By Aisha N. Braveboy and Markus Summers
The incident started with police responding to an alarm triggered at a commercial establishment and ended with one of those responding officers convicted of second-degree assault and misconduct in office.
In the fall of 2018, police were called out to a CVS in Temple Hills, Maryland. Andre Verdier was found sleeping in a storage container outside the store. Verdier, who was homeless, was arrested. While handcuffed and secured with a seat belt in a police cruiser, former Cpl. Stephen Downey punched Mr. Verdier in the face multiple times. The attack was unprovoked. While thankfully Mr. Verdier did not suffer life-threatening physical injuries, he undoubtably will be affected by this brutal event for the foreseeable future.
Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy, along with former Prince George’s County Police Department deputy director Markus Summer, see an ideal world where police would serve as problem solvers, not just law enforcers. (Courtesy Photo)
Incidents like these raise many questions about policing in communities of color and the treatment of people who are in the custody of officers. For example, if officers approached situations like Mr. Verdier’s more as problem solvers and less as enforcers, would that and other minor offenses turn out differently? Why did the officer feel the need to use force and why did he view Mr. Verdier only as a suspect? I think we can all agree that public safety officers play a critical role in our communities and it is with great honor and responsibility that they take the oath to protect and serve us. While most would agree that the protection provided by officers is important to us, what is equally important is how police serve our communities.
There must be a shift in the culture of policing from simply law enforcement to problem solving with the support of community stakeholders. This is not a new concept. In fact, it is a very old concept. In the 19th century, Sir Robert Peel, who is hailed as the Father of Modern Policing, established 9 Policing Principles, that are as crucial today as when he first outlined them. Sir Peel observed that in a democratic society, “the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on the public’s approval of their existence, actions and behaviors.”
He further emphasized, “the police exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with implicit consent of those fellow citizens and the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the community is based on the support of the community.” Beyond an understanding of the ethical basis for the authority of the police in relationship to the community, Sir Peel observed that “the primary role of the police was in the prevention of crime and disorder rather than the enforcement of laws through force or coercion” and that “the perception of legitimacy, trust and support of the community diminished in direct proportion to the necessity to use force.” He further noted that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”
Imagine a world as Sir Peel did, where police are dependent on the community and focus more on preventing crime than enforcing laws. It’s a goal we should all be working towards, especially in the wake of the sensless murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and countless others. Communities are reexamining their relationship with those charged with protecting them. In some cases, the call is for redirecting funding from police and law enforcement agencies to other efforts aimed at addressing the underlying issues that often give rise to the need for police response and intervention. Others citizens are going even further, calling for the abolishment of their police agencies in the interest of building new models of public safety.
So how did we get here? How did the police in so many communities get so out of alignment with their role and with their relationship with the communities they serve? And what can communities that don’t necessarily want to defund or dissolve their police department, but want to reframe the relationship between the police and the community do?
The answer to the first question is obviously complex—perhaps involving a police culture excessively focused on law enforcement (enforcing laws) instead of crime prevention (problem solving). This approach was accelerated by the “war on drugs” and its attendant militarization of police agencies, and further compounded by a move towards “zero tolerance policing,” which incentivized enforcement activity even in the absence of crime.
In answer to the second question, the way forward is through the adoption of a more collaborative community problem-solving model, involving all of the stakeholders in the community, including, police, prosecutors, judges, elected officials, and focused on addressing the underlying problems and issues that give rise to police response, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, mental health, homelessness and more.
Police, like prosecutors, have a wide range of discretion on how they handle interactions with the public, including interactions with individuals suspected of breaking the law. We must reward and uplift those in public safety who work to solve problems, address underlying behavior and prevent crime in collaboration with the community. If you ask most officers why they wanted to get into the profession, they would respond “to help other people”. If that is the case, enforcing laws should only be one of many solutions in the interest of serving humanity. The ultimate measure of performance should be about subtraction and not addition. The focus should not be on growing the number of people who are charged or prosecuted, but reducing the number of communities and victims impacted by crime, reducing recidivism and reducing those who are incarcerated.
Does this mean that police should not make any arrests, or that prosecutors should not charge anyone for crimes? The answer is clearly no to both of these questions. The reality is that most people who are arrested and charged with crimes are committing misdemeanor offenses. According to the Equal Justice Institute 80 percent of cases charged in courts across the United States are charged as misdemeanors. In fact, many of the most notorious police abuse cases don’t involve civilians suspected of committing violent felonies, but rather simple misdemeanors, like the one committed by Mr. Verdier.
Ultimately, former Cpl. Downey was sentenced to 6 months in jail for second-degree assault and misconduct in office. Charges against Mr. Verdier were dismissed and his attorneys plan to sue the County. The fact of the matter is that the outcome of that and so many other minor cases could be different. As so many in this country cry out for change, I believe this is the right time to reimagine our policing agencies as Sir Peel suggested it should be. Prosecutors must also set the tone for a shift in the public safety culture away from simply enforcing the law to being problem solvers for our communities.
Aisha N. Braveboy is State’s Attorney for Prince George’s County, Maryland, responsible for the safety and security of over 900,000 citizens and former Prince George’s County Police Department deputy director Markus Summers has more than 30 years of experience in law enforcement and public safety.
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