This episode is part of a four-part series in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. In this episode, we talk to Shea Streeter about the seemingly intractable issue of police brutality and race in the United States and how race and gender shape the ways that people experience, perceive, and respond to incidents of violence.
The Oxford Human Rights Hub is an anti-racist organisation, and we are committed to continuously working to be better allies to communities protesting against deeply entrenched systems of racial domination and oppression. In this spirit, this podcast series aims to amplify the voices of Black and Brown scholars, activists and practitioners. We also want to acknowledge a long legacy of work that has collectively, across time and disciplines, built and bolstered the foundations of this present movement. Now is a time to listen, learn, support and amplify.
Hosted and recorded by: Richard Martin
Edited by: Christy Callaway-Gale
Co-produced by: Richard Martin, Mónica Arango Olaya, and Christy Callaway-Gale
Executive producer: Kira Allmann
Show notes by: Sarah Dobbie
Music by: Rosemary Allmann
Thanks to: Natasha Holcroft-Emmess and Gauri Pillai
TRANSCRIPT: Dr Shea Streeter: Police Brutality in the United States
Dr Richard Martin (0:11) You’re listening to RightsUp, a podcast from the Oxford Human Rights Hub, with me, Richard Martin, an Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics, and an Associate of the Human Rights Hub. In today’s episode, we have the great pleasure of welcoming Dr Streeter from the University of Michigan to talk to us about the seemingly intractable issue of police brutality and race in the United States.
(0:51) The killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota in 2020 sparked a fresh series of protests in the US — indeed, around the world — on racism against black people. In the US, the conversation is focused on police brutality against African Americans and other ethnic minority groups, and is now accompanied by a new call to “defund” the police. In this context, police profiling, bias, [and] lack of accountability raise questions about how to address the over-policing and under-protection of communities, as well as the regulation of uses of force, and the potential of human rights norms to address concerning aspects of police culture, the deployment of police resources, and perhaps most fundamentally, what legitimate role the police ought to play in society in the first place.
(1:43) This episode is part of a four part series in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Oxford Human Rights Hub is an anti-racist organisation and we are committed to continuously working to [be] better allies to our black brothers and sisters protesting for the realisation of basic rights. The struggle for racial equality has been the unforgiving work of generations — the heavy mantle of justice yet to be served has been carried across centuries by the defiant peoples whose only demand is a recognition of their basic humanity. We can all do better, and we can all do something, in our small corners of the world to support this imperative.
(2:21) Our speaker and discussant today is Dr Shea Streeter. Dr Streeter is the President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan. Her research examines how race and gender shape the ways that people experience, perceive, and respond to incidents of violence. Her current body of work explores the racial politics of police violence in the United States, applying a comparative politics framework. This research has produced several new discoveries regarding the differences and similarities in the circumstances of police killings, among blacks and whites, the ways that personal racial identity defines perceptions of police violence, and a large racial gap in the rate of protest following police killings.
(3:07) Welcome, Dr Streeter. It is a pleasure to have you with us. You’ve been studying the racial politics of police violence in the US, and what a context in which to be doing so just at the moment. But this is, of course, a long-standing phenomenon, which we’ll come to, but perhaps you can begin by giving us a brief introduction to what is happening in the US right now, just some months after George Floyd’s death, but also on the eve of a new presidency and in the midst of a global pandemic.
Dr Shea Streeter (3:36) Thank you so much. I’m very pleased to be here and speaking, and yeah, it is a really remarkable time to be doing this sort of work. So, the history— there’s a long, long history of mistreatment of African Americans by the police in the United States. Some have traced the history of the modern police back to slave patrols to keep slaves— African American slaves from running away. And there have been protests against police brutality in the black community dating *at least* as far back as 1919. So this has been over 100 years of well-documented coverage of these sorts of protests against police brutality.
(4:19) My research specifically tends to look at incidents where people have been actually killed by police, and understanding when and why people protest or demonstrate in response to those killings. To give some context — the United States kills about over 1100 people per year, or thereabouts — on average, about three people per day. And African Americans make up 25% of those who are killed. But blacks are two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by police than whites given their share of the population. And there’s been recent studies that have shown that a black man has a 1 in 1000 chance of being killed by police in his lifetime, and for young men between the ages of 20 and 35, police killings are the sixth leading cause of death. And so, in that context, these deaths are really leading the movement— they’re really sparking the movement towards police accountability, the movement in response to police brutality and the— really, the anti-racist movement in America is really been continually sparked again and again by these incidents of police brutality.
