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Teach-in answers community questions on police reform

By Staff | Jul 10, 2020

Shepherd University's "Teach-In on Police Reform" gave community members the opportunity to get their police reform questions answered on June 29. Courtesy photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN — “In these very troubled times, where the stakes seem so high and you’re dealing with a topic as complex as police reform is, we do our best to discuss this topic with a variety of different points of view,” said moderator Stephanie Slocum-Schaffer on June 29, at the beginning of Shepherd University’s “Teach-In on Police Reform.”

The teach-in, which was held on Zoom, featured a panel of people with academic and practical knowledge related to the topic.

“The purpose of a teach-in is not to convince you that one particular policy or approach is the correct one, but rather to present you an informed basis to understand this dialogue,” Slocum-Schaffer, who is an associate professor with Political Science and Global Studies Department, said.

“On the subject of police reform, you may have heard the phrase, ‘guardian vs. enforcer.’ In our complex society, we have a need for both models in certain times and certain places,” said Sociology, Criminology and Criminal Justice Department assistant professor Janay Gasparini. “We must remember the general purpose of being a police officer is as a public servant. At its core, the job of a police officer is to serve the public.

“Our one challenge is to determine what we want the role of police officers to be in the future,” Gasparini said. “Police reform must be fair, it must be consistent with constitutional norms, it must provide an administration of justice that respects all people.”

David Washington, who has been a social worker in Hagerstown, Md. for 20 years, said he has personally been witness to the need for police reform.

“As an African American male who has been policed in an African American community and [has seen] how that impacts social work . . . there’s an accountability that is absent,” Washington said. “When we look at those who are arrested, and specifically those of color, they are most likely to receive prison time or jail time. Prisons are loaded with people who have substance abuse issues. This is clearly not just a drug war, but a war on people of color.”

Shepherd University student Jordan Jalil, who is Truman Scholarship finalist and Stubblefield Institute board student advisor, said she believes qualified immunity for police officers to be the source of our current dilemma.

“Qualified immunity is a judicially invented doctrine that the courts really started developing in the ’60s and ’80s. It granted police officers absolute immunity,” Jalil said, mentioning that the legal doctrine makes it almost impossible to sue a police officer, unless it can be proved that he knowingly violated a person’s statutory or constitutional rights.

“We can start pushing our congressmen and legislators to remove laws that would limit the court’s ability to limit these established tests,” Jalil said of the laws supporting the doctrine, which would have to be removed by the Supreme Court to have a nationwide effect. “Qualified immunity is outdated and is allowing terrible conduct taking place.”

According to Political Science and Global Studies Department assistant professor Samuel Greene, the current push to remove police forces altogether is not the best approach to end police brutality, based on his research into police misconduct in Latin America and the Middle East.

“There’s a paradox that somehow removing or abolishing an agency will eliminate all problems related to that agency. But what we find is that we remove this agency, but haven’t changed the behavior and have in fact made it harder to change the agency, because the new agency has less rules requiring them to change,” Greene said, mentioning a lot of problems arise from the militarization of private security forces. “When security forces are militarized, it tends to lead to more militarization of the police forces, and causes more problems between private security and public.

“[Police departments] need clear vertical accountability that goes beyond elections every few years — a clear way that citizens in the public are involved in this accountability,” Greene said. “When we see accountability in both vertical and horizontal processes, that is the best system.”

To view the Stubblefield Institute’s recording of the teach-in, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=it-KKZwxeN0&feature=emb_logo.