police
Police tactics scrutinized following death of George Floyd
02:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Bakari Sellers is a former Democratic member of the South Carolina House of Representatives and a CNN commentator. He is the author of the book “My Vanishing Country” and an attorney at Strom Law. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.

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These last few days have been extremely difficult for all of us. My heart aches for every family who must bear the loss of a loved one at the hands of the state they pay for and that is constitutionally bound to protect them. The latest string of officer-involved killings has rightfully spawned national outrage and protests.

Bakari Sellerrs

But to heal and create a system of policing where law enforcement officers accused of misconduct are brought to justice, we must leverage our anger and frustration to drive systemic change. For years, law enforcement has too often “stacked the deck” legally by undermining meaningful citizen oversight of police misconduct and limiting our ability to prosecute officers. Even in the most obvious cases of misconduct, securing justice is virtually an impossible feat – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, who has now taken over the case from county-level prosecutors, understands this.

Look, there is actual video of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck. For almost nine minutes, we can watch Floyd call for his mother and plead for mercy before taking his final breath. Yet, despite this traumatic footage, and the fact that all four officers have been arrested and charged, Ellison still cited the intricacy of prosecuting police officers: “We’re confident in what we’re doing, but history does show that there are clear challenges here.” Ellison also said that “winning a conviction will be hard.”

He is right – arrests are easy, but convictions are almost unviable given the current state of our laws. That is why we must demand systemic changes to reform policing in American to ensure that Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other casualties of alleged police misconduct do not die in vain.

Here are five solutions:

  1. Justice must be served. The officers involved in the killings of Floyd and Taylor must be convicted and sentenced.
  2. Limit qualified immunity for police officers. This doctrine makes it more difficult to hold the police accountable for civil rights violations unless other cases “clearly established” that their actions were unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is now considering whether to revisit the doctrine and further discuss pending cases that have asked the court to overrule the immunity defense. The court should do this, because absolutely no one is above the law.
  3. Establish a federal use-of-force standard. We need a federal use of force standard to train every officer in the country in the appropriate ways to respond during interactions with civilians, and to prosecute officers if they fail to meet those standards.
  4. Establish a federal police misconduct database. Currently, no public database – standardized through the Department of Justice – keeps a record of decertified police officers exists. All states do not participate in the database that is currently available, and the information is not accessible to the public. To foster transparency and monitor patterns of bad behavior, this must change. The Justice Department must establish and maintain a national database of decertified police officers that is publicly available, and any police department seeking any federal funding from the Department of Justice must report into this database. This would prevent decertified cops in one state or jurisdiction from going to work for a police department somewhere else.
  5. Lower the standard for federal criminal civil rights prosecutions. It will remain damn near impossible to convict a police officer for civil rights violations unless we lower the legal standard of proof.

This list does not have every answer, but it is a start. We must harness the anger of today to dismantle the system that makes it virtually impossible to hold those police officers who engage in misconduct accountable. Democrats and Republicans alike should be able to agree to these commonsense proposals and take a constructive step towards reforming policing in America.

Lastly, in addition to policy changes, groups like the Bail Project, NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Center for Policing Equity are on the frontlines of this matter and continue to need financial support.

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    In the meantime, we must keep organizing and protesting. Together, through direct action and advocating for systemic reforms, we have the power to ensure that our movement generates the change that we all so desperately want to see.