Dr Richard Martin (5:36) Those are some desperately alarming statistics. And you’re mentioning how the protests that these high-profile killing spark— but by the sounds of it, these are really just the tip of the iceberg, and are moments that capture much deeper concerns and much deeper experiences of these communities. When you see these protests this year, but also obviously, that the Black Lives Matter movement itself can be tracked back to seven years ago, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the fatal shooting of African American teenager Trayvon Martin1… When you see these periods of protest over the last seven years, are these cause for optimism, that things will finally change, or is this actually a sign of a *lack* of change, a sign that these protests aren’t garnering the institutional response and reforms that are needed?
Dr Shea Streeter (6:36) No, I think of this as a huge sign of optimism. I think one of the biggest barriers, in many ways, is just acknowledging that this is actually happening, acknowledging that there is a problem of race in this country, which, you know— after President Barack Obama was elected, there was much discussion in the United States that we had moved past racism, that we were a post-racial society, and I think that these protests have really done a great job of shattering that illusion, because it was an illusion, very much so.
(7:10) But I think that also, in terms of policing, there’s a real trust inherent in the American people that the police act appropriately, that they do things— that if they, you know, if they kill somebody, that it must have been deserved. And I think that that belief is very deep and very strong, and so that the fact that these protests, I think, are challenging that, and as they’ve been continuing to grow, it seems that many more people are coming to realise the reality of the problems that we have in our policing system, as well as the problems— the *serious* problems that we have with racism in our country.
(7:49) And so I think that the continued movement is a huge source of optimism. As far as changes and reforms, I do think that that has been very slow in coming, but I do think that, you know, you really need that opinion change, that shift in perspective, to be able to make those difficult demands for legislative change.
Dr Richard Martin (8:19) That’s fascinating, and this idea of the movement itself— I mean, have you— in your research, have you noticed any changes in the core messages of the Black Lives Matter movement since its birth, following Trayvon Martin’s death, and then obviously, further protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner?2 I mean, have you seen changes in that message, in the core demands, but also the composition of that movement, or do you think it’s been pretty united, and pretty consistent, in the last— over the last seven years, given that these issues remain, as you say, largely unaddressed in institutional terms?
Dr Shea Streeter (9:09) I think the movement has definitely developed, definitely matured. I mean, it— in 2013, you know, this rallying cry of Black Lives Matter was born out of grief and pain over, you know, the killing of Trayvon Martin, the murder of Trayvon Martin. This movement was really— it was sparked from grief, and so it has developed over time, and kind of trying to articulate what the vision is for black lives, what are the things that are threatening black life, that are keeping black lives from flourishing? And I think at the very— at the very minimum, it has been widely recognised that state agents, the police, are disproportionately killing black life. That, in and of itself, is kind of where we have sort of seen the line drawn of saying, like, “This is the vanguard, this is really where we’re going to take the biggest stand”, but the movement for black lives, Black Lives Matter, which I must, kind of— I want to clarify for your listeners that, while there is an organisation, certainly, that is called “Black Lives Matter”, that has its own website, Black Lives Matter is more of a *coalition* and almost like a rallying cry that many different organisations, local organisations, state-wide municipal organisations are working under that banner.
(10:28) I was recently asked by a fellow researcher to give them some understanding of what were the demands of Black Lives Matter over the summer, and I explained, “Well, every single city had its own demands”. And so I copied links to a number of different municipalities, where the demands of organisers, who were protesting under the banner of Black Lives Matter, were tailored to their local environment, to their local District Attorney, to the past killings that have happened in their environment, to the situation regarding COVID in their own circumstances. So yeah… The movement has evolved greatly over time in terms of encompassing more and more activists, more and more actors. And it’s constantly— the demands have also evolved as it has expanded to more and more localities.
