Tapping into Lived Experiences of People in Black Communities Is Key to Police Reform Efforts

From small towns to big cities, to nations across the world, people have gathered en masse to protest the deaths of George Floyd, who was killed in police custody on May 25, Breonna Taylor, who police fatally shot in her home on March 13, and the many other unarmed Black Americans who have been killed by the police. A second week of protests and rallies united against police brutality and systemic racism in the United States has brought a resurgence of attention to policy ideas that could reduce racial injustice.

“Many people are protesting not only the numerous police murders of many people, especially Black people, but also the day-to-day oppression they face,” says Spencer Piston, a Boston University College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of political science whose research focuses on racial and economic inequality.

Last year, Piston and research collaborators revealed that general political knowledge-what Americans are taught about the United States legal system through school curricula and media exposure-does not take into account the real lived experiences of people in communities that frequently interact with the police.

The paper describing their findings, which Piston coauthored with Vesla Weaver of Johns Hopkins University and Gwen Prowse of Yale University, describes how individual perspectives are shaped by the presence of police in their communities. The researchers hope their findings will help broaden the conventional definition of political knowledge, which ignores the experiences of people living in heavily policed communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color.


If you start with the premise that people who are routinely oppressed by police know more about the carceral system, then we can learn from [those communities], become better advocates, and improve the quality of our actual democracy.

“We’re challenging the story by taking a very different approach, which is to ask the question, what happens when we look at [political] knowledge people actually have about the face of government that’s most relevant in their lives?” says Piston. That face is the police, or the “carceral state,” a term used to capture all of the ways a state can exercise control over individuals, including jail, prison, and forms of surveillance.

The researchers read the transcripts of 233 conversations that happened between Black Americans living in neighborhoods in Baltimore, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, and Newark. These conversations were facilitated through The Portals Policing Project, an initiative started by law students at Yale University after the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager who was shot by police in 2014. The Portals-gold-painted shipping containers retrofitted with immersive virtual technologies that connect residents of different cities as if they are in the same room together-fostered conversations about policing in everyday life within Black and Latinx communities. The project has compiled the largest collection of first-hand accounts of police interactions to date, according to the project’s website.

The researchers found Black Americans possess “dual, contradictory knowledge about how the state should operate based on written law and how it actually operates as a lived experience,” and this knowledge is a byproduct of forced, frequent interactions with the police in those communities. These interactions-some of which escalate quickly and violently-cause affected individuals to distance themselves from both the American political and carceral system in order to preserve physical safety, autonomy, and dignity.

Of the study participants, 28 percent reported being stopped by the police in the last week or month, and 39 percent had been stopped over seven times starting, on average, at 15 years old. While the number of incarcerated people is slowly on the decline in the US, stark racial disparities persist. Black people are incarcerated at a reported five times the rate of white Americans, and Latinx people account for 23 percent of inmates while only making up 16 percent of the adult population.

“If you start with the premise that people who are routinely oppressed by police know more about the carceral system, then we can learn from [those communities], become better advocates, and improve the quality of our actual democracy,” says Piston. “I think [this paper] should change how we approach our fellow citizens. And it’s a start in addressing tremendous problems in our democracy in practice.”

In response to the death of George Floyd, Massachusetts Representative Ayanna Pressley has introduced a resolution to condemn police brutality, racial profiling, and the excessive use of force, cosponsored with Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar. The weeks of protests have also prompted a rethinking of the responsibilities given to the police and how they operate in society, with many protesters calling for police forces to be defunded, as well as US Senate and House Democrats to propose new plans for police reforms.

“In recent decades, many reforms have been tried and failed, or even backfired,” says Piston. “Some reforms, such as body cameras and implicit bias training, actually transfer additional resources to police. The ideal strategy is to reduce the scope of our carceral state, and take resources, authority, and power away from police.”

Already in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by police officer Derek Chauvin, kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, city council members have voted to dissolve their police department and recreate their public safety system.

Encouraging people to vote in national and local elections is also an essential step in using political knowledge within a democracy, Piston believes, and as essential as voting remains, social movements and political protest must exist alongside the civic duty to elect leaders who understand how to reimagine and reexamine policing as it currently exists.

“I do think that voting is not enough, and many of the folks in these conversations are very aware of that,” he says. “It’s hard to know how much things will change, but the [recent] protests provide reason to be hopeful about the future of our democracy. They are liberalizing white people’s racial attitudes, and are also placing many policy options on the table that were nowhere near consideration in a variety of states and localities.”

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