At the top of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver addressed the George Floyd protests and Donald Trump’s bible photo opp and the excessive force police officers use — specifically against the black community. That said, he spent the entire episode unpacking the problematic police system.
Oliver points out that the violence we have seen is the tip of a very large iceberg. “It didn’t start this week or with this president,” he said. “It always disproportionately falls on black communities.”
He threw out some stats that we need to our attention. For one, Minneapolis police use force against black people at seven times the rate of white people and that black Americans are two and a half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police. On top of that, one in every 1000 black men can expect to be killed by police. “If you are black in America, I can’t even imagine how scared, angry and exhausted you must feel,” he admits. “The police are just one part of a larger system of racial inequality.”
He points out that in pop culture police are seen as heroes — especially on film and TV. “America loves nothing more than a renegade cop that doesn’t play by the rules,” he said, adding that the reality of policing has always been different and that it has been entangled in white supremacy.
“For much of U.S. history, law enforcement meant enforcing laws that were explicitly designed to subjugate black people,” he said. Some of the country’s first law enforcement units were slave patrols and just because slavery ended, it doesn’t mean that was the end of white power. He cites a quote from a post-Civil War era Alabama planter that was included in Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”
“We have the power to pass stringent laws to govern Negroes — this is a blessing — for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them.”
A century after this, police in the South enforced segregation laws while allowing and sometimes participating in lynchings and anti-black terrorism. Even when black people migrated to the South, they still faced police brutality. In the summer of 1967, there were uprisings against racial inequality, but, as Oliver said, “white people described it as the ‘Summer of Love’.” He joked how white historians would call this era of today’s protests “The Summer of Chromatica”, citing Lady Gaga’s newest album.
Even after the ’60s, things did not improve under the Nixon and Reagan administration. The war on drugs led to zero tolerance policing in the ’90s which fueled saturation of police in low-income communities of color. This paved the way to the “stop and frisk” policy, which at its peak, affected black and Latino communities. This aggressive policing was led to an increase the number of police officers on the street which was the doing of Republicans and Democrats — specifically Bill Clinton.
As funding for police increased, spending on key social services were slashed. This added more responsibility on the police and they were doing far too much than they can handle. As a result, the police are the only public source for some communities.
Oliver featured one clip with Dave Grossman, an expert of “Killology”. He specializes in warrior-style police training and is on the road 200 times a year. To give context, the officer that killed Philando Castile took participated in this training where he tells them they are predators. In the wake of Castile’s shooting Minneapolis mayor banned the training but Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis police union, defied it.
One of the biggest obstacles of police reform are police unions. The unions can make it incredibly difficult to discipline even the most egregious conduct from any police officer. Oliver references one incident in 2018 when Minneapolis police officers decorated a tree with racist items and posted it on social media. The mayor said they would be fired by the end of the day, but backpedaled and said there is a process — but today it is still under arbitration.
Oliver said that a police union contract makes it difficult to remove a problematic officer. He gives us more stats: the nation’s largest police departments have fired at least 1,881 officers for misconduct but was forced to reinstate more than 450 of them after appeals required by union contracts.
“When faced with accountability they don’t like, unions will often issue the ultimate threat: simply pull back and let crime rise,” he said before throwing it to a clip of the head of New York’s largest police union who was clearly upset after a judge recommended they fire the police officer that killed Eric Garner. He was fired up that the police officers had to “take it a step slower.”
During that time policing slowed down and there was an 11% drop in felony arrests, 18% drop in misdemeanor arrests and 32% drop in moving violations.
Oliver talked about how the federal government can step in with “consent decree”, where a police department agrees to make institutional changes and it is overseen by a federal court. It is a powerful tool to enforce change, but it all depends on who is running the country at that time and Donald Trump clearly has no interest in police reform.
Trump has launched a single investigation with zero consent decrees while George W. Bush’s DOJ launched 12 investigations on police departments during his first term while Barack Obama’s DOJ launched 15.
If unions and the federal government won’t act when it comes to police officer accountability for violating rights, one can sue the city or individual officer. In some high-profile cases, there have been settlements for an “astonishing amount”. In five years, 10 cities with the largest police departments paid out $1.02 billion in settlements and court judgements.
“If you’re spending a over a billion dollars on misconduct settlements you might want to seriously examine what conduct looks like,” Oliver stated. He then references how Michael Brown’s family wanted to file a civil suit against the Ferguson officer that killed him.
Oliver says that civil suits against police officers are impossible to win because they are often protected by qualified immunity, which means a public official is immune from lawsuits unless their exact conduct has been already ruled unconstitutional in a previous case — the keyword here is “exact”.
Congress has proposed a bill to end qualified immunity, but that is not enough. Oliver proposed the question, “What do we do now?”
“The incremental reforms that we’ve tried like the wide use of body cameras and Implicit bias and use of force training are not on their own going to cut it,” he said. “I’m not saying that we shouldn’t still try them but in many cases you’re contending with entrenched police culture resistant to any effort to compel reform. That is why many are advocating that we rethink police from the ground up.
He brings up defunding the police and as opposed to what Tucker Carlson thinks, it doesn’t mean to eliminate all police. Oliver explains, “It means moving away from a narrow conception of public safety that relies on policing and punishment and investing in a community’s actual safety — things like stable housing, mental health services and community organizations.”
He continues, “The concept is that the role of the police can then significantly shrink because they are not responding to the homeless or to mental health calls or arresting children in schools or really any other situation where they best solution is not someone showing up with a gun — that’s the idea of defunding the police.”
“This clearly isn’t about individual officers,” he said. “It’s about a structure built on systemic racism that this country created intentionally and now needs to dismantle intentionally and replace with one that takes into account the needs of the people it actually serves…Black communities have had to be perpetual activists while also routinely being disenfranchised and it is long past time for the rest of us to join and make sure their voices are heard and acted upon.”
He ended the episode with this moving video of Kimberly Jones, co-author of “I’m Not Dying with You Tonight.”
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