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‘A Systemically Racist Institution’: Sundial Conversation on Criminal Justice Reform

Protests about police brutality continued through the weekend in South Florida, including this gathering Saturday in Miami.

On this Thursday, June 11, episode of Sundial:


Protests are scheduled across South Florida this weekend, continuing the national conversation around police violence and their role in our communities. Protesters have been raising the issue of police budgets, with recommendations to defund, dismantle or dramatically reduce the public funding allocated for law enforcement.

“We are actually mobilizing people to put pressure on the Ft. Lauderdale Police Department to defund their budget by 10 million dollars,” says Tifanny Burks, a community organizer with the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward. “We want that money to be re-invested in community led efforts focused on keeping communities safe.” 

But the political will to achieve that reality may not be on the table. Ft. Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis has said the city is open to modifications in the hiring process of police and the disciplinary process but has no intention of reducing the police budget. “Anyone who calls for the dismantling of the police department is not seeking reform, they’re seeking revenge.” 

Proposals to radically defund and dismantle police date back to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. South Florida has a long and troubled history of police violence upon black communities, from the 1968 Robert Owens demonstrations, to the 1980 Arthur McDuffie rebellion to the 1989 manslaughter of Clement Lloyd. We gathered a panel of speakers to explore the historical context of police violence against black communities and how proposed reforms such as defunding the police could manifest themselves here. 

Donald M. Jones is a constitutional law professor at the University of Miami who’s written three books. His most recent book is called "Dangerous Spaces: Beyond the Racial Profile." Omari Hardy is a Lake Worth Beach city commissioner. He’s advocating for mandatory body camera use by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and is calling for the decriminalization of non-violent offenses. And Tifanny Burks is a community organizer with the Black Lives Matter Alliance of Broward, she helped organize the protests in Ft. Lauderdale more than a week ago. The following is an excerpted version of the conversation. 

WLRN: Donald you came to Miami originally to study and understand the McDuffie Rebellion. What brought you here for that particular moment? 

JONES: Well, I think that for me, as a civil rights lawyer, which has been my calling, the issue of police brutality and police misconduct is, something that is sort of like the litmus test of citizenship. If you are a citizen, you should be treated equally by the police. When you're treated like a second class citizen by police, it's like a deprivation of your citizenship itself. It's like being relegated to a separate caste. And it occurs in a context of years and years of struggle in which many black communities have felt that the police have placed the community under siege. 

Not merely that blacks as individuals are being discriminated against because the police seem to treat the black community as a "them." And any person who is black, regardless of whether you're law abiding or not, you're treated as a criminal. And so it's that sense, overwhelming sense for decades that the police have operated in our communities as a systemically racist institution. And the brutality and the killing is simply the epitome of that racism. And so I was trying to find a place to begin so that, you know, through that we could empower communities to be a full fledged citizen.

Omari, you've changed your perspective on this. You were an advocate for increasing law enforcement in Lake Worth before you got into office. I mean, something's changed in your perspective. 

HARDY: Yeah. Many of the things that I thought three years ago, I have completely revised them over the last three weeks. And that's in part because, I feel three years ago I wasn't as educated on these issues. And when you're running for office and people tell you that the issues that they're having in their community, you want to have a strong response to those issues. But I think it's more important for elected officials, again, to educate themselves and to have an intelligent response to the issues that folks and present to you in the community. 

It's true that we should empathize with all folks, but police officers, that's a job. It's a profession. And to the extent that we should consider you know, try to walk a mile in their shoes, I wonder to what extent can a police officer walk a mile in my shoes as an African-American man? And that's the fundamental thing here. If you choose to wear a badge and carry a gun, we can't have any bad apples. I was listening to Chris Rock and said, imagine if Southwest Airlines said all we have is a few bad apples who, you know, contrary to the rest of them who like to land crash into the mountains. We can't we can't have that when it comes to policing.

Tiffany, we keep hearing these different words, defunding, dismantling and abolishing. What exactly do you see would be the best option, because we have to have some level of security, right?

BURKS: Yes. So what we're seeing a lot of times when people are, "committing crimes" is because their basic needs are not being met. What we want is actually for people to have access to having their basic needs being met. Things that we care about are constantly being defunded. Our education system, people having access to affordable housing. What we are saying is that we want more resources, such as culturally competent mental health professionals. 

For example, in Oregon, when somebody calls the police, if somebody is having a mental health emergency, that call is automatically rerouted to a community-led organization that is filled with culturally competent, licensed mental health first aid professionals. And so what we're saying is, we want more of that. We want people who are actually licensed, trained and well equipped to handle people who are having mental health emergencies, because we know locally that police officers are not equipped to handle it. 

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Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.