Dr Richard Martin (11:18) Yeah, I mean, I think that’s an excellent point, that certainly, as somebody that’s coming from the UK, we can often forget just how large and how diverse policing is in America, in terms of the federal system, and the different state policies, and the legacies within states and African American communities. Just to continue the theme of protests and your research expertise — we’ve certainly seen— in the media, it has been reported that— or the political spin on some of these protests during the summer is that these protests themselves were a danger to society, that in the context of the pandemic, it was almost selfish, in some ways, to be trying to bring to bear cohesion and a common community approach on the streets as a rally cry against this. I mean, do you have any reflections on how the reporting of these protests has been done, and the idea that this kind of expression and assembly is actually somehow inappropriate?
Dr Shea Streeter (12:40) Well, we have this saying about the press in the United States, that is, “If it bleeds, it leads” — the idea that, if there’s some danger, if there’s some violence, or there’s something happening that is, you know, contra— very highly controversial, that is what will bring viewers to see it. So I do think that part of the framing, and part of the coverage of these protests over the summer, was very much in that spirit. You know, there was a really great report from the ACLED,3 the ACLED data group, where they collect information generally on international conflicts, but they collected information on every protest they could find over the summer, between May and August of 2020, related to police brutality and racial justice. And so they found that there were nearly 8000 protests over those three months in United States, which many have argued now that this was the biggest protest wave in US history.
(13:44) One of the things that they found is that, I believe— I can’t remember the exact number, it was either 95 or 96 per cent of those 8000 protests were completely peaceful. At the same time, though, you would not have guessed that, I think, based on the news coverage, of showing— showing looting, showing, you know, trash cans or buildings burning — there was very much a focus on the violence that was happening.
(14:09) Something that also came up, as you mentioned, was the risks due to COVID. There’s been some great, I think, research recently that has shown that there was not an increase of COVID due to the protest. There was a wave, which now, compared to the wave we have now, seems like a little, just a hill— But there was a wave of COVID during the summer in the United States, but it was due to socialisation and, you know, parties and 4th July parties, and things like that, rather than these protests. The protesters were outside, the vast majority were wearing masks, so there was little transmission, it’s understood, that happened during these protests.
(14:52) But again, kind of, the understanding of like, “If it bleeds, it leads” — the focus on those dangers can eclipse the true danger that the police pose to the black community, the true danger that the police pose to the protesters during these incidents. There was— much of the violence that happened was really directed from the police, to the protesters, to journalists in many cases. I think that the framing is understandable, in the sense that they want people to watch. I think that’s how I would frame the media coverage, I think, about these protests.
Dr Richard Martin (15:32) I wonder— we talked a bit about the variation in policing across the states, and obviously the protests have taken on different forms, and COVID itself has taken on different forms in different states at different times, but have you seen any common themes in the police response to these protests, either in engagement with communities or lack thereof?
Dr Shea Streeter (15:56) Yes. What I tend to see— There’s kind of three options that I tend to see. One is immediate repression of the protest. I mean, you know, violence towards protesters, not allowing them to gather legally, arbitrary arrests and detentions, shooting rubber bullets at them, tear gas. The option that I tend to see most in my research— Because again, I look particularly at which police killings lead to protests, so in most of those types of situations, the protests stay local, remain local. So if somebody was killed in Louisville, Kentucky, for example — which is where Breonna Taylor was killed — most of the time, the protests stay within Louisville, which makes sense, because most of the time, which is pretty much every circumstance, the police are controlled locally, the District Attorney who would decide whether or not to file charges is local. So those protests tend to stay local. And what I tend to see, in the vast majority of cases, is the police generally ignore the protests. So there’s either violent repression, there’s ignoring, and then something that we saw quite a bit over the summer, although that changed over the course of the summer, was a signalling of some solidarity from the police departments. So sometimes we would see images of police officers kneeling with protesters, and commemorating you know, acknowledging in the issues. But we have to remember, though, that the police themselves are political actors. Police chiefs, particularly, are some of the most competent political actors I have ever come across, despite the fact that they are not actually elected officials.
