether they be the acts of the police or the protestors. Instead, they flow logically, if I dare use that word in this context, from the history of racism and police brutality toward minorities in the United States. Some people argue that the police kill more Whites than they do Blacks; others disagree, arguing that on a proportional basis, Blacks are much more likely than Whites to be slain by police. Regardless of how the numbers break down, it’s important to remember that police have historically been the face of injustice and the instrument of oppression for Blacks and other minorities.

The wounds of the past are many, and the scars are easily ripped open by incidents today. Blacks today well understand that our lives have generally not been valued. We want to ensure that our lives and our children’s lives are. We also want to ensure that offending police officers are held accountable and not simply transferred to another police station or department…or let off entirely. Additionally, we want to ensure that no police officers, prosecutors, or other officials cling to destructive stereotypes of Blacks as being undeserving or dangerous, leading them to act accordingly.

The second thing we must do is to remember that while expressing our grief, anger, and frustration is important, we must do so peacefully and keep our eyes fixed on the road that lies beyond. Now is the time for positive action, so it is vital that we process our emotions quickly and come out the other side with clear minds, ready to identify and take concrete, corrective steps.

The protests have focused the nation’s attention, but that focus will soon be lost. What will replace it? What can I, and the tens of millions of Americans who are grieved and appalled by what has happened, do to ensure that these things never happen again? What changes can we effect to guarantee that no police officer ever places a knee on the throat of an unresisting civilian and chokes the life out of him or her again? To ensure that prosecutors have the mindset, courage, and resources to charge and try officers who act with disregard for human dignity and life? To ensure that the most recent trio of horrific events — the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the actions of Amy Cooper — are catalysts for substantial and lasting change?

It is clear that we need systemic reforms, that we must push for policies and practices that ensure everyone is treated with respect by the police. I’m not an expert on criminal justice matters but I think some possibilities to consider include:

1. Establish a reconciliation body to address past community trauma.

When apartheid ended in South Africa, the government set up a truth and reconciliation commission to uncover and acknowledge past wrongdoing and to deal with the resulting pain. We need a similar forum, at local and state levels, to address trauma caused by police brutality — a place where victims can be heard and where those responsible (including the police) must face the pain they have directly or inadvertently caused. Over time, this should build trust between local communities and the police.

2. Reform the office of the prosecutor.

Prosecutors have too much discretion in terms of whether or not to bring a case. For example, in Georgia, a prosecutor twice indicted a black grandmother for helping a newly registered voter use a voting machine but refused to charge the killers of Ahmaud Arbery.

In some cases, the law itself makes prosecution difficult or impossible. For example in Seattle, prosecutors must meet an actual malice standard before they can charge an officer — which, in practice, means the officer committed premeditated murder, which is rarely, if ever, the case. In other cities, police officers hide behind the qualified immunity doctrine. This doctrine holds that police officers cannot be held liable under the civil rights laws for acts performed in the course of their official duties if such acts have not specifically been found unconstitutional. These legal standards are unjust and make it virtually impossible to put “bad-apple officers” in jail.

In other cases, the unwillingness to prosecute may be due to the fact that prosecutors must work with the police every day on a host of issues and cases. They depend on police to investigate the crimes they wish to prosecute, and they may also develop personal and professional relationships that cloud their judgement.

Whether because of the malice standard, qualified immunity, collusion, or for other reasons, it is difficult to hold bad officers accountable. For example, a Seattle Times study found that between 2005 and 2015, Seattle police killed 213 people — 10% of whom were black, in a state where blacks make up about 4% of the population. According to the Seattle Times article, “During that period, only one police officer has been criminally charged in state courts with the illegal use of deadly force on the job.” And not a single officer has been convicted of wrongdoing.

Perhaps it’s time to introduce permanent special prosecutors who are independent and focused solely on police misconduct.

3. Devise a system to identify and register bad officers.

When Freddie Gray died in 2015 while riding handcuffed in a police van, the state medical examiners ruled the death a homicide because police officers failed to follow safety procedures. Although all police officers involved were charged with crimes at state level, they were all cleared of charges. When Eric Garner died in 2014 while being held in a chokehold, the officer involved was not indicted with criminal charges.

Where are the officers responsible for the deaths of Michael Brown and others now? What are their duties? And how many others involved in questionable or outright criminal behavior are still wearing badges?

It is time to develop a national registry of bad officers so they can be easily identified and prevented from jumping from station to station or department to department to escape accountability or culpability. There should be consequences for their actions.

4. Revise collective bargaining agreements.

Police unions often use their collective bargaining power to protect officers from disciplinary action (including termination) and otherwise impede measures that increase police accountability. It’s time to put an end to this. After all, we would never allow a union to protect teachers from being charged with sexual misconduct perpetrated against children. So why should we allow unions to protect bad cops from being disciplined or fired?

