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Q&A: UW professor on defunding police, racial disparities in criminal justice

Alexes Harris, a UW sociology professor, weighs in on the divide between police and communities of color and what she says are the best ways to fix it.

SEATTLE — As racial justice protests erupted across the U.S. this summer, the debate over police reform – and whether the system needs to be dismantled – bubbled to the surface.

Dr. Alexes Harris, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, says racial disparities in the criminal justice system and a lack of trust between police and communities of color are concerning to her. To fix it, Harris argues the system needs an overhaul with investments in mental health services so people in crisis can get the help they need.

“I think this is the moment now where people are really trying to assess how we can shrink it (police departments) and re-imagine what we really need in our communities to feel safe and to be safe,” Harris said.

Harris sat down with KING 5’s Joyce Taylor to talk about how law enforcement evolved to its current position in the U.S. and how we can mend the divide between police and communities of color.

WATCH: Full episodes of Facing Race

The following is a partial transcript of their conversation. Some of the questions and answers below have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Joyce Taylor: Tell us about the history of law enforcement in the U.S.

Alexes Harris: The history of law enforcement in the United States really evolved out of slavery and the control of Black bodies. There is a professor at Harvard named Khalil Gibran Muhammad who wrote a book called “The Condemnation of Blackness” and really talks about the evolution of policing and the first iteration was really to capture people who had been enslaved who had been attempting to run away. And it gave the power to white men to capture and punish them physically.

And from there, there were different iterations of social control where white men were empowered to control, namely Black bodies from the KKK to other types of groups that would informally and formally use means to control people. That’s really the history until we had formalized police officers that were created.  But to create social control, and it was originally focused on controlling Black bodies.

Taylor: Police departments, in particular, how did they come to fruition?

Harris: They grew out of municipal city departments. And local city governments often thought they needed police departments to control their small or large jurisdictions to enforce different types of local laws, citations around property management behavior, and they just grew.

I was just listening to someone recently in St. Louis about the numbers of small municipal city police departments within one county, so he mentioned it was roughly 90 municipalities, and most of them had their own police division within that one county, in St. Louis County.

So we’ve seen this massive explosion of not just the policing system, but the criminal legal system itself from police to jails to prisons to courthouses to just different types of punishments that people can receive. We really had this mushrooming over the last, particularly 45 years, of the criminal legal system and a big arm of that are police.

Taylor: What do you see as the biggest problem in how Black and brown people are policed across the country?

Harris: Well, we can start with the numbers first. The scope of policing in the United States and the numbers of people who make contact and disproportionately people of color and poor people. So people who are Black, Native American, and Latinx have a much higher disproportionate rate of contact with police in their communities.

A major problem, I think, is right now where we’re at in this moment is a lack of trust that people have in their communities. Unfortunately, the public incidents of maiming and killing of Black people in this country has really undermined the authority and legitimacy of our criminal legal system and of police in many communities.

Also, I study the issue of monetary sanctions, fines and fees. So, people know that many times they’re being stopped for citations and fines and fees they’ll received or for warrants related to non-payment.  So there’s this humongous distrust in communities towards police in general and the criminal justice system more broadly speaking.

Taylor: What needs to happen to start rebuilding that trust, because the mistrust goes back generations.

Harris: Definitely. I mean, people know our history. People know the history of the United States.  People know the statistics of the disproportionality in terms of confinement.

What needs to happen and what people are calling for is shrinking this, is totally re-imagining what policing and our criminal legal system could look like. The call to defund or to dismantle is, to really think about re-allocating funds for this criminal legal system into needed services that people need in our communities. People shouldn’t have to make contact with police or our criminal legal system if they have a mental health issue or if they have a drug addiction or an alcohol addiction. People should be able to get services within their communities for mental health treatment, medication.

The jails in our country are the top three serving mental health institutions. So it’s Cooke County Illinois, Rikers Island, Los Angeles County. Those are the top three mental health facilities. These are jails, but the top three mental treatment facilities in this country. That’s a problem, and people know it.

A large proportion – it’s been estimated half a million numbers people incarcerated right now – have mental health issues. And of those people, 75% have co-occurring disorders, so maybe drug and alcohol addictions. 

We have a serious health crisis in the United States and we’re using the criminal justice system and police to manage these people who have families and lives and want to be healthy. So that’s one thing.  So really dismantling what the current system looks like and treating problems before people have to be arrested and incarcerated.

One good thing Washington state has done is the legalization of cannabis with I-502. That’s helped to shrink the footprint of the criminal justice system and bring people with cannabis charges out of the legal system. It’s also generated, in 2019, $400 million in taxes. So, it’s shrunk the footprint and the control over people and it’s also increased money for the state for services, treatment and education. 

So, there’s a lot of different ways we can also think about policing. We don’t need a large number of the calls where police are called to, we don’t need a person with a gun on their hip to show up. Right? We need a social worker. We need someone to deescalate the situation or to bring someone to receive mental health treatment. We just don’t need the police in the way that they’re being used today.  And in the face of that, we see the maiming and the murdering of individuals to the point where there was a recent study that was released where the lifetime likelihood of being murdered by a police officer is one in 1,000 for black men. And that’s outrageous. So, there’s a big problem, and I think this is the moment now where people are really trying to assess how we can shrink it and re-imagine what we really need in our communities to feel safe and to be safe.