(17:50) An incident comes to mind — and again, this is not to say that the police are complete[ly] disingenuous when they do these acts — but I recall the police department in Buffalo, New York, kneeling with protesters, and then I believe it was less than two days later, in the same *exact* spot, officers at that point were in riot gear, and violently pushed an elderly man to the ground where he began bleeding out of his ears. You know, even after these officers who pushed this elderly men were suspended, the entire task force that was there resigned, or stepped down, in solidarity with those officers who had pushed this man, and the entire police union sided with them, and they were kind of hailed as, not heroes, but kind of, almost like “conscientious objectors”, in a sense, by the local law enforcement. So I think that, judging police more by their actions, and in most cases, their actions are to either violently repress or to ignore these sorts of demonstrations.
Dr Richard Martin (18:58) I mean, if we develop this a bit further from protests outwards — To what extent do you think we need to ask more profound questions about power in society and wider socio-economic disadvantage, and the police role in maintaining that, as well as specific reforms? So, for example, in the federal level, we have the Consent Decrees4 that the Obama Administration was pushing very hard around recruitment, and changing accountability measures, and certainly a more representative police force is also— is often put forward. When you see these measures around reform — whether it’s through representation or accountability — and from your political science background, do you think that these kinds of reforms can ever— can really do much to change police-community relations, or are structural issues always going to be playing heavily on trust?
Dr Shea Streeter (20:06) I think, again, it has— we have to understand the police as political actors and these institutions as, you know, working for their own interest. Something I like to question when I speak to people in the United States is to question, like, “Who controls the police?” It’s not clear. In fact, what I argue [is] that the police control the police. In the United States, you know, the police are pretty much completely insulated from any sort of civilian, democratic — I always have to specify democratic with a small “d” in the United States context — democratic, you know, control. At the most, the mayor or city council can appoint or remove a police chief, but I’ve spoken to many police chiefs, and they feel that they often have very little control over what they can do for their own organisations due to the regulations that are put forward by the police unions. And so it’s really the police determining their own agendas and their own goals.
(21:18) And so I think that it’s… in some ways, I understand the impetus to want to increase the diversity of the police in order to try to address the problems of racism and racial bias. However, there is very little— you know, you’re still putting people who are marginalised by their identities— you’re putting black and brown police officers into this force, where they are still marginalised, and their ability to, kind of, change the political culture within those departments is very, very limited.
(21:56) I think the best example of this is one of the officers who was part of George Floyd’s killing. So he was a bi-racial officer. And he wanted to join the police force after Philando Castile was killed by the Minneapolis Police Department in 2016. So Philando Castile’s death also led to nationwide protest, and as well as international protest, during the summer of 2016.5 And so he wanted to join the police force, but his— he had some adoptive siblings who were African American, fully black, and some friends, and they were appalled by the fact that he would want to join the police force. Because he said he wanted to be the change. He knows the black community. He wanted to be the change. And some of them cut him out of his life, because they were that upset about him wanting to join the police. But he was saying like, “I need to be a good cop”. Like, you know, the reason why these officers did this was because there wasn’t a good cop there to stop them.
(23:01) Well, he himself was put in that position, when Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. And in that situation, he did not become that good cop he said he was going to be — he helped hold George Floyd down. And so I think he, you know— he’s literally “the good cop” that we— in this world, and this idea of like, “Oh, we just need better cops, we need better, more diverse cops”…. He literally is the prime example of like, the ideal scenario. And yet, when he was put in that position, he acted, again, with his institution, he acted in the interests of his fellow police. And so I think that that— I think that there’s no better example of the limits of that kind of approach.
Dr Richard Martin (23:50) I should point out, we need to think about these issues in context, which draws attention to what is required of the police more broadly. What do you think are the most pressing issues, and indeed, what kinds of reforms might address these?
Dr Shea Streeter (24:04) So with regards to structural issues, I think that that’s really where I am most, I guess, excited in terms of trying to shake things up about people’s ideas about what they think is possible. I mean, we have such issues in this country with economic inequality, with health disparities, with educational disparities, all of these things. So when I think about— I’ve been thinking quite a bit about, you know, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.6 And at the base level, you know, you have the physiological needs — you know, water, food, shelter, clothing. And at that even just basic level, the United States has been failing miserably, and I think that it has become even more apparent because of the pandemic — like, we really truly have almost no social safety net. As we speak, millions of families, since this pandemic, have become homeless, because they’ve been evicted from their homes because they have not been able to, you know, pay their rent, and they have no other form of shelter. And there are continuous barriers put even to getting food through food stamps. And so at the basic level, people aren’t getting their physiological needs met.