5. Review the scope of police responsibility.

We demand a lot of our police, insisting that they patrol the streets, monitor traffic, arrest those suspected of committing crimes, serve as social workers, respond to riots, and more — including putting their lives on the line to protect us. Given these myriad tasks, it’s not surprising that some officers shine in one area and fail dismally in others. The officer who excels at chasing armed robbers into a dark alley with gun drawn may not be the best one to put a clearly mentally ill person suspected of stealing a bag of potato chips into a police car.

Why do we need armed police to carry out administrative-related functions, such as routine traffic stops to check on license tabs and burned-out taillights? People of color are tired of routine speed checks turning into life or death situations. Why can’t these be handled by folks who aren’t armed? Does everything have to be handled by sworn officers empowered to use lethal force? Perhaps it’s time we took a look at the full scope of police functions and consider outsourcing some of these to people or bodies who don’t need to use lethal force to meet their objectives.

6. Institute a national review board or increase the use of consent decrees.

Today, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Civil Rights Division is empowered to investigate police departments that engage in excessive force. If the DOJ finds that a police department engages in “patterns and practices” of unconstitutional policing, it may issue a technical assistance letter (a nonbinding note outlining recommended policy changes) or bring an action in federal court resulting in a consent decree (an agreement to undergo recommended reform within a certain amount of time, which may or may not be accompanied by a monitoring team) with a law enforcement agency.

The Seattle Police Department is currently operating under such a decree here in Washington State. About 13 other law enforcement agencies (including those in Ferguson, Los Angeles, and Portland) are also operating under consent decrees. Given how few consent decrees are in place today, yet how widespread police brutality issues are, shouldn’t the DOJ look into initiating more investigations of law enforcement agencies suspected of engaging in patterns of misconduct?

If the DOJ doesn’t have the resources necessary to act swiftly in this, we should look into the viability of establishing a federal body empowered to set up guidelines that law enforcement agencies need to abide by in the course and scope of their work. This body should also be empowered to conduct annual reviews of law enforcement agencies and to refer noncompliant agencies to the DOJ for formal investigation and possible consent decrees.

7. Encourage the police to engage with ubuntu.

There have been protests across the nation in response to the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown, and others. While watching the news over the last two nights, I saw videotaped footage of armed officers in Buffalo, New York, shoving an elderly white man, Martin Gugino, to the ground and leaving him lying there, blood dripping from his head. Fortunately, this case did not result in murder by the police, but it does demonstrate a lack of compassion and caring on the part of many police officers.

I understand that police have a terribly difficult and often dangerous job. But they act with the authority of the state — and they carry guns. This is all the more reason why we must push for antibias training, crisis and de-escalation training, and training on how to effectively engage with the community. We must insist that the police treat people of all kinds with dignity and respect — with ubuntu.

Ubuntu teaches us that we are all interconnected, and that if other people are not whole, we cannot be whole. A phrase in the African language Sesotho encapsulates the concept perfectly: “Motho ke motho ka batho,” which translates to “A person is a person because of other people” or, as some say, “I am who I am because of others.” This idiom embodies the idea that our wellbeing can be enhanced by the actions of others. Police officers who fully embrace this concept will not abuse their powers, for they will truly “see” people and their humanity — and if Officer Chauvin had seen George Floyd’s humanity, would he have killed him so callously, so slowly and agonizingly? Empowered by ubuntu, police officers will, where civilians are being brutalized by a fellow officer, look to shoulder the civilian’s burden and step in to assist.

I offer the points above only as a list of possible actions to take. I’m sure other people (who are experts on this) have ideas of their own, and I will happily support any proposals that work. Indeed, a “Justice in Police Act of 2020,” which (in part) looks to ban chokeholds, end racial profiling, mandate the use of body and dashboard cameras, and make lynching a federal crime, is currently being proposed in Congress. The specifics of recommended reforms will take a while to be agreed upon and implemented, which is why we must push through our grief and begin the process of change now.

I am confident that when all has been said and done, our country will be a better place and will be closer to being the “City on a Hill” I thought it to be when I was a young girl growing up in Soweto. To me, America was the land of possibility, and I insist that it is possible for us to move into a much brighter future. Looting and rioting will not bring us closer to that future; neither will political posturing and squabbling. Only hard work and a willingness to make tough choices will get us there.

Some of us will have to choose to forgive generously, while others will have to choose to acknowledge traumas we’ve experienced. We will all have to choose to recognize the humanity in each other and to work together to break down systems that are perpetuating inequality, wherever they exist. I believe we can lead our nation into that brighter future if we are — in the words of Nelson Mandela — willing to let our choices reflect our hopes and not our fears as we go forward.