Ifill, the NAACP leader, declared that individual police officers must be held accountable when their actions lead to outcomes like the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore (a city where police are known to give “rough rides” to informally punish arrestees).
Addressing the perception of police more broadly, she pointed to the ubiquity of shows like Law and Order, which almost always portray cops as honorable professionals, and the tendency in American life to regard cops as heroes. “There is a constant media narrative that's positive about police,” she said, even as most Americans long ignored the counternarrative in minority communities where most police abuses happen. She felt the emergence of that counternarrative is overdue, reflects real abuses, and ought to prompt citizens to work for overdue reforms.
In fact, in Ifill’s telling, the failure of citizens to understand and remedy flaws in the criminal justice system is the most important impediment to reducing many injustices.
She compared democracy to owning a house: “It always needs repairs.”
And making those repairs is everyone’s civic responsibility, she argued, from studying up on flaws in your local police department to casting informed votes for local judges. “If you regard yourself as a citizen or a person within the borders of this country,” she said, “it is your job to be working toward the perfection of this democracy.”
McKesson did not disagree, but emphasized a different approach to change. An architect of the Campaign Zero policy blueprint for police reform, he believes that seemingly small changes in policing policy at the local level can change the culture within police departments and make police officers significantly more accountable. Some of the changes that McKesson advocates for could be implemented within law enforcement, without even having to consult a mayor or City Council.
Almost all of them can be accomplished at the municipal level.
Meanwhile, Villasenor emphasized flawed policies that are imposed on police departments. In Tucson, he felt that the role of the police department should be to protect everyone in the community. But state lawmakers compelled police officers at the local level to double as immigration enforcement, something he described as “"the last thing that police should be involved in,” because it causes a significant segment of the community to refuse to call, talk to, or cooperate with police.
If I had to distill common ground in the world views of all three panelists, it would be this: when an injustice occurs, the cop on the scene may have done something wrong, but at least some of the responsibility usually lies elsewhere, sometimes within the employing agency, other times with legislators and policymakers or the general public.
I’ve argued that proliferating video technology has exposed bad apples in law enforcement to the general public, and that relations between distrustful citizens and police won’t improve until the latter abandon their posture of blue solidarity for more earnest and effective attempts to punish misbehavior and abuse in their ranks. Perhaps cops would be a bit less defensive, and a bit more likely to engage in that sort of introspection, if critics of law enforcement abuses made a special effort to apportion blame properly and vocally when it doesn’t rest with people in uniform.