(25:29) The next highest level for that hierarchy of needs is safety needs, which is really the one place we’ve been only partially addressing. So, most of the social spending when it comes with the police has been— or when it comes to social spending, has been on safety in terms of police. So we spend very little money on finding people food and shelter, but the police make up inordinate amounts of city budgets. In almost every city or small town, the police expenses are the biggest single line item. So in Chicago, police take up 40% of the city budget — that’s $1.8 billion in 2020. And that includes, just to clarify, that includes $153 million that will [be] set aside just in anticipation of legal settlements for police abuse cases. So they— this is basically the price that Chicago is willing to pay to maintain the status quo of keeping the police the way they are, of understanding that they will brutalise people, and there will be legal payments, and we’re just going to set aside, you know, regularly set aside… This is $153 billion, just for settlements to victims. And LAPD7 sets aside, you know, over 53% of their general fund towards the police. So all— pretty much all of the budgets of cities and states are going towards the police, with very little towards addressing these other needs.
(26:53) So a lot of these— A lot of the bigger societal issues that we’re facing are just not being met. And so the police are being deployed to really address everything — they’re deployed to— the sheriff’s departments are deployed to enforce evictions, they’re the ones who are called when people have mental health issues, they’re the ones who are called when there are, you know, understandable disputes among family members who are dealing with these stressors, who are dealing with just trying to survive, and going into that, what I think of as, the survival mode, that kind of “fight, flight or freeze” response can bring out, you know, the worst in people. But instead of dealing with those— trying to keep people from ever having to go into that survival mode, we’ve pretty much just been focused on trying to remove them from society if they do.
Dr Richard Martin (26:53) I mean, in that context, that leads us nicely to what it might mean to “defund” the police. We’ve talked about these huge police budgets, and in relative terms, huge with other state expenditure. What do you think in that context? In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, we’ve heard this rallying cry to “defund the police”. How would you describe to our international listeners what it means to defund the police in America in 2020?
Dr Shea Street (28:19) Yeah, so I will say that it can mean very different things, depending on the local context. But at a baseline level, it would mean, like, for example, in a city like Chicago, of taking their $1.8 billion budget for 2020, and removing some of those dollars, maybe even half of that money, and spending it towards the other basic needs of people in that society — so housing, education, food, mental health treatment, substance abuse, a liveable wage. So it’s basically trying to, rather than purely addressing “security” from this very narrow policing security sort of standpoint, of addressing the broader needs of people in society, redirecting those funds to really address the basic needs that people have that might lead them, you know— with the idea that, and I think that there is pretty strong argument to be made that, if many people had these needs addressed, they probably wouldn’t need to call the police — the police wouldn’t need to be involved in the first place.
Dr Richard Martin (29:24) An imaginative and innovative proposal that was put in the big police reforms that happened after the Northern Irish conflict was this idea of talking about policing rather than police, and that policing was something that should involve the community and *could* involve the community. And one idea when it came to funding was to mandate that a certain percentage of every pound spent on policing, a percentage of that was also spent on community initiatives and projects. Is that something, I mean, looking at the federal system in the US, is that something, in terms of these funding decisions, that could be put through— could be driven through the federal projects or Consent Decrees, or is this issue of defunding the police and radically rethinking how resources are spent, and what the target of those resources are, likely to come down to local politics and be determined state by state, or is this something that you could see coming more centrally and trying to change across the country?
Dr Shea Streeter (30:35) Most of the time these sorts of things are going to happen, not just even at the state level, but at the municipality level, so at city specific levels. So Chicago City Council determines the budget for Chicago Police. But there are still things that could be done at a state legislative level to, kind of, try to think, even more than defunding the police, is really to bring the police under democratic, civilian control. So kind of structuring how the police departments are set up so that civilians have a role in just— even at the basic level of setting the agenda of what the police are going to be focused on, where they’re going to be focused on, what are the tactics that are available to them, those sorts of things that civilians currently have absolutely no control over. So there’s things that can be done at the municipality level, which I think is where most of the activism is happening. I think that there definitely should be more focus in the United States on the state legislators, because they have a whole lot of control.
