Lasting police reform will require confronting roots of racism in American policing

Racial Literacy: Community and Policing moderated by Rod Brunson with panelists Margaret Burnham, Lisa Bailey-Laguerre, and Rebecca Riccio. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Four researchers at Northeastern who have dedicated their careers to the subjects of policing and social movements came together to discuss what fair and just policing might look like in the future during the final installment of the university’s Racial Literacy series.

It is the issue of the moment, said Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. She noted that the practice of assigning police the role of preserving power and social order is embedded today in our immigration policies, our schools, our social services, and in our criminal justice system.

“We all recognize how deeply embedded the history of violent and racist policing is in our state institutions,” she said. “It’s ubiquitous, it’s comprehensive, and it begins in the history of slavery.”

Burnham founded and directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern’s School of Law, through which she and her students investigate acts of racial violence that took place in the South from 1930 to 1970. The purpose of the initiative, said Burnham, is to examine the associated legal, historical, and economic issues that the cases bring up. 

The group also works with families on restorative justice projects. Most recently, Burnham and her students uncovered the details of the death in 1948 of a Black man named Rayfield Davis, whose story was chronicled in the Northeastern documentary Murder In Mobile.

On the topic of reform, Burnham discussed the importance of engaging all communities, including police officers, in the process, and taking into account the fundamental causes and historical scope of violence perpetrated by unjust policing. Imagining a future of safety is also key, she said. 

“We can talk about absolute abolition, but we need to visualize what that actually might look like,” Burnham said.

Rebecca Riccio, a teaching professor of human services in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities, shared lessons from serving as a member of a group of predominantly white volunteers who have served as protest marshals at recent demonstrations. Marshals act as a buffer between police, hecklers, and bystanders. 

“I’ve been doing this work for several years and I can tell you from firsthand experience that the risk of harm has increased over the past few months and weeks,” she said.

Echoing Burnham’s call for systemic change, Riccio warned that if our current issues are left unchanged beneath the surface level, the system will continue to generate racism and oppression. 

Lisa Bailey-Laguerre, an associate director of community relations for the Institute on Race and Justice, talked about her participation in a task force that was assembled to reform the Boston Police Department. She noted that from talking to community members, a few recurring themes appeared to emerge. 

The community members reported a desire to work with law enforcement to restore trust between the community and police officers. They also want to change police culture so that it’s more inclusive, collective, and transparent, she said. 

Rod Brunson, a professor of criminology, criminal justice, and political science, discussed working in high-crime communities that have had an excessive police presence, and the effects of police misconduct on Black families.

His research has yielded important insights: Black people report more dissatisfaction and distrust than people from other racial groups, he said. And, more Black parents have said they feel compelled to have conversations about racism and police violence with their children.

“We need a more nuanced dialogue and analysis of Black citizens’ police experiences—one that humanizes both parties, a dimension sorely missing from most current discussions of fragile police-minority citizen relations,” Brunson said.

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