| Detroit Free Press
President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have identified four crises as our nation’s top priorities when January 20 finally arrives: the Covid-19 pandemic, the struggling economy it has produced, global climate change and persistent, race-based, police brutality—an imminent, deadly threat to African Americans and other people of color, every day of the week. The shootings by police of Andre Hill and Casey Goodson, Jr., in Columbus, Ohio, last month were reminders that average citizens minding their own business can lose their lives only because they fit the description of a random racial profile.
“Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” are slogans blamed for a political backlash that hurt Democrats running for just about every office but president. Without a doubt, the slogans are controversial, and the backlash is real.
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But the fact remains that George Floyd’s public killing shook the nation in 2020, and as a result, millions of Americans have demanded that institutional racism — in police departments and elsewhere — be confronted and overthrown. The Biden-Harris website describes the national demand for change as “the most compelling call for racial justice since the ‘60s.”
But what will change the police? As an attorney who has studied police reform and successfully sued police departments for major settlements and jury awards, I recommend a simple solution — already proven in the real world — to meet this serious national challenge. Police departments should be ordered to remove discriminatory screening criteria that are embedded in their hiring and promotion processes.
For instance, hiring guidelines may include requirements that are not related to the job, such as an applicant’s credit report. Similarly, discrimination in promotions, disciplinary treatment, or selection for career-enhancing assignments can take place when the policies, practices, and guidelines of organizations, although neutral on their face, result in a negative impact on African Americans and other people of color.
What appear to be flaws in Human Resources administration are actually classic signs of institutional racism. In law enforcement or any large organizations, institutional racism operates in a subtle fashion, when organizational policies, practices and guidelines act as a silent killer — much like high blood pressure — causing no apparent symptoms, but acting as temporary obstacles or permanent barriers to African Americans and other people of color.
Experts such as industrial organizational psychologists must be employed to determine which components of a law enforcement agency’s policies, practices, guidelines and criteria are responsible for producing discriminatory outcomes. This approach is indispensable to any real fix to institutional racism.
We witnessed this approach used by the U.S. Justice Department in its consent decree with the Michigan Civil Service Commission and the Michigan State Police during the period of 1977-1992, when the ranks of African American state troopers increased from 1.2 percent of the MSP force to 12.5 percent, the highest level ever. By 1993, Hispanic state troopers were 4 percent of the force, and women, who were not even represented in 1977, were 10.9 percent.
However, the recruiting efforts and non-discriminatory testing fell by the wayside when federal oversight of the consent decree ended in 1993. By 2015, only 59 of Michigan’s 1,134 state troopers were African American—5 percent of the total. That number is expected to dip below 4 percent soon, as many veteran black state troopers retire.
When flawed screening for hiring and promotion occurs within a law enforcement organization, it not only yields discriminatory employment outcomes, but also affects how people of color are treated once they join the organization. And it doesn’t take much to understand how a police force that devalues African American officers also devalues African American citizens on the street: treating them harshly, arresting them unnecessarily, and stopping their cars in traffic more often. The disrespectful attitude toward people of color has already been fostered within the organization.
If the past is any indicator, applying the U.S. Justice Department’s approach to the 1977 Michigan consent decree would immediately add more African Americans, Latinos and other officers of color nationwide, and increase their numbers among higher-rank officers. Furthermore, it would produce more socially responsive and responsible police forces across America.
A study of U.S. police data for the period between January 2013 and June 2016 found that officer-involved killings dropped when the number of non-white officers increased. The main reason was that white officers tended to expect criminal behavior from Black people.
The study, published in 2016 by Columbia Law School, called this attitude a “group threat” mindset. Researchers Joscha Legewie and Jeffrey Fagan found that greater racial diversity among officers lessened that kind of thinking, and reduced killings by officers. Clearly, a police force that is more representative of its state and municipality and less combative will be valued more by its community.
Let’s kickstart the process by pushing our state local government leaders to initiate immediate changes in police hiring and promotion screening. The next step would involve sending in in the kind of organizational psychologists that I use in employment discrimination lawsuits — experts who areuniquely qualified to identify the silent components in the hiring or promotions process of law enforcement agencies that screen out African Americans or other people of color at disproportionate rates. Then, using past Justice Department consent decrees as a template, we make police departments eliminate those needless hiring and promotion barriers.
Federal police reform funding may be needed to fully finance the process. So let’s hold a new Congress and a new president accountable for releasing that money. President-elect Biden has already indicated that he favors paying for reform initiatives that make police more responsive to local communities, Removing barriers to more inclusive police hiring and promotions is a common-sense strategy that is time-tested and proven to work.
Leonard Mungo, owner of Mungo & Mungo at Law PLC, has represented Black state troopers who successfully sued the Michigan State Police for job discrimination. He is also general counsel for the National Black State Troopers Coalition. Learn more about how industrial organizational psychologists identify institutional racism on his website: https://www.mungoatlaw.com/