Some events have the power of a match set to a mountain of dry wood. The video from Minneapolis, showing a police officer killing George Floyd in broad daylight, his knee pressed hard onto a handcuffed man’s neck as he pleads to live, all 8 1/2 minutes of it — this has been such an event.
By the hundreds of thousands in cities large and small across the country, and here in Lockport, population 20,000, people have taken to the streets to demand an end to police violence against black men and women.
Whatever else you might think of these events, understand that the reason for this explosion of protest is that black people in our country have violent experiences with police every day. They are fed up and exhausted with living in fear when a policeman takes notice of them, and people of every color have just had it with watching black people being killed with no accountability.
Here in Lockport, this is not a discussion about a thing far away. In a week we will mark one year since the death of Troy Hodge, another black man who died in police handcuffs. He was in crisis, his mother called for help, Lockport police and Niagara County sheriffs were dispatched to the scene, and their help left Hodge dead. A year later his family and friends still await the results of an investigation by the New York Attorney General. Just put yourself in his family’s shoes for a minute. How furious would you be if he were your brother or your father or your fiancé or your friend?
No, we cannot go on this way. We cannot continue to be a country where one in 1,000 black boys and men is killed by police. We cannot continue to be a Lockport where Kandyce Cauley told me, “I still feel uncomfortable being pulled over. I still feel like I have to put on that different skin. Look, I’m different than what you think black people are like. Be calm, be as well-spoken as I can, be as conforming as I can.”
Protests are not a common thing in the western New York city of Lockport. Marching in the streets forces attention on an issue, and now that attention is here. But getting actual change is the harder work and now we need to begin that work with a serious community conversation about what needs to change.
I know some people see all this and have the reaction, “Stop saying that all police officers are bad. They aren’t.” I know that for officers who see themselves as dedicated servants of the public, this uprising of animosity feels deeply unfair, as if all of them are being tarnished for the outrages of a few. These reactions are also a part of this hard moment.
It is for all these reasons that we need to move beyond slogans and start looking at the three questions that sit at the heart of police reform, here and everywhere.
First, why do we have a police force that does not look like our whole community? In Lockport, almost one in 10 city residents is black, but in a police department with 50 staff, we have not a single officer who is African American. A whole part of our community, the part that has the most complaints about police behavior, looks at our force and sees no one who shares their experience or knows their world from the inside.
I know that there is no magic wand to fix this lack of diversity. One reason for this is that black police recruits are hard to find and most of them can make better money working for the Buffalo or Rochester departments. And in an environment of such mistrust aimed at police, how many young black men and women really want to be on the receiving side of all that? But despite those challenges diversity in our police has to be made a priority.
Second, what should the job of our police force really be, and what should it not be? We call the police for every problem out there, from stray dogs wandering the street to people having a drug or mental health crisis. The best solution to every problem is not always people with guns, handcuffs and tasers. Here in Lockport, what more evidence of that system’s failure do we need than the needless death of Troy Hodge?
We spend more than $7 million a year on Lockport Police Department, almost one-third of the entire city budget. Other communities are moving some of that police funding to deploy people specially trained in mental health and who carry no weapons, or other kinds of community problem solvers. There is no reason we can’t start doing the same thing here.
Finally, and most importantly, where there is power there must be accountability. In New York City the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death wasn’t even forced to stand trial. A year after Troy Hodge’s death in Lockport, his family still has no answers. Who among us would not boil over with anger at such a lack of accountability?
When you put the power of legal violence into someone’s hands, which is what we do with our police, we need women and men who know how to diffuse conflict, not escalate it. The two Buffalo officers who knocked down a 75-year-old man last week and left him bleeding, they are examples of exactly the kind of people who should never be issued a badge.
Across the U.S. and here in Lockport, people of all kinds have joined together to demand justice and policing of a different kind. What is needed in response is not just the symbolism of officers taking a knee, but real change. There can be no more victims like Troy Hodge. There can be no more culture of fear for some when they see red and blue lights flashing in their rearview mirror. Not here, not anywhere.
Columnist Jim Shultz is the founder-executive director of the Democracy Center and resident of Lockport, New York. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org