As America grapples with yet another killing of an unarmed Black man, many across the country are wondering if reforming the criminal justice system is even possible. Sadly, the trend of fatal police shootings in the United States seems to only be increasing, with a total of 214 civilians having been shot, 31 of whom were Black, in the first three months of 2021. In 2020, there were 1,021 fatal police shootings, and in 2019 there were 999 fatal shootings. Additionally, the rate of fatal police shootings among Black Americans was much higher than that for any other ethnicity, standing at 35 fatal shootings per million of the population as of March 2021.
One of the men on the forefront of combating this problem of criminal justice reform in America is Howard Henderson, director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. The Defender talked with Henderson about this pressing issue.
Defender: As the public watches the Derek Chauvin trial, a lot of people who are concerned that justice will not prevail (because we’ve always seen justice not prevail), are cautiously optimistic. Why do you think that is?
Howard Henderson: With this televised trial, we get a chance to see how the system treats and responds to one of their own that has committed a crime against a Black man. There are facts in this case that we’ve never seen before. We see officers testifying. We have a full video that showed what happened just before George Floyd was murdered. And what happened just after. We’ve had medical personnel testify that he could have been saved. Fellow officers who said that what Chauvin did was not protocol. It wasn’t a part of training. You have a world that has protested around the victim. So I think that what we also see now are the circumstances that need to exist in order to hold a police officer accountable. Which, on the other hand, is scary because all police murders are not going to have all of these facts surrounding them.
Defender: If Chauvin is convicted, is that a step toward reform?
Henderson: I think we’re moving in the right direction. But unfortunately, it took all of this to move in the right direction. We thought Rodney King was going to be the move in the right direction. Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille. We have so many cases where that didn’t happen. But I think George Floyd is going to be the face of criminal justice reform. Who would’ve thought the guy from Houston is going to be the one to change all of it? He’s revealed through his death and victimization that it’s not just the officer that we need to deal with, but we need to deal with the system. We need to deal with policies, because until we address the underlying issues, nothing really changes.
Defender: What are the biggest issues facing African Americans in dealing with criminal justice reform?
Henderson: Number one, a fair representation, making sure that our experience is treated just like anyone else’s experience. We expect compassion like people with money are treated compassionately. Secondly, many of the issues that have been placed before the criminal justice system don’t belong in the criminal justice system, like mental health, employment, housing opportunity, livable wages. All of those issues have nothing to do with the criminal justice system, but yet they do. And if I was in charge of the criminal justice system, I would be asking those questions – what are you all going to do with your systems to make sure they don’t come before us? Because that’s ultimately what happens when those other systems break down. The criminal justice system is there to address the errors of the other governmental systems that are broken down.
Defender: Is there anything that the community can do to push the criminal justice agenda?
Henderson: The community has to be organized in their approach and dealing with a system and institution. I mean, policing is as old as America. And it started out as an opportunity for rich slave owners in the South to control their property. Their job was to make sure they went out and found escaped slaves. But the community’s got to be able to organize and express what they see in the community. They have to be able to talk to the police. The police need the community to be engaged in the conversation.
#SayTheirName: Notable Police Cases Since 2015
Marvin Scott III