The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” The heinous murder of George Floyd by a police officer sworn to uphold the law was an act of infamy that must again bend the moral arc of history toward justice.
Like the murder of King himself — which galvanized the 1960s civil rights movement — George Floyd’s death must galvanize America to face some of the hard and bitter truths about race relations that still plague our nation.
Our founders, imperfect though they were, laid out the self-evident moral truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It has taken almost two and a half centuries to give meaning to these words for our black brothers and sisters. And still we are short of that noble goal. Too many black Americans find their liberty and their lives snuffed out by violence, too often at the hands of those who should protect them.
I believe that the vast majority of police are decent men and women who answer the call of public service. Many of our major metropolitan police forces today are in fact majority minority. In New York City, for instance, more than half of the force is now non-white, comprising blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other minorities.
But a few very bad cops have poisoned policing for many black Americans. Floyd’s murderer had numerous citizen complaints lodged against him, some for the use of excessive force. Yet time and time again he faced no consequences, and was allowed to remain on the police force. The first hard truth we need to learn from this is that our police forces — and especially the unions that represent them — too regularly and reflexively defend indefensible police behavior.
This is a serious flaw that public-employee unions must own up to. When bad teachers are nearly impossible to remove, students suffer. When incompetent civil servants hide behind union rights, the public suffers. But when bad cops go unpunished, people suffer, and they die. This must change.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature are making a good start by reforming “shield laws” that can be misused to keep police misconduct secret. Other policing changes are also in order, including more thorough screening of recruits to identify and weed out potential problem candidates, and far better training in police academies to stress de-escalation of potentially dangerous situations and the use of minimum necessary force to effect arrests. The best cops rarely draw a gun or resort to lethal force. They remember they are peace officers.
But far-left ranting about “defunding” and even “abolishing” police forces is insane. What’s the alternative? In Minneapolis, armed “citizen patrols” of mostly black civilians — led by a city councilman who’s the son of Minnesota’s black attorney general, who is investigating Floyd’s murder — have taken to the streets to try to keep order in the aftermath of violence there. What would happen if one of these civilian posses inevitably were to shoot and kill someone — maybe even another black person? Who would be accountable? Who would answer? Would black lives still matter then?
And there’s one other hard truth we must face as a nation. The overwhelming majority of black murder victims — especially young black men — are killed by other persons of color. During the Memorial Day weekend in Chicago alone, dozens of people were shot, and 10 were killed. Most of the victims were black. Their lives matter, too. Unless the hopelessness, rootlessness and violent gang culture underlying many of these deaths are addressed, the killing is bound to continue.
President Trump made a great move when he named black Republican Sen. Tim Scott, of South Carolina, to head an effort to develop proposals to deal with police misconduct and the carnage in black communities. People should remember that it was Trump and senators like Scott who drew up and passed the First Step Act, which is freeing many persons of color from serving disproportionately harsh sentences.
The president shouldn’t shy away from building on the solid progress he has made on criminal justice issues affecting black Americans. He should double down on initiatives like “opportunity zones” to drive private investment into inner cities. Promote hope and justice. Lead, Mr. President. Black lives matter!
Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.