Published on 22nd Apr, 2021
THE guilty verdict in the George Floyd trial is “a moment in time” but must become “a changing moment”, an international discussion on policing transformation has heard.
The event co-hosted by SCI, the Global Citizens Circle and the Southern New Hampshire University took place one day after a US jury found a former police officer guilty of murder over the death of the African-American.
Speakers from the US discussed the impact of the verdict, while the event also drew lessons from the efforts to transform policing in South Africa and Northern Ireland.
Debbie Watters is a co-director and founder member of Northern Ireland Alternatives (NIA), a community-based restorative justice organisation.
“I know yesterday’s verdict is a moment in time,” she said, “but let’s make it a changing moment in time and if it is the beginning of something new, the journey will continue.”
Almost 100 people from locations around the globe participated in the online event.
Tito Jackson from the Global Citizens Circle said of the court verdict: “What happened yesterday must be defined as accountability. It can’t be defined as justice, just yet.
“I would submit to you that we are in a time where we must press our advantage, that the world is looking at us. History will judge us based on what we do and what we don’t do.”
The discussion was chaired by Aqeela Sherrills, a prominent US organiser and activist, who for 30 years has worked to promote healing in communities of colour and to build community-based public safety strategies.
“Police are only one aspect of the public safety process,” he said. “You literally cannot have public safety without the public. It is not just the absence of violence and crime, it’s also the presence of wellbeing.”
He spoke of the positive impact of his work in supporting the introduction of complementary programmes to involve communities in policing and public safety.
Debbie Watters, who is also former vice chair of the Northern Ireland Policing Board (the body responsible for holding the police to account), detailed Northern Ireland’s experience of police reform which flowed from the 1998 Good Friday agreement.
For change to happen it had to be enshrined in law, it had to be funded and there had to be political will, “otherwise it won’t get done”. Yet, more than twenty years later, it remains an ongoing process.
“The first ten years was changing procedures & policy,” she said. “The second ten, winning hearts and minds and changing culture.”
She talked through the creation of new independent infrastructure in Northern Ireland for police complaints and police oversight, which helped embed human rights and ensure policing accountability to communities.
But she added: “One of the biggest lessons I have learned is that you can never take your foot off the peddle. If you do, things will roll backwards. So this is a continual fight for justice.”
It remains an ongoing process, but she noted that policing is now described as a ‘service’ and not a ‘police force’.
Speaking of slippage in the change process, however, she said this could be related in part to the fast-tracked training of police recruits, but also to a failure to ensure that police leaders who supported best practice delivered on it.
But she also highlighted how police reform had been undermined by a failure to handle Northern Ireland’s legacy of conflict.
She said all societies faced their own troubled history around policing and must address it to ensure change.
“The poison of the past continues to seep into the present.”
Zelda Holtzman was an ANC activist during the Apartheid era in South Africa, later playing a leading role in work to change policing there.
She criticised the tendency for police forces to adopt “the rotten apple syndrome”, blaming crimes on individual officers, while obscuring deep-rooted problems in what is in fact “a rotten system syndrome.”
She said that in South Africa and elsewhere policing emerged from colonisation and the protection of the privileged and their property. Changing this police ‘DNA’ required a radical re-orientation towards public need.
The South African experience was that placing reformers in key positions inside a policing structure made up of 98% white men was not enough to embed change.
“There was the assumption that a few good people would hold that space and things would transform. In reality it doesn’t work that way.”
Zelda said: “I have experienced policing in full circle. I was arrested. I spent time in solitary confinement. Many comrades were killed and tortured by the police. When we had the opportunity to transform systems for a democratic dispensation, we were stuck on the question of policing.”
There was a belief that integration and accountability structures would change this ‘instrument of power’, but policing veered away from public service and back to ‘control’.
“The orientation of [the police] hadn’t changed fundamentally.
“They haven’t decolonised from the colonial construct. So we expect this instrument to do something which it is not geared to do and then we are surprised.
“Policing for the people has to have an element about where the people are at. If we start a conversation with ‘what do people need’, then we probably might come up with a different answer.
“It wouldn’t be one that would speak to a militarised police that identifies the ‘enemy’ - in the colonial construct - that happen to be poor and that happen to be workers, that happen to be black people and to be all those that are ‘othered’ rather than those who have property and have privilege.”
The event also heard from Susan Le, a 26-year-old US organiser and activist.
She detailed the challenges faced by communities seeking an overhaul in policing.
Susan recounted the challenge of ensuring that reforming laws were passed in the teeth of political opposition, plus counter-pressure from, for example, the police union.
Her depiction of the scale of the challenge was underlined when the discussion heard that during the course of the George Floyd trial at least 64 people died at the hands of police in the US. A 16 year old girl, Ma’Khia Bryant, was killed within hours of the verdict being delivered. (Read more here.)
The discussion on transforming policing heard calls for us all to re-think what policing is fundamentally for and how it needs to put human rights and communities at the heart of everything.
Tito Jackson quoted The Talmud for inspiration, saying: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love, mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”