Tyrone E. Nelson (left) and Thomas M. Branin, members of the Henrico County Board of Supervisors, listened to a presentation at a meeting in July 2019.
The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that it exists.
So it doesn’t bode well that Pat O’Bannon, one of three Republicans on the five-member Henrico Board of Supervisors, swatted at a proposal by Supervisor Tyrone Nelson to establish an independent civilian review board in the county with authority to investigate complaints against police officers.
“I think we should look into it differently. It doesn’t have to be a citizen review board. It could be a new program in the division of police,” she said. “Don’t start with a perceived solution.”
I’m not sure what value a new in-house program would have. The failure of police policing the police is a large part of why folks are marching in the streets.
On the same day O’Bannon was dismissive of Nelson’s proposal, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr told Congress: “I don’t agree there is systemic racism in police departments generally in this country.”
Empirical data does show a problem, with studies showing Black and Hispanic people at greater risk of death by police.
“According to statistics compiled by The Washington Post, the number of unarmed Black men killed by police so far this year is eight. The number of unarmed white men killed by police over the same period of time is 11,” Barr said Tuesday. Given that Black people make up 13% of the nation’s population, his statement can only be seen as disingenuous. The Post also found that Black Americans are killed by police at more than two times the rate of white Americans.
Nelson, in an interview Thursday, said he’d love it if Henrico appointed such a civilian review board and never had to use it.
“What I do know is this: If you go and talk to most Black or brown people in the street, their lived experiences are the testimony that I’m listening to,” he said. “If there was such a trust of local police, period, then why are people locally and nationally having to tell their kids how to respond, if they’re Black or brown, when they deal with the police?”
But even as unprecedented ranks of white Americans demonstrate on behalf of Black lives, a disconnect remains.
Julian Maxwell Hayter, a University of Richmond historian, cites a recent study showing not only a long U.S. history of problematic policing dating back to slavery, but that “our misunderstanding of how police should function is a direct result of residential segregation.
“Where you were raised, what neighborhood you grew up in, usually dictates the type of interactions that you have with police officers,” he said. “If you’re from a racially homogeneous white community, you will more than likely see police officers as keepers of the peace and a force for public good. If you’re from an over-policed African American neighborhood, the police usually intervene in your life in order to control vice and violence.
“Everyone’s coming to this conversation equipped with their own truths and their own experiences. But I do think it’s undeniable that African Americans have been disproportionately over-policed.”
He noted that there is little statistical difference in the rates in which Black and white people use and sell drugs, but Black people disproportionately are arrested and prosecuted for drug infractions.
White opponents of reform will cite arrest data as a justification for the status quo, Hayter said.
“The implicit assumption in this is we deserve the policing we’re getting.
“We have become comfortable with the state behaving aggressively in Black people’s lives in a way that does belie the way white people think the state should act,” Hayter said, noting that some of these same staunch “law and order” proponents are throwing tantrums about being told to wear a mask during a pandemic.
Henrico is a much different place than the county I moved to as a child in 1967.
Nearly half of its residents are Black, Asian or Hispanic. Nearly half of the respondents to a county survey say they support the idea of a civilian review board for the Henrico Division of Police.
But we have two Black supervisors — Democrats from the eastern end of the county — trying to sell three skeptical white West End counterparts on police oversight with teeth. On the local level, Henrico looks far less “blue” politically than the hype.
This difference of opinion on the Henrico board “in some ways typifies the actual reality that we are diverse but we are not integrated,” Hayter said.
Justice and equality will remain elusive until we see other people’s problems as our own.