Political Scientists Discuss Strategies to Address Police Violence

Author: Oliver Ortega

Policing In America Event
Prof. David Cortez (right) in conversation about police violence with Prof. Luis Fraga

As the rain continued to pour outside and thunderstorms raged throughout Indiana, two Notre Dame political scientists discussed the state of policing and recent civilian deaths by law enforcement before a live audience at Hesburgh Center Auditorium.

Students, faculty, staff, and community members were invited to the “fireside-style chat” organized by the Institute for Latino Studies on February 27th in honor of Black History month. David Cortez, an Assistant Professor of Political Science and ILS faculty fellow, shared his insight as a scholar focused on policing in conversation with Luis Fraga, a Professor of Political Science and Director of the ILS.

The chat was organized to see what the community can learn from Cortez about the recurring killing by police of unarmed people, especially Black males, Fraga said.  At Notre Dame, Cortez teaches a course called “Race and Policing,” and his current book project is on the policing of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Race is central to any discussion regarding policing in America, Cortez told the audience. Asked whether fatal encounters are more prevalent today or if there are more simply more opportunities to record police doing misconduct and amplify these interactions for public viewing, Cortez said it wasn’t clear.

One of the issues around understanding police brutality is the lack of centralized data collection for the over 18,000 separate policing agencies, he said. In addition, there is the potential for bias in current collection practices, which are controlled by the police themselves. Some non-governmental organizations, such as Mapping Police Violence, attempt to collect data on a national basis, but there is nothing comprehensive.

Research, however, says that fatal encounters with the police, though exceedingly rare, have been on the rise in recent years, according to Cortez.

And available information clearly shows that Black and Latino men are disproportionately represented among unarmed victims of police violence.

However, rather than just merely seeking to blame law enforcement for its foibles, observers should remember that police reflect the patterns of society more broadly.

“The police, as an institution, are only as good as the communities they exist in,” Cortez said.

Social media has certainly amplified the significance of fatal encounters. Cortez referred to the death by police of Philando Castile in Minnesota, which was livestreamed by his girlfriend on Facebook and subsequently met with public outcry.

Though the dominant media narrative is one of Black victimization by police, Latinos are also disproportionately affected, Cortez said. Questions of citizenship and the sense of “perpetual foreignness” that accompanies Brown Latino men, as well as the interplay between local and federal agencies as far as immigration enforcement, mark the Latino experience of policing as different from that of non-Hispanic Blacks.

Though overrepresented compared to White peers in the statistics, Latino men are less likely to be pulled over, to be searched, roughed up, or killed by police compared to Black men, according to Cortez.

Another question that came up during the chat was the fact that in the most recent case to receive national media attention, Tyre Nichols, a Black man, was killed by Black police officers, countering the narrative of police brutality as a White-on-Black affair.

Cortez noted that the practice of having ethnoracial minorities policing individuals from their own group is rooted in the idea that police forces should reflect the communities in which they are working. As a form of public policy, it gained force following the urban revolts and riots of the 1960s, as well as during tumultuous moments in the nineties and in the present era.

“There’ s no real sign that more diverse police agencies lead to better outcomes with Black and Brown or minoritized communities” he said. “That’s not to say there aren’t benefits… but it’s not a panacea.”

Though he grew up in southern Texas thinking of law enforcement as an “indispensable institution in society, in our local communities,” his experiences as a Latino profiled by police over the years have made him more wary. He’s had interactions escalate to the point of having a police officer press a knee to his back. He’s also had an officer raise a gun at him on one occasion.

At the same time, Cortez acknowledged that there are police and other types of law enforcement agents who do their job well.

In fact, Cortez mentioned he been stopped by police early that morning, as he was driving to South Bend from Chicago with a group of friends returning from a concert. It was a very brief and friendly interaction, and Cortez wondered whether the fact that his companions were all White made this a better experience than previous encounters with police.

Ultimately, however, Cortez said he is for abolition.

For his upcoming book, "Broken Mirror: Latinos, la Migra, and the Conflict of Being Both," currently under review by Oxford University Press, Cortez spent roughly a year interviewing over a hundred Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents across Texas, Arizona, and California.

Latinos make up a disproportionate amount of ICE and Border Patrol agents, so Cortez decided to explore this phenomenon of immigrants or descendants of immigrants “policing that act” of transnational movement. Seeing this dynamic while growing up in Brownsville, Texas, is what inspires his project; more than half of his agent interviews were Latinos.

What he found is that this idea of being part of a race and ethnicity means something to them, but so does law enforcement, and understanding how they balance these elements is what animates the book project.

“It’s a daily process of trying to find belonging somewhere, while lacking full membership everywhere,” he said of these Latino immigration police agents. “Stuck between communities as vendidos — sellouts — for having turned their back on their people. And then seen by their non-Latino peers in law enforcement … somewhat suspiciously. How they maneuver in that space, is essentially, ultimately, the story of the minority experience in the United States.”

Though the abolition of police might seem farfetched, Cortez noted that some outdated sociopolitial practices, such as slavery and Jim Crow-style segregation, were similarly believed to be unchanging and irrevocable parts of communal life.

“If we want to live in a world where the police do not kill civilians, we have to live as though that’s possible. We have to open our minds to a world where that is possible.”

Cortez noted that different police forces around the world have varying customs and use-of-force rules, so there is nothing inevitable about America's model. In the United States, minority communities feel “underserved” and “over policed” in the current system.

The London police regime adopted by New York City the mid-19th century, as well as in the practice of slavecatching in the Antebellum South, serve as the foundations of our current policing policies, he said.

Policing as an institution has been reformed from its inception more than 150 years ago. Examples include the removal of partisan politics from policing institutions, as well as more the recent adoption of police accountability boards.

Today, there is the idea that changing hiring and recruitment practices might “alter the curve” of police violence.

However, Cortez thinks that limiting, or removing particularly duties and tasks from the police, is a more worthwhile approach.

Having community responders for different issues currently tackled by police, such as mental health crises, is the added element that’s missing. Preliminary research results show that farming out functions to non-police agencies has had positive effects for communities, he said.

In the end, however, abolition, rather than reform, is the answer to the problem of civilian killings by police.

“There are now so many instances that it can start to feel like I’m just a part of this generation of people saying we need to do something different,” Cortez said. Especially “for the countless Black parents who have to have the conversation with their children about what’s appropriate behavior — what’s life-saving behavior — when they get pulled over by the police.” 

He encouraged the audience to think of policing as a “two-way” process. To a degree, people have the power to decide what goes on in their communities.

“We suffer from what scholars have referred to police fetishism,” he said. “The notion that society would fall into complete chaos without the police. There are a lot of different perspectives from which to approach the issue.”

Originally published by Oliver Ortega at latinostudies.nd.edu on March 06, 2023.