(31:39) At the federal level, there is still something that can be done in terms of changing the incentives, although it’s much, much harder. Many police departments and states get funding for the police from the federal government. There is just— there’s been discussion about the possibility of, you know, kind of linking the criteria of those funds based on certain reforms that departments have to make; for example, withholding funds unless the police departments disclose how many p[eople] they kill each year, which they are not legally required to do now. And so just for your listeners, who are not familiar with the United States system, we actually *do not* know how many people police kill each year. We have estimates, because many people have started crowdsourcing this information based on media reports. But there are no official numbers because police are not required in any way to disclose this, and many times they don’t. And so there’s, you know, things you could do at the federal level, withholding— for example, making funding contingent on this. However, if you’re wanting to defund the police, federal funding towards police may not be what you want at all. So this route might be, kind of, completely off the table for many actors who are wanting to defund or dismantle the police. So there are options, but it kind of depends on, you know, what you’re trying— how radical you want to get in terms of the changes that you want to make to the police.
Dr Richard Martin (33:10) Many of our listeners will be drawn from the legal community, and will be interested in rights-based claims and the potential of law to change policing for the better. In the US, there is the likes of the high-profile “stop and frisk” case, Floyd v. City of New York, back in 2013, that was an example of legal action being brought to bear, to show systemic practices, in this case around what constituted “reasonable suspicion” when it came to stop and frisk, and how disproportionate that was, and brought the hard evidence before the courts.8 From your research, do you think that we are right to be looking to constitutional rights in the courts to bring about greater awareness and change?
Dr Shea Streeter (34:05) I think we should be— I mean, I think we should be trying every means necessary, and I think the legal aspect is definitely one of those things on the table. I think what’s— Again, something to consider in the United States system is, again, the role of politics. So judges, federal judges, who are usually the ones who are hearing these cases about police abuse, about police practices, are generally appointed by the President. So, for example, I’ve studied cases where, you know, families of people who’ve been killed are bringing lawsuits, civil suits against the police department of the city, and most of the time— There are 94 district judges in the United States who are appointed by the police [sic]. Interestingly, there’s been— I’ve been trying to find research on this— There’s been very little work done to really investigate how these judges are making decisions. But anecdotally, from human rights, civil rights lawyers here in the United States, it’s very interesting to learn about the differences— regional differences in these judges and how they are overhearing cases.
(35:20) So, in New York, for example, the district judges there are going to be more sympathetic towards, you know, suits against the police and more— possibly more sympathetic towards human rights. Where there’s other regions of the US where I truly do not see these cases being brought forward, and I talk to lawyers there, and they say they have to be very strategic about how they bring these cases, because judges are simply not sympathetic. So they have to— there’s a burden of proof that is, in some regions of the United States, a burden of proof of not only wrongful death, or disparities based on race, or practices that are discriminatory, but an additional level of corruption, almost, that needs to be shown, of malice almost, that needs to be shown in order to win these cases in certain regions.
(36:15) And, you know, in the case of when people are actually trying to sue the police departments for police brutality, or wrongful death, another really banal thing that can really change radically how things work out is the level of insurance that these cities have. So for example, in Chicago — Chicago is such a huge city that they just pay this— pay out these lawsuits from their general fund. And as I mentioned, they’ve, you know, for 2020, they set aside $150 million in anticipation of these lawsuits. Whereas I talk to lawyers in the city of Nashville, Tennessee, where they have an insurance policy that would cover these sorts of lawsuits, but the insurance pay out is so low that most lawyers won’t even take the time to take these cases because it’s not worth their time and money, because there’s going to be very little that comes from it. And so I think that there’s a lot that can be done from a legal aspect, but understanding the incentives of lawyers also, and the incentives of judges, is an important part of this.
Dr Richard Martin (37:32) I mean, that’s, in some respects, disheartening to hear, but the frank reality of things… The other aspect of the legal response to this— Certainly in the European context, we have Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights that protects the right to life— Something that, as an outsider, certainly strikes me is the— what seems, in some cases, to be the de facto immunity from prosecution for police officers that have killed. I mean, the recent case of Breonna Taylor, the totally tragic case in which a charge was brought, but in the context, it was a narcotics charge, rather than anything else for the officer.9
(38:23) So can you give us a little bit of the context, from your own research and expertise around the legal response, in terms of the criminal law and actual criminal liability for officers where they kill in the course of their duty?
