Because I’ve worked in journalism for a long time, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk to police officers over the years. From district captains to homicide detectives, patrolmen to public relations officers, I can’t count the number of police I’ve interviewed or even just chatted with in the course of my career.

I’ve found almost every officer I’ve talked to – black, white, Hispanic, Asian
– to be a genuinely dedicated public servant who takes their duty to the public very seriously. They want to serve and to protect everyone.

While it is true that so many individual police officers are people who want to serve the public, it’s become crystal clear that so much of the practice of policing in this country needs serious reform. And it needs it now.

The killing of George Floyd by police while he was in their custody – essentially tortured to death for an excruciatingly long eight minutes and 46 seconds – has provided the catalyst the public needed to rise up and take to the streets. It’s been a moment for which historians can find little precedent. Millions are marching in cities and suburbs, of every race and nationality and political affiliation. And they’ve been doing so for two weeks with expectations that they will continue.

Police have a difficult job, but it’s one that they must be trained to perform without so often resorting to violence and brute force. Many police forces have done nothing but further demonstrate this penchant for violence by countless acts of assault against unarmed protestors, including beatings and tear gassing of city residents right here in Philadelphia.

Furthermore, the fact that this violence has been focused so consistently and disproportionately on black communities is a fact that must be addressed and corrected. For too long the rationalization that crime is simply more of a problem in black communities has been used as an excuse for generations. It’s simply unacceptable.

Philadelphia has seen substantial reforms in the last 10 to 20 years in the way it polices. But there is still more work to be done, particularly in making sure that any police officer who acts negligently is held accountable. Cops who fail their public duty must be punished accordingly, not protected by their union or rehired in another community.

To do this is likely going to be a big task. It’s going to require a lot of training. It’s going to come with a new set of guidelines and a significant reduction in firepower.  It should mean police officers deserve more pay. But it must also come with a much greater sense of responsibility and accountability to the public.

The tens of thousands in Philadelphia streets do not fully trust their police force. That trust can only be won back with hard work and a new social contract that promises not only to do better across the board but to recognize the problems it has caused in black communities in order to correct them.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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