Sarah Gonzalez: It's The Takeaway. I'm Sarah Gonzalez. I'm one of the hosts and reporters with NPR's Planet Money Podcast, and I'm filling in for Tanzina Vega this week, broadcasting from LA.
Since George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis last summer, the role of racism and bias in policing has been front and center for many Americans. According to reporting from my colleagues at NPR, some of the original police forces in the US were slave patrols that existed to surveil and control enslaved populations.
George Floyd's murder, the aggressive way some law enforcement responded to protests, Black people being killed by police, and the riot at the US Capitol, which former and current off-duty police officers participated in, has all culminated into a push for new laws at the state level.
This week, reporting in The New York Times found that lawmakers in a handful of states are trying to propose legislation that would make it easier for police departments to identify and remove officers affiliated with hate groups or extremists, but critics question whether laws like this would encroach on the individual rights of officers. With me now is Phil Stinson, professor and criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and a former police officer. Phil, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Phil Stinson: It's good to be with you, Sarah.
Sarah Gonzalez: I'm also joined by Janeese Lewis George, Councilmember for Ward 4 in Washington, D.C. Janeese, welcome back to The Takeaway.
Janeese Lewis George: Thank you. Thank you for having me again.
Sarah Gonzalez: Phil, as a former officer, how would you describe the culture of policing?
Phil Stinson: The culture of policing is a very closed society, it's typically learned behavior. You got to keep in mind that we have more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies across the United States. All policing is local, and yet we do see that there are some core components and core elements of the police subculture, as I call it, or the culture of policing, that are fairly consistent at many if not all of these agencies across the country.
It's an us versus them mentality. It's an organizational structure that's really built on a warrior mentality at most state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. We have officers who work in quasi-military organizations, and they go out to fight a war on crime, a war on drugs. Warriors typically need to have enemies, to have targets, to have someone that they're going after. That's really the culture of policing.
I think that most people who go into work in law enforcement have good intent. They're good people, and that over time, their views seem to change, they take on some of the values of this culture. I think what we really need to focus on going forward is figuring out how to change that culture of policing, how to improve policing.
Sarah Gonzalez: Janeese, earlier this year, you introduced the White Supremacy in Policing Prevention Act of 2021 in DC, tell us about this legislation and what it could change?
Janeese Lewis George: Yes. The bill directs the DC auditor to conduct an independent investigation on any ties between white supremacists or other hate groups, and members of our Metropolitan Police Department that impacts, basically, the officer's ability to enforce the law fairly. The bill also asks the DC auditor to propose reforms to better detect and prevent such ties in the future.
Sarah Gonzalez: Phil, I'm curious what you think about something like this proposed by Janeese. Do you have any questions for her, or how do you feel about investigating police officers like this?
Phil Stinson: I think my first question when I look at a lot of the legislation that's been proposed across the country, and by the way, I do think at the state level, and I do consider the District of Columbia to be at the state level for the purposes of these discussions. That's really the appropriate place to have these discussions as opposed to trying to legislate a lot of this at the federal level, but my first question, when I look at some of the bills across the country, is how do we define a hate organization or an extremist organization? That's one of my concerns.
Sarah Gonzalez: Janeese, do you have thoughts on that?
Janeese Lewis George: Yes. I think this was one of the things that came up when I was developing this legislation. One of the things we did was we talked to many of our First Amendment groups, and we were also able to-- we met with ACLU and others to define what that would look like.
I think what we came with definition for us in our legislation is, a hate group means an organization or social group whose goals, activities, and advocacy are primarily or substantially based on shared hatred, hostility, or violence towards people of one or more other different races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, genders, and/or sexual identities.
When we developed this definition of hate group, we took it through the gamut of organizations who do this, and then we defined white supremacy as well. White supremacy mean a hate group whose shared hatred or hostility or violence towards people, one or more race, ethnicity, national, gender, or sexual identities based on belief that white people are innately superior to other races.
Then we gave some tenets and may include one of the following tenets, which, white people should have control over people of other races, white people should live by themselves in white-only societies, and white people have their own culture that is superior to other cultures, or white people are genetically superior to other people, were some of the tenets.
I want to emphasize that my legislation calls for investigating links to hate groups that will prevent any officer from carrying out their duties properly, and fairly. That's also a nexus that has to- that's a standard that there. In other words, this is not about political beliefs, generally, this is about membership in hate groups that are in clear conflict with the purpose of your job to serve and protect the community.
Sarah Gonzalez: Phil, what do you think of that definition of a hate group?
Phil Stinson: I think that's fine. I'm troubled with the idea of punishing for membership or alleged membership in an organization. I think it absolutely makes sense to have restrictions against public expressions of hate, to have inappropriate social media posts. That type of behavior and content cannot be allowed of public employees, and certainly, not of municipal police officers.
