If you’ve found yourself embroiled in some difficult discussions with your significant other as of late, that’s not surprising in the least. Specifically, the recent tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade have inspired ongoing conversations about police brutality and discrimination in the U.S. Unsure about how to discuss police brutality with your partner? The key here is to arm yourself with facts and figures and seek out the right resources so you can have an informed discussion. While talking to your partner about these matters may not always be easy or comfortable, it's an excellent opportunity for you to dig into white privilege, the impact of racial prejudices, and possible solutions for ensuring positive change.
Even if you and your partner can both acknowledge that police brutality is an undeniable problem, you may find that you don't exactly see eye to eye on the severity of this issue, or how to best resolve it. Maybe they express concerns about defunding the police, while you think that’s the only viable solution. Or maybe they keep insisting that #BlueLivesMatter, too, because they work in law enforcement, or have friends or family members on the police force.
Regardless of where the gaps exist in your partner’s awareness around these injustices, it’s definitely worth making an effort to educate them — as well as yourself. Not sure how to navigate that conversation? Here are some talking points for an informed and productive discussion about police brutality and the systemic racism that fuels it.
What key facts and figures can I use to illustrate the issue?
Since video footage was released of George Floyd's death, protests of police brutality have erupted nationwide. However, as illustrated by the tragic 2014 deaths of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, among other Black men, police brutality has proven to be a persistent issue.
In case your SO isn't fully aware of the scope of this issue, here are some statistics you can bring up in conversation: According to The Washington Post’s database, police killed 1,098 people in 2019 — and Black people comprised 24% of those killed, despite only making up 13% of the population. The data also shows that three times more Black people have been shot than their white counterparts. While you’re sharing these stats with your partner, it’s imperative to point out that these numbers don’t even include incidents where police used excessive physical force that didn’t result in death, or where Black individuals died in police custody. Not only that, but the NAACP reports that Black people are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites, and imprisoned for drug charges at 6 times the rate of whites (despite the fact that their drug usage rates are comparable).
Also, according to The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), you can’t really trust a lot of the official data around police shootings and use of force — and that’s for several reasons. For one, the ACLU notes that while your police department or local news may produce figures showing a low rate of alleged abuse, that data only reflects reported incidents, meaning they’re not painting a full picture. Many incidents may go unreported due to the fact that some departments don’t release information on complaints filed by citizens regarding police conduct (or only release a portion), and very often, officers try to discourage people from filing formal complaints. The number of complaints also depends on whether the local police department accepts them via phone/mail (or requires in-person sworn statements). Additionally, some citizens are simply too afraid to file complaints, or believe it will do no good.
As the ACLU puts it, “The official ‘complaint rate’ (complaints per 1,000 citizens), rather than being a reliable measure of police performance, more than likely reflects the administrative customs of a particular police department." In other words, if you think those statistics around police violence are eye-opening, the reality is that they're probably much worse than that.
How can I explain why defunding the police is a viable strategy?
While it's overwhelmingly clear that police violence is a problem, there are differing opinions on how that will be best accomplished. Some (like those behind the #8CantWait campaign) are calling for a series of reforms to regulate the use of force and create more accountability for police, while others are seeking to defund police departments and redirect those funds to better serve the local communities.
If your partner falls in the former camp, you may need to educate them on how reform strategies like requiring implicit-bias training, encouraging community policing, providing officers with mental health support or equipping them with body cameras simply have not proven effective in reducing police brutality in the past — thus demonstrating the need for a more aggressive approach.
Alicia Garza, Black Lives Matter co-founder, told TIME that even though 26 reform laws have passed in 40 states since 2013, “not much has changed.” The #8cantwait campaign promises to decrease police violence by 72%, but there are loopholes to many of these policies — and historically, cops have circumvented them even after they've been implemented. For example, one of the proposed policies entails banning chokeholds — but as a New York City police officer still used one on Eric Garner after they were outlawed. Another policy regarding de-escalation has an exceptional circumstances provision which allows cops to escalate force if they think their life is in danger. And the "duty to intervene" policy was already adopted by Minneapolis when three officers stood by and bore witness to George Floyd's death.
Since there's reason to believe that reform alone will not solve the problem, many activists say police departments need to be significantly defunded.
Johnetta Elzie, a leader of the activist group We The Protesters and co-editor of the Ferguson protest newsletter This Is the Movement, also pointed out that you can approach this argument from a financial standpoint with your partner. For example, when Eric Garner's family was paid $5.9 million for the wrongful death lawsuit, that money came from the city of New York — rather than the NYPD or the specific officers responsible for his death.
"People are so upset about looting and property damage, so I would talk about how much police department payouts for incidents of police violence actually cost the city," she tells Elite Daily. "The police officers are still getting their nice, plush, lifetime pensions — we're even seeing that with the cop in Minneapolis who killed George Floyd. Police violence costs these cities exorbitant amounts of money, especially in places like New York City where there's a higher number of incidents. Police brutality settlements should come out of the cops' pensions instead of the city having to pay for it."
