Justice by Association: Centering Relationships in Policing Reform

On September 8th, IAF member organizations from across the country came together for a virtual Justice Summit on the topic of Police Reform. The Summit was hosted by The Metropolitan Organization of Houston, alongside fellow IAF member organizations from across the state of Texas. During my first month of service at Together Baton Rouge, I’ve gained a great deal of understanding by reflecting on the ideas and policies presented during the summit. In that same stretch of time, I’ve also had the chance to be brought up to speed on the work of the Criminal Justice Action Team by participating in a number of their meetings and research actions. Thanks to these learning opportunities, I’ve been able to get a much better grip on the complicated set of problems that confronts us as we seek to create more effective and equitable ways of ensuring public safety in our communities.


The morning after the Justice Summit, in a conversation that stretched from the parking lot through the first hour of our workday, my new Serve Louisiana teammate Abel Thompson and I tried out terms and ideas that we’d picked up from the night’s presenters. This talk came at the end of my first full week in the TBR office, a time when my ‘new guy’ anxiety was at an all-time high. I was feeling especially anxious about conversation in general, much less a dialogue on criminal justice and policing reform, topics that I have only the most elementary understanding of. Abel, on the other hand, co-chairs TBR’s Criminal Justice Action Team and has been studying up on these topics for a couple of years now. Needless to say, I was feeling somewhat out of my depth.

As he and I continued to talk, though, I quickly knew I’d found an excellent thought partner to help me wade through a set of difficult issues. I also took solace in a critical piece of wisdom he’d picked up during the Summit’s post-meeting, where organizers critiqued one another on what might have gone better. As the night’s speakers grew frustrated over what they regarded as a failure to establish a clearer through-line connecting all their ideas, one speaker, Professor Danielle Allen, reassured them that no one, not even tenured researchers like herself, has yet fully figured out how to talk about, much less act on, the need to “reimagine” public safety in the United States.

Alienation vs. Association: Moving from Division to Repair

Of all the Justice Summit’s presenters, Dr. Allen’s words seemed to resonate the deepest with Abel and I, as well as with most TBR folks I’ve spoken to about the event. Her remarks hit home, we gathered, because they lent a constructive approach and positive tone to what has become an increasingly negative and divisive debate about reforming criminal justice policies and practices in the United States.

Entering this increasingly fraught discussion, Dr. Allen provided important historical perspective and laid the foundation for a unifying strategy to help build beyond our current state of division. Drawing from her comparative studies of justice in Ancient Greece and Modern America, she charted a course for the evolution of dated, alienating criminal justice procedures that only do more harm to a society in need of healing.

Alienation versus Association: this simple distinction helps to both break down the complex series of problems going on in our criminal justice system and to raise up strategies we can apply to address those problems. Alienation and Association are two drastically different principles around which a justice system can be built. In Ancient Greece, Dr. Allen informed us, the justice system was built around the principle of alienation— removing wrongdoers from society, which in those days took the form of exile. Upon being convicted of a serious crime, offenders were expelled at the gates of the city where they’d done harm, but were still allowed to find a new life in a new place.

While the Justice System in the present-day US is still built around this same principle of alienation, its handling of crime eliminates the possibility for redemption that exile allowed. In place of exile, our justice system has come to rely on incarceration as the primary means of punishing wrongdoers. The shape incarceration has taken over the past several decades is one that severely curtails an individual’s ability to start a new life after serving time. Upon release, formerly incarcerated people have their access to voting, education, jobs, and social services drastically restricted or outright eliminated, depending on the state in which they live. In Dr. Allen’s words, “incarceration degrades people, leaving them less well-prepared to succeed in society than when they entered”.  

While our justice system’s particular way of alienating, incarceration, eliminates the possibility of individual redemption, it also inhibits a community’s ability to heal in the wake of tragedy. For decades, incarceration has failed to reduce violent crime rates or prevent repeat offenses while fracturing communities by aggressively locking away offenders, the majority of whom are nonviolent. In this way, the alienating effect incarceration has on individuals multiplies to create what Dr. Allen called a “culture of alienation” in many communities and in US society at large. Where a culture of alienation takes hold, crime remains high and neighbors lose trust and faith in police officers who are meant to protect them. As Dr. Allen noted, the role of the law enforcement officer in the United States has also grown out of this “culture of alienation.” Under the present circumstances, the role of the police officer becomes “to treat people to the experience of alienation”, to isolate convicted wrongdoers, separating them from community and the possibility of redemption, and oftentimes subjecting them to an excessive use of force. 