But also, when someone violates the law, to hold that person accountable but lead to some sort of restoration for the victim.

Taylor: Polls tell us that Black and brown people, while they fear the police, they also at the same time want a police presence. So, what does that say?

Harris: Of course. We want to feel safe. We want to feel safe just like white people want to feel safe.  But that’s not the same discussion as holding police accountable to treat us and our communities in a humane way. In a just way.   

Two things: One, literally the week that George Floyd was killed, I had a conversation about what we were seeing on TV with my kids and the killing of a Black man and what to do at Safeway, because there were recent shootings in the parking lot.

So, I literally had a conversation with my kids, “If Mommy says get down, get down fast. Don’t question it.” Right? I don’t want to have those conversations with my kids. I want to feel safe in my community, both by the people who live in my community and by the police officers in my community.  At the same time, I have to have a discussion with my kids about when Mommy or Daddy gets pulled over, you put your hands on your lap, you don’t move quickly, because police will get scared.

So, it’s not the same conversation to say that we need to have police be held accountable and that we also need to have police to make us feel safe in our community. A big part of this in both ends is creating structures and institutions in our communities where people feel they don’t have to resort to violence, they don’t have gun availability, they don’t have access to drugs. Or they have drug treatment where they’re not high on drugs. 

The other part of this is that this isn’t bad apples, that a lot of people sort of say, “Oh, maybe they were bad actors acting in an excessive use of force situation.” If that were the case then the police officers would be held accountable and brought to justice, but they’re not. They’re shielded with different sort of legal tools to protect their excessive use of force.

So, it’s difficult I think for people to understand both violence at the hands of citizens in a community and holding people accountable and creating safe communities and the need for police. And I think it’s actually minimal.  I think we could have other types of services in our communities where there aren’t shootings in the parking lot.

And another conversation is dismantling the police to the extent where we don’t have to feel scared of them and have these conversations with our kids about what to do when we get pulled over.

Taylor: Let’s talk about the conversations that I’ve had with my kids, that you’ve had with your kids, that I think almost every family with children of color has with their children. What was it like as a mother to have that conversation with your children?

Harris: I think reflecting back it makes me really sad and frustrated, but in the moment it just feels normal. It feels matter of fact. 

I want, if my kids – God forbid are in any sense of danger – that they see a police officer and will run to that police officer. I don’t want them to be scared of them. At the same time, I need them to understand that Mommy’s Black, Daddy’s Black, they’re Black, and we might be interpreted – they might be interpreted, when they get older – as being a threat and how they need to de-escalate the situation to the extent possible.

And I also hate the part where we talk about respectability politics, because no one, no matter how they act, deserves to be shot in their back seven times. I don’t care what they’ve done. That’s not justice. Right? That doesn’t make us a civilized society.

I have a lot of emotions attached to this. But, matter of fact they need to know how to act when we are encountered by police.  It’s hard. I mean, you’ve had these conversations I know. It’s hard.

Taylor: What needs to happen so that families of color won’t have to have these conversations anymore?

Harris: Joyce, I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I try to be optimistic when I teach. I try to be optimistic with my students, but we’ve had 400 years in this country of enslavement to control, convictly seen, slavely seen, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass conviction. It’s a change. It’s an iteration of the same racist practices, structural inequality built into our system. And if we talk about the criminal justice system we see the same disparate outcomes for people of color.  When we talk about health disparities, we see the same negative outcomes for people of color. Education. These are structural. This is what we mean when we talk about the racism is embedded in our different institutions.

So, to try and have a positive outlook, we can have more conversations, we can have police officer training, cadet training where we talk with them to humanize. Research does show that police officers will view different kids in different ways depending on their race and ethnicity, that they tend to view Black kids older. Right? Tamir Rice was shot with a toy gun. He was 12 years old and killed by police officers.

Part of me knows this history and how it’s embedded within our institutions. Part of me wants to see a different world for my kids. I think it’s a lot of conversation, but the reality is structural, dramatic change within our institutions to protect. I think once we start holding police officers who use excessive force accountable, then hopefully, maybe other people will think before they grab for their gun.

I want police officers to be safe, and I don’t think they’re all bad as people. I think the system is problematic and bad. That doesn’t hold these individuals accountable for their actions and allows other people to continue this type of negative behavior.

Taylor: More and more police departments across the country are implementing reforms, things like banning chokeholds, requiring officers to intervene if they see an excessive use of force situation. Is that enough?

Harris: I think it’s a start. One of the things we talk about in different rounds of reform is incremental versus abolition. Incremental is always good, because in the moment, people need relief.

I don’t know if you remember seeing the one officer right after George Floyd was killed in the Seattle uprisings, there were two officers holding a man down. One officer had his knee on the man’s neck and all the other officer did was push his knee off. We need people to do that, to be brave in the moment and say let’s protect the health of this person. That matters. That mattered for that man’s life. So, we can keep doing the incremental things, but not lose sight of the broader structural things that we need to not have to have these conversations with our kids, about what to do when the police stop us.