As Elzie puts it, when cities are forced to pay for these settlements, there's less taxpayer money for areas like education, mental health services, public defenders, and civilian oversight boards (all of which help to minimize crime). Not only that, but officers are not fully held responsible for their actions since they don't reap the financial consequences.
What if my partner argues that defunding the police will prevent them from being able to address crime?
One point you may want to focus on getting across to your partner is that activists are pushing to remove some of the taxpayer dollars that were previously invested into police departments and redirect them into social programs that could actually reduce crime. For example, many activists are hoping those funds will be diverted to programs related to mental health, housing, domestic violence, and education — all areas that often play a role in the crime. In other words, the idea is to stop violence before it starts.
Another thing worth noting is that many activists believe that much of the cases that police have traditionally responded would be a better fit for social workers, mental health providers, and other outreach workers who are trained to de-escalate situations. By reallocating funds from police budgets to community programs that deal with the underlying causes of crime (poverty, drug addiction, homelessness), there may be less of a need for law enforcement. If you want to encourage your partner to learn more about these efforts, you might suggest they check out MPD150, a community advocacy organization in Minneapolis that focuses on abolishing local police and making sure first responders are well equipped to deal with crises, rather than "strangers armed with guns."
And there's proof that this approach may be effective. In 2014, the Dallas, Texas, police department came under scrutiny after officers shot Jason Harrison, a man with schizophrenia five times — and David Brown, the police chief, admitted that police should not be responding to mental health calls. The civil suit filed against the officers who killed Harrison was ultimately dropped by a federal judge, who determined from body camera footage that Harrison put their life in danger when he lunged at them with a screwdriver. However, there was one positive outcome: In 2018, a $3 million grant funded the RIGHT Care program, which is comprised of a team of paramedics and behavioral health social workers who are trained to stabilize people on the scene of a crisis. By de-escalating the situation, they can help to prevent them from ending up in jail. Since the program launched, arrests of people with mental health conditions troubles have declined in the area of Dallas where the program operates.
Your partner may point out that it's difficult to predict the impact of defunding police, and while that may be true (since it's never been done on a large scale in the United States), you can explain that there's no proof that arrests reduce or discourage serious crime. In fact, there's evidence to the contrary — that less policing can lead to reduced crime. A 2017 report published in Nature Human Behavior examined several weeks in 2014 through 2015 when the New York Police Department put a stop to "proactive policing" — which researchers defined as "aggressive enforcement of low-level violations" and heightened police presence in areas where "crime is anticipated." What the study determined is that there were a notable 2,100 fewer crime complaints during that time.
Besides, as Elzie points out, police officers don't usually directly prevent unlawful activity — they step in after an incident has already happened.
"I would ask your partner: Who do you really think is protecting us from crime right now?" she explains. "White people already have relationships with their police, so they don't deal with patrolling or profiling. Black and Brown people don't feel protected by police, because an officer arriving on the scene could actually lead to crime."
Are there any recommended resources my partner and I can check out to become more informed about police brutality?
If you're in the beginning stages of educating yourselves, Funders for Justice has a list of at least 168 organizations addressing police accountability and racial justice.
Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual is a super thorough guide compiled by the ACLU that covers a wide range of relevant topics. It includes information on the shortcomings in federal law that contribute to police brutality, data on police use of physical force, tips for how community citizens can help by documenting incidents, and even possible organizing strategies for challenging and reducing police abuse.
Another resource that's worth scoping out is Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a campaign that's working to end discriminatory policing in New York. CPR created an educational video series you can watch that highlights the negative impact of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy. The campaign's Know Your Rights! downloadable guide, meanwhile, is aimed at informing people about their rights in police interactions so that they can identify illegal, discriminatory, and abusive behavior.
There's also a slew of books you and your partner can read to get a better handle on not only how we arrived at this national crisis, but also how to create positive change going forward. Electric Literature compiled a reading list focused on the movement to defund the police, for example, and Haymarket Books put together a list of books against policing and mass incarceration. A few books worth reading include When Police Kill, a data-driven look into the who, why, and how often of police brutality written by a law professor; The Black and the Blue, a first-person account from a Black cop about the deeply ingrained racism in America's police departments; Beyond Survival, an anthology by activists about the transformative justice movement to resolve violence on a community-based level; and The End of Policing, a detailed explanation on why/how to defund the police as well as policing alternatives.
While you're doing your research, Elzie also suggests getting involved in the movement by contributing to the bail fund set up for Lousiville, Kentucky — the city where 26-year-old Breonna Taylor was fatally shot by police offers. In an effort to ensure that Taylor remains a part of the conversation around ending police violence, activists are asking people to support protestors who are demanding justice by donating to the Louisville Community Bail Fund. This fund focuses on protecting those targeted by law enforcement, bailing protestors out, and also providing protesters with post-release support.
In all likelihood, this will not be one conversation with your partner — but rather a series of ongoing discussions in which you can hopefully enlighten each other and achieve a greater understanding of the fight against police abuse. Remember: the only way to grow together is to challenge your beliefs and perspectives by continually seeking out new information from reliable resources.
Sullivan, C. M., & O’Keeffe, Z. P. (2017). Evidence that curtailing proactive policing can reduce major crime. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(10), 730–737. doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0211-5