Where Do We Go From Here?

For last week’s installment of Batten Expert Chats, Batten professor Brian N. Williams discussed the path forward when it comes to community-police relations

“We’re at the intersection of past and present—and we're teetering a bit,” Batten professor Brian N. Williams told an online audience last week. “Evolution or revolution? Reform or riot? Progress or more protests? Should we defund and divest or deconstruct and reconstruct?”

“The question is: Where do we go from here?” he finished.

Williams led the latest Batten Expert Chat, speaking and taking questions on police-community relations. Describing himself as a “scholar-activist” who is “passionate” about applied research concerning police officers and the diverse groups of people they serve, Williams began his talk by touching on the history of policing.

“In the U.S. context, what has been lawful has been awful,” he said, “especially when you look at race in policing, when you think about the old slave patrols that were the precursors of what we now know as police departments, and when you think about the enforcement of unjust laws, such as segregation.”

To move forward into a more just future, we need to study the past, Williams argued. He named some of our country’s “lost opportunities” to implement major police reforms, which are reflected in three key documents: the Wickersham Commission Report of the 1930s, the Kerner Commission Report of 1968, and President Obama’s Presidential Task Force Report on 21st Century Policing, issued in 2014. All three reports made recommendations that we failed to act on, and as a result, the United States continues to struggle with systemic police brutality, Williams said.

When a participant asked WIlliams if he favored reforming (rather than abolishing) the police system, even after the many failed attempts to do so, he replied, “Let’s deconstruct and reconstruct. We need to be intentional, we need to be mindful, and we need to be inclusive.”

Referring to an expression commonly used when discussing policing issues—the argument that any problems are the fault of a few “bad apples”—Williams asked an important question: Is the issue the apple, the barrel, or the tree?

“I actually think it’s the soil that influences all three,” he said. “We need to engage at the individual level, the organizational level, and the systemic level, but also at the soil or societal level.” He emphasized the need to consider “the issues that contaminate everything within our society.”

Naming what he sees as the three core imperatives for any university—to teach, to serve, and to inquire—Williams shared several recommendations for academic institutions in particular. For educators, he recommended taking advantage of resources like the HistoryMakers, the largest digital archive of African American oral histories in the country. The database is available to the UVA community, and Williams uses it frequently in his classes. But he also stressed the importance of “tapping into living Black history” and incorporating material from the present. When it comes to service, Williams suggested facilitating “listening and learning exchanges” between community members and police, which can act as opportunities to make police practices more transparent. 

For research, Williams suggested focusing not only on what makes police departments effective, but on the theory of “representative bureaucracy,” which “basically makes the argument that public organizations like police departments should be made up with individuals that reflect the demographic diversity that they serve” and that also argues for the cultivation of “a culture that allows those diverse representatives to act based upon their lived experiences and the lived experiences of their communities.”

In addition to recommendations for academia, Williams also made a range of policy suggestions, including making sure that all police departments have adequate resources, standardizing policies across departments, and increasing the required credential for all officers to a four-year college degree. He noted that in countries like Germany and Finland, officers train for 2-3 years, while the average training for an American officer is only 20-22 weeks.

Generally, Williams called for a higher standard. “Imagine that physicians were still practicing based upon what they knew in 1900,” he said. “Doctors have to constantly stay up to speed, and I think the same thing needs to take place in terms of police.”

The change we’d like to see won’t come about easily, Williams stressed. “Will it happen overnight? But of course it will not,” he said. “It took 401 years for us to get to this point right now. It will take generations for us to really address this.” 

Given this, we need to prepare ourselves for the long haul. “It will not be a one-hundred yard dash. It will be a marathon. We’re at the initial stage right now of training for the marathon of improving police-community relations.”