Taylor: What would widespread reform look like?

Harris: Widespread reform would start in the communities and asking what people in the communities who have been entangled in the criminal justice system what they see as justice.

I’m part of a study right now in eight states where we’re examining the sentencing of monetary sanctions, and one colleague has done an analysis of the interviewees about the concept of justice. We’ve interviewed people. They don’t see, they don’t feel that they’re being heard or validated or even treated in a humane way as they’re processed through arrest, through the criminal legal system. But also interestingly, the judges and prosecutors and defense attorneys that we interviewed don’t have a common sense of what justice is, so we need to have, and it sounds like it will take a long time to get to one point, but we need to really assess what is justice in this country, and what do we mean when someone serves their time? What does it mean to be fully accountable? And does it mean once you’re accountable and serve your time, can you move forward in a productive way?

So that’s what we need. We need conversations to figure out what people in the communities want in terms of policing. What do they need in terms of helping to prevent violence in their community? And it might be community specific, but if we don’t involve people at the ground level in regards to how policing should be structured, then policing will never be seen as legitimate.

Taylor: What about hiring practices? Do you see a need for change there?

Harris: One big concern is making sure that police who are fired for inappropriate behavior at prior policing units are not rehired. I think that is a key change that needs to happen. If I could say, it appears to be a relatively easy change that could be happening.

I was on a panel and doctors were speaking on the panel and we were talking about policing, and doctors said – and an attorney as well – that, “My record follows me for my life, and it should follow me. If I have a malpractice case, my next patient should have access to knowing about my malpractice.” 

That’s the same with police offices. We need to hold police officers to higher standards. They carry a gun on their hip. They have the authority of the state behind them. So, when they have violated the law themselves, they should not be able to have another job with that much power and control and ability to take my life in any instant. 

Taylor: What do you say to people who say blacks commit more crimes than other populations, and that is why they disproportionately are targeted?  

Harris: My quick response would be that’s not true. Ten years ago, two of our Washington state Supreme Court justices actually said that in public settings. And as a result of that, the three deans of the Washington state law schools – Seattle University, Gonzaga (University) and the University of Washington – formed a race and criminal justice task force solely to address that question with empirical data. And we’re actually revamping, revising that task force this year to again address that question but move forward.

Research shows that overrepresentation in offending does not account for the huge rates of racial disparities in the criminal justice system.  

A research article recently showed that 3% of the adult population has been to prison, 15% of the African American male population has been to prison. Eight percent of the adult population has a felony; 33% of African American men have a felony in this country – one in three. Those are racial disparities and differential rates of offending does not completely account for that.

People ask that question, and to be honest, there are differential rates of offending within different types of categories. Some of it is due to law enforcement’s focus, what they choose to focus on in terms of arrest. There was analysis done in the early 2000s in Seattle that police focused on open-air drug markets. Well, crack cocaine is an open air drug market where it’s easier for police to see the transaction and arrest people. So even the numbers, we need to think about the processes behind those numbers that lead to disparate treatment.

And we see differential rates of arrests, right? So, more people of color arrested within that grouping of people who are arrested, higher rates of prosecution for people of color. Within that it goes to plea-bargaining or convictions – differential rates again.

So, as people move through the system, at every decision making stage, you see more and more disparities accumulate through the system. So, it leads to these huge inequalities in terms of who is living behind bars in this country.

RELATED: Report: Black people arrested at disproportionate rate in Pierce County

Taylor: How can or should white people talk about these issues with their friends of color?

Harris: It’s hard. I think that white people need to be open to hearing what people of color feel and validate it.

A graduate student in a conversation once talked to me about the difference, and I’ve since looked it up, and there’s research behind this that many white people call themselves allies, and they can get badges for it in trainings and get credit for it. But an accomplice is someone who is willing to share their power in any moment. So, an accomplice would be if I’m in a faculty meeting and someone addresses me in an inappropriate way or gets hostile or says something racist, then instead of me having to do that heartbeat and sweat and be the only person in the room to tell that person it’s inappropriate,  a white person will stand up in that moment and really challenge that individual and might lose some power for doing that. That’s what an accomplice would do. That’s what white people can do in this movement towards racial justice in really seeing and naming racism as it happens.

Another thing that people can do, and again, I learned this from somebody else while I was on a different panel, is really think about the difference between intent and effect. That when a white person is talking to me and says something that is offensive, and I challenge them and say, “Hey, that was inappropriate, that hurt and this is why.” Many times white people will reply, “Well I didn’t intend to do that. That wasn’t my intention so I’m good.” Instead of recognizing the effect that, no, I hurt you. I may not understand how or why, and I didn’t intend to do that, but I did and I need to learn why and how I did that so I don’t do it moving forward.

So there's a lot of different ways in which just changing individuals perspectives and learning how to have a real dialogue with someone who is different than you in any way would be helpful to move conversations forward.

This story was produced as part of “Facing Race,” a KING 5 series that examines racism, social justice and racial inequality in the Pacific Northwest. Tune in to KING 5 on Sundays at 9:30 p.m. to watch live and catch up on our coverage here.