Views expressed in opinion columns are the author's own.
In March, Sacramento Police shot and killed an unarmed black man named Stephon Clark. An independent autopsy found he was shot eight times, primarily in the back. The police appeared to have fired at him "after he was already falling." They claimed he was armed at the time of the shooting, but he was found only with a cell phone. In response, two officers were placed on paid administrative leave.
Clark and countless other victims remind us of the need to transform our criminal justice system, tackle institutional racism and demilitarize law enforcement. And as we continue that long-term work, we must also make an immediate policy change around police standards for use of lethal force.
This change is already happening in Sacramento, where Clark was killed. The current standard requires police to have a "reasonable fear" before killing someone. The proposed Police Accountability and Community Protection Act would change the law to allow lethal force only when "necessary." It also states that killing would not be justified "if the officer's gross negligence contributed to making the force 'necessary.'" We need these changes everywhere because police violence is an epidemic, and it's killing people of color.
So far in 2018, police have killed 321 people. Black people are three times more likely to be victims as white people — and 30 percent of black victims were unarmed. In the 12-year span from 2005 to April 2017, only 80 officers were arrested for on-duty shootings. For comparison, more than 80 people were killed by police just in February 2017.
One of the many reasons police killings continue to happen without real consequences for the officers is that the standards for lethal force in many states are so low.
We have granted police officers the ability to take black lives with relative impunity. We have done this not only by criminalizing blackness and vesting military power in the state, but also by simply calling police "reasonable."
Supreme Court cases like Graham v. Connor have not held police to a substantive due process standard but instead judged their actions along a "reasonableness standard". This standard of what is "reasonable" seems to place the judgment entirely in the hands of the officer with little opportunity to evaluate in hindsight.
In his paper on police violence, Samuel Sinyangwe found that "specific changes to police department use of force policies can significantly reduce police violence in America." This includes restricting the use of specific methods such as chokeholds and strangleholds, dictating that lethal force be a last resort for officers and mandating reports for use of force, among other policies. The only policy adopted by a majority of police departments in the study was the requirement of a "verbal warning before shooting civilians." However, there were 37 percent fewer police-involved killings by departments that had at least four of the restrictive use of force policies than by those with zero or one of these policies. Changing use of force policies saves lives.
It would be wrong to suggest that racist policing can be solved with stronger policy language. The problem requires a fundamental shift to make our system about restorative justice and racial equality. However, we can and must fight institutional racism in many ways at once.
The power we cede to the police in our society and in our policy manifests in the killing of unarmed black people. One of the ways we have given them power is by perpetuating the idea that police officers are reasonable actors in any given situation. Yet time and time again we see them kill someone over a cell phone, a shower head, a toy. In every case they are protected by the defense that they believed they were acting reasonably.
There is no single solution, but making it harder for police to kill without facing consequences is a moral imperative.
Jack Lewis is a senior government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org