Dr Shea Streeter (38:41) Yeah, it’s definitely more of the Wild West around here. We really don’t have that, sort of— the strong protections for the right to life, a human right to live, and also the procedures in place for when the officers do kill people. So, basically, officers are given a level of right to self–defence that no other civilian is ever given. So basically, officers, as long as they felt that they had any reason to fear for their life, in practice, it is legal for them to basically kill anyone, and that reason can be shown to be completely unfounded after the fact, but as long as they can argue at any level that, in that moment, they felt that they had some reason to fear for their life, they are de facto legally allowed to kill virtually anyone.
(39:44) Again, I think it’s— in terms of the criminal aspect of these things, this is again where politics comes into play. So, in most cases, when a police officer kills somebody, it is the District Attorney — so we have, you know, attorneys that are— the District Attorney usually is the attorney for a county, it’s really an office, the prosecutor’s office, although there’s a head District Attorney — who decides whether or not to bring charges against anyone, for any sort of crime. And so they’re the ones who would decide whether or not to even consider bringing charges against a police officer. It is important to consider that, in most— in every other situation, these District Attorneys are working hand–in–hand with law enforcement to bring charges against civilians. And so the idea that they would turn suddenly— take a stance against the police that they work day in, day out with to bring these charges on, many have argued that that’s a huge conflict of interest.
(40:48) In the Breonna Taylor case, there was so much scrutiny on this case that there was acknowledgement that the District Attorney would not be the appropriate person to adjudicate this. So they went to the State Attorney, an African American man who was the State Attorney for Kentucky, and he was the one who considered whether or not to file charges. Again, legally, all this officer had to say was that they had reason to fear for their life. And in this case, they could— they could pretty successfully argue that in the sense that Breonna Taylor’s boyfriend at the time, he did have a weapon because— he had a legally owned firearm, he was not aware that the police were the ones who are barging in this house, so he fired, you know, he had the right to self–defence. And, so they could definitely argue, and kind of convincingly in that case, that they had some reason to fear for their life. And so that is fundamentally why he was not charged. But again, politics plays a role. This State Attorney General was also being considered for the Supreme Court nomination that now Amy Coney Barrett has, but you know, the entire eyes of the nation, and also his future career were at stake, in determining— in his decisions.
Dr Richard Martin (42:02) Do you see potential for a focus on reform rooted in civil and political rights, and protections being a part of future initiatives to reform police in the US? Or do you think that that’s either come and gone, or is a side issue in these more systemic calls for defunding, or even some kind of version of abolitionism in some respects, that we’re sending the wrong people into these committees in the first place?
Dr Shea Streeter (42:37) Yeah, so what, I think— what’s really interesting is that, despite the fact that, you know, for decades the United States was very much, you know, a promoter of human rights in other countries, there really has never been a real development of human rights discourse within the United States outside of those elite sort of circles. So, yeah… Human rights isn’t something that really comes into popular American discourse very often, and surprisingly not even as much when it comes to the police, which I think is a big opportunity to kind of, you know, bring that discourse, bring that into the conversation.
(43:20) One frustration— one thing that I see that many activists get frustrated— many community members get frustrated with that idea of, “Oh, we need to develop a better legal code for protecting rights and have those rights enshrined deeper into local, state and federal constitutions”, is the idea that, “Well, we have a lot of rights now that the police just completely ignore”. And oftentimes, you know, I hear anecdotes that people say that, if you ever try to assert your rights with the police by saying, “Well, I have the right”, you know— trying to explain it— even if you know the law, and express your knowledge of the law, that will only bring you more trouble, that’s when the police often turn violent in these interactions, because they’re being called out for their lack of respect for these rights.
(44:12) I think one of the biggest opportunities to really go to use a rights perspective when it comes to policing is actually when it comes to the rights of protesters. Because I think when it comes to protest policing, there is a lot of opportunity to discuss the rights of protesters. I want to emphasise for international audiences, there is very, *very* little tolerance towards protest in the United States. I mean, I’m currently in Mexico City, where there’s frequently demonstrations right outside my apartment. Protesters will camp out in the middle of the main street, in the heart of Mexico City, in the main plaza, and there’s a level, you know— there’s huge issues with policing and human rights in Mexico, *huge* issues, but there is a general tolerance towards protest which would truly not— truly does not exist in the United States.