I think my concern goes to just identifying or targeting people based on alleged membership alone. I think we're all on the same page, we can't have police officers who are exhibiting public expressions of hate.
There are several things that come to mind. One is that in many of the more than 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies across the United States, we see officers, on a regular basis, who exhibit a fear of Black persons in their day to day encounters with people, in traffic stops, in talking with people on the street. We've got to figure out a way to change these core values of the police subculture, we've got to think a way forward here, where we really change what type of people we want to have working as police officers.
I'm all for holding officers accountable for their public expressions of hate, for their inappropriate social media content, but I think that most agencies, certainly large agencies, including the Metropolitan Police Department in DC, I would assume, have policies that already prohibit such things. Yet, what we see in policing is that culture eats policy, the problem is the underlying culture.
A lot of this legislation around the country, and I'm not specifically targeting Councilmember George, her bill in the District of Columbia, but we've got to get away from the idea that it's a few bad apples in policing. It's not, these are systemic problems across the country, and we've got to figure out a way, how do we reimagine policing going forward?
I don't have a problem with a lot of this in terms of the proposed legislation in the bills that we're seeing across the country, but we need to be careful that we're really looking forward with our eyes on how do we improve policing?
Sarah Gonzalez: Janeese, how are officers who apply to join DC's Metropolitan Police Department currently screened for something like this? Are they looking into problematic comments they've made as part of the screening? Do they poke around for possible affiliations with hate groups or extremist ideologies?
Janeese Lewis George: My understanding is they're treated just like every other local government worker. When you get a job with a local government in DC, we know it best, because we have the federal government here, too, and many of us have been members of the federal bureaucracy as well, there's just a standard background check.
Individuals just go through a standard background check, they look, "Have they had prior contacts with the law?" They do the checks like they do when you enter federal government or DC government the same time, which is like call some references, say, "Hey, how long have you known this person? They've been a good person for you? Great." They go through references.
They go through the same process as other DC local government workers. That's to say, all in all. What I'm asking for here, and I think this is something that's different, is that I'm saying we have to do the scrutiny to a higher level. When I think about this, it's really the same level that we put judges on.
How many of us have recently been through the whole process where Biden is trying to appoint people to be directors? That one lady, I can't remember the name, who they went back all through her Twitter and said, "Look, she can't make it, she is not impartial." Judges and appointees are always held to a higher level of integrity and partiality.
When judges are appointed, remember back Supreme Court Cavanaugh, remember back to most recent Supreme Court justices, there is a test of impartiality and fairness that goes into people's family, social, political, financial, and other relationships that may influence judicial conduct or judicial judgment.
I am saying judges who are the keepers of the law and police officers who are enforcers of the law, have to be held to that same level of impartiality, integrity, and scrutiny. They shouldn't go through the standard government, regular RO background check, rather no, they have to go through the same scrutiny that we send judges through every single day, and that includes social clubs, financial decisions, all of the above.
Sarah Gonzalez: Phil, obviously, freedom of expression, including which groups you choose to affiliate with is sacred in the United States. The fact that officers can carry guns and have the authority to use lethal force on the street, how do you weigh those two things against each other, having the right to be a part of a white supremacist group because it's freedom of expression, but also having real power where you can take your views out on people in some very serious ways?
Phil Stinson: On the pre-employment level, I agree with everything that Councilmember George said. I think that's a different issue in terms of background investigations, in terms of pre-employment screening. I think it's absolutely appropriate and imperative that people be weeded out from law enforcement jobs if they have ties to hate organizations, if they have ties to extremist organizations, if their social media demonstrates hateful beliefs. I think that's absolutely appropriate.
Nobody has a right to be a police officer. At the pre-employment level, I think that's absolutely imperative, but here's the problem. In my research, one of the things that I've seen over the last two decades is that on occasion, state and local law enforcement agencies ignore the red flags that are raised. Sometimes they even ignore the recommendations of psychologists not to hire somebody as a sworn law enforcement officer. They hire them anyway.
One person that comes to mind, David Brame, who was the police chief in Tacoma, Washington who killed his estranged wife and then himself in front of their children back in 2003. In the wake of the Brame murder-suicide, there were several investigations and they really looked very closely at some of the mistakes that had been made, including recommendations by two psychologists that he not be hired as a police officer many years before he became a police chief. I think we're all on the same page here that we need to improve policing. We've just got to figure out a path forward.
Sarah Gonzalez: Janeese Lewis George is the Councilmember for Ward 4 in Washington, DC, and Phil Stinson is a professor and criminologist at Bowling Green State University in Ohio and a former police officer. Thank you both for joining me.
Janeese Lewis George: Thank you so much for having me.
Phil Stinson: My pleasure.
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