What we are left with, then, is a justice system which often fails in two of its principal capacities: to solve crimes and keep communities safe. We are all losers in such a system, because we lose faith in the institutions built for our protection and peace of mind, as well as in our innate ability to look out for one another. Yet, as the past summer’s national reckoning with systemic racism and police violence has revealed to many, communities of color, and low-income black communities in particular, bear the brunt of this loss. These communities are subjected to a most severe form of alienation and often pay the greatest price for a broken system long overdue for change.

Mr. Nick Hudson of ACLU Texas, who preceded Dr. Allen in the night’s order of speakers, described the issue of racial bias in alienating policing practices.  The problem, he said, is with “black people experiencing law enforcement differently, experiencing the brunt of policing, and the brunt of police violence as a result”. An ACLU Houston report found that black Houstonians, while comprising just 23% of the total population, make-up 36% of police stops, 49% of citation eligible for arrest, and 63% of those shot by the police department (2, “Justice Can’t Wait”). 

Similar statistics speak to the disproportionate policing of black communities in cities across the country. The research collaborative Mapping Police Violence found that black people made up 38% of people killed by police departments in America’s 100 largest cities between 2013 and 2019, despite making up only 21% of the population in their jurisdictions. Numerous studies have also evidenced patterns of racial profiling that subject black communities across the country to disproportionate rates of arrest and incarceration. A study by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that black adults in Louisiana, who comprise only 30.6% of the state’s population, make up 53.7% of arrested adults and 67.5% of those incarcerated. For black Americans, then, the negative consequences of an alienating justice system are compounded by routine experiences of racial discrimination that so often pervade the justice process. 

The principle of alienation, applied as standard law enforcement practice and influenced by racial bias, will always end in tragedy. Alienation is a lethal knee on the neck of a man, George Floyd, who was not resisting arrest. It is 8 deadly shots fired at an innocent woman, Breonna Taylor, by police raiding the wrong home on a dubious warrant. These breakdowns in law enforcement practice and procedure severely fracture relationships between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The courts widen these gaps when they fail to hold officers accountable for grave mistakes, as was the outcome in the Taylor case, like so many before it. This is criminal justice guided by the principle of alienation. The results, under present circumstances, are often remarkably unjust.

The principle of association, on the other hand, guides criminal justice practices that lend themselves towards connectedness and repair. It is this principle, Dr. Allen argued, that we must begin to center our justice systems around as we endeavor to reimagine public safety in our communities. A justice system built around the principle of association makes for a kind of policing, and an overall administration of justice, that centers relationships rather than perpetuating isolation. A system of this kind calls for community policing, which assigns law enforcement officers the role of forming positive social bonds, and helping to mend broken ones, within the communities they become a part of.

Importantly, when the administration of justice is guided by the principle of association, much of justice work falls beyond the bounds of what a police officer can reasonably be asked to do. As Mr. Hudson so poignantly put it at the conclusion of his remarks, “We are simply asking the police to do too much.” To relate to an individual experiencing a mental health crisis, or to a child with a developmental disability, or to a family struggling with dysfunction, requires years of specialized training and practice. Reimagining public safety means to “split the job of policing”, as Dr. Allen put it, between policing itself and an entirely separate provision of aid that is undertaken by mental health and social service professionals.

In a newly-defined, more specific capacity, police guided by the principle of association are primarily meant to focus their energy on raising homicide clearance rates. By assuring that murders are solved and their perpetrators held accountable, whether they wear a badge or not, law enforcement can make a vital contribution to restoring trust and promoting healthy relationships in the neighborhoods they serve.

Responding to Dr. Allen’s presentation, Chief Jeff Spivey, of the Irvine, TX Police Department, echoed the importance of focusing on community relationships and rebuilding trust. Speaking to Dr. Allen’s remarks on the singular importance of raising homicide clearance rates, he said, “Until we can fix that trust relationship, we’ll never fix the homicide clearance rate, we’ll never fix the injustices and the unfairness that happens in our community every day.”  For Chief Spivey, rebuilding these relationships means working with community groups like the IAF affiliate Dallas Area Interfaith, with whom his department has developed a great working relationship. “Partnering with those types of community groups,” Chief Spivey said, “allows us into those communities where that trust relationship is lacking. It allows us to begin developing that [trusting] relationship.”

Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Headed: TBR Action on Criminal Justice Reform

 For Together Baton Rouge’s Criminal Justice Action Team, the focus remains on keeping local issues up front in the group’s effort to reimagine public safety across the city. Long before video footage of George