(45:12) Protesters have to pay permits to the police in order to protest against the police. And if you don’t pay those permits, you will be subject to far more force, and even if you do pay those permits, they usually specify, “You can protest from this time of day to then”, you know— from noon to 6pm, and if you go outside that, that is when they deploy extreme force to clear you out because you have gone beyond your permit and your rights have basically dissolved — the rights pretty much only exist within that permit. Further, it’s in some ways, it’s kind of like a mob racket in the sense of paying them for protection, to be able to speak out against them. I think that is where we can have the most headway in terms of, you know, human rights, sort of, develop— codifying human rights, is really with regards to protest.
Dr Richard Martin (45:20) In the spirit of looking for silver linings in these difficult times, is there a key finding from your research that gives you cause for hope, or optimism, in police-community relations with African American communities in contemporary America?
Dr Shea Street (46:30) Hmm…. Where I find the most hope is the fact that these communities, which are really, truly the most marginalised communities in the United States, are the ones who are carrying this entire movement on their backs. They have the level of capacity, the depth of organising knowledge, and just the stamina to do so. And so I think that— I mean, when you have black women leading a movement, anything is possible, and so from that standpoint, I have full faith that, you know, that people will— that this movement will continue and that it will survive.
(47:19) You know, on the flip side, I think something that really, I think, hasn’t been taken quite as seriously in the United States context is really the level of commitment that the majority of Americans, the majority of white Americans, have to the police and to the police use of force. There’s been a number of survey work that has shown that, you know, the white majority strongly supports aggressive police tactics, they— and also even, I think— what I see in my research of when, you know, when whites are killed by police, just a high level of support that continues within their communities, even under really dubious circumstances, where people are unarmed and shot in the back, for example, just the high level of support that there is, sometimes even among the family members of those who’ve been killed.
(48:16) So experiencing— So some folks like to think that, you know, this is purely a matter of racial bias, like they’re against black people, or think that this is purely a matter of, “Oh, they haven’t experienced it before, because they’re white, and so they don’t understand how it is”, but I think my— You know, what I’ve found in my research is that even those who experience it have such a high level of support that we really need to take seriously. The fact that this is really something fundamental in how people are seeing the world, and the ideologies that they have about how the world should work, and who deserves what from the state.
(48:53) At the baseline level, these are— this is really rooted in fear of— either fear of acknowledging that the police can be violent, because then you live in a state where you have violent police, but also fear of each other. And so when people hear about defunding the police, when they think about, you know, rolling back any of the police, you know, the leeway that they have, I think people are really afraid of “Who will protect me? Who will save me?” And I think that that is something that cannot be just dismissed, and trying to work with people, trying to find ways so people feel that they can trust each other, not just trust the police, but trust each other. And so I think that understanding that fear, and addressing that fear, is I think the way forward, the way of bringing people into understanding that, you know, that we can control the police, we can restrain the police, we can maybe even defund or abolish the police if we’re able to manage our fear and to learn to trust each other.
Dr Richard Martin (50:06) That’s a very powerful observation, and I think gives us a lot to think about, not just asking questions of policymakers and lawyers and political strategists, but actually, as you suggest, questions about ourselves and how we relate to and engage with our fellow citizens.
(50:29) So thank you so much, Dr Shea Streeter of the University of Michigan, for sharing such rich and thought–provoking insights on this episode of the Black Lives Matter series.
(50:55) RightsUp is brought to you by the Oxford Human Rights Hub. The Executive Producer is Kira Allmann. The episode was co-produced by Mónica Arango Olaya, edited by Christy Callaway-Gale, and was hosted by me, Dr Richard Martin. Music for the series is by Rosemary Allmann. Show Notes of this episode have been written by Sarah Dobbie. Thanks to our production team members — Sandra Fredman, Megan Campbell, Gauri Pillai, Natasha Holcroft-Emmess — for their valuable feedback in putting this episode together. Subscribe to this podcast wherever you like to listen to your favourite podcasts.