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President’s law-and-order stance carries dangerous potential

Katy Canada, CU News Corps

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This piece is the opinion of its author

Soul Ashemu wants the Denver Police to stop murdering black youth in his community.

The CEO of Soul Progressive, a Denver-based movement rooted in progressive politics, took to Facebook Live on May 4 to publically condemn a basketball game that pitted some of Denver’s black youth against police officers.

“Let’s look into the efficacy of having police play basketball with black children when they cannot stop for a moment murdering us,” Ashemu said in his live video. “Because this is a program — like all across the country — of police doing coopt programs inside of the communities they dominate. Even Stevie Wonder could see that shit.”

The fact that police played basketball with the kids in communities they patrol makes no difference in whether those youth are going to be arrested, criminalized or get involved in stop and frisk tactics, he noted.

And with President Donald Trump in the White House, Ashemu worries, law enforcement officers will continue to hide behind half-baked PR stunts as they target minorities without consequences.

“Black lives matter,” he said. “Black youth matter. Black children matter, and blue lives kill,” he said in the video.

Researchers at New York University say Trump’s militant approach to criminal justice deals a blow to police accountability and will cause unequal prosecution of minority groups to escalate.

The 45th president of the United States not only made criminal justice a hallmark of his campaign and a major talking point at his inauguration, but he also signed three executive orders “designed to restore safety in America.” Those orders, signed by Trump in February, alarmed advocates.

Trump’s law-and-order mentality has already had consequences — at a time when crime rates are at a historic low — according to the study by the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU’s School of Law.

The study, published April 1, noted multiple key shifts since the Jan. 20 inauguration, including decreased oversight of local police. Under Obama, the White House conducted more than 20 investigations of police departments. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions labeled such oversight a “war on police,” and said he believes the government shouldn’t be “dictating to local police how to do their jobs.”

“It’s laughable,” Ashemu. “It’s a statement used to try to obfuscate the reality that our police force is operating as a military force on its homeland. If there is a war, it is a war that the police and those that control them have declared against the people themselves.”

The first executive order on criminal justice introduced by Trump directs Attorney General Jeff Sessions to form a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, aimed at reducing drug trafficking, illegal immigration and violent crime. The second increases intelligence among law enforcement agencies to combat transnational drug cartels. The third executive order directs the Department of Justice to use existing laws to prosecute people who commit crimes against officers.

The logical outcome of the Trump administration’s “law and order” mentality is the upsurge of practices like racial profiling. In fact, Trump said he would direct law enforcement officers to engage in profiling if someone looked “suspicious.”

“Look what’s going on: Do we really have a choice?” Trump said in September. “We’re trying to be so politically correct in our country, and this is only going to get worse.”

But, Ashemu said, this administration’s tactics for controlling crime will unfairly target minority groups.

“The policies that are in place are detrimental to people of color, specifically, and the general public,” he said.

Ashemu noted that it’s a common misconception that people of color commit crimes at a higher rate than white people.

“It’s already been proven through data that whites smoke marijuana and use drugs as much, if not more, than people of color,” he said. “But people of color are arrested at a much higher rate than whites.”

Research indicates that Ashemu is onto something. A 2008 study by the National Institutes of Health examined drug use among college students, broken down by race, ethnicity and gender. The study shows that whites used drugs at a higher rate than black students.

Out of more than 6,000 students surveyed, 41.8 percent of white women used drugs, compared to 24.9 percent of black women, and 43.3 percent of white men used drugs compared to 36 percent of the black men.

Still, blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for drug-related crimes than whites, according to a report by The Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group.

“Stop and frisk policies and war on drug policies give the police agency to arrest poor black, brown, indigenous and poor whites,” Ashemu said.

Trump’s thumbs up to racial profiling likely won’t end with stop and frisk practices.

Studies show that police shoot at minorities at a higher rate than they shoot at white people. A 2016 report of officer-involved shootings in Colorado indicated that 44 percent of all officer-involved shootings in Colorado involved individuals from minority backgrounds. According to the study, which was conducted by the Colorado Department of Safety, minorities account for only 29 percent of Colorado residents. For contrast, white residents make up 70 percent of the state’s population. But only 56 percent of the individuals that police fired weapons at were white.

That discrepancy will only grow as law enforcement agencies feel emboldened to act more aggressively, the NYU study said. This will empower officers to exercise what Ashemu called in his video “state sponsored violence.”

“State sponsored violence is violence that is OK’d by the state to kill, mame, arrest, detain in an effort to continue to make profit off its victims,” Ashemu said.

Trump’s policies also demonstrate a swerve away from his predecessor’s stance on criminal justice, which sought to use law enforcement agencies as champions of civil rights, as well as enforcers of the law. Under former President Barack Obama, the Department of Justice conducted frequent investigations of law enforcement.

“The impact of Obama’s Department of Justice taking some real nascent steps toward addressing inequity in the justice system was long overdue, but thank God it was happening when it was happening,” said Darren O’Connor, an active member of Boulder Coalition and Alliance on Race. “In response, a very entitled law enforcement across the country responded negatively.”

O’Connor also worries that because the Denver Police Department endorsed Trump during the campaign season, the people they supposedly work to protect won’t trust officers when they’re in real danger.

“There’s a history in Denver of supporting police violence and assuming the story of the police is true,” he said. “To change the way they operate is like turning a tanker. It’s slow, and we’d like it to happen faster. I think that Obama’s department of justice turned the wheel and got things started.”

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Explanatory multimedia reporting from CU Boulder journalism students
President’s law-and-order stance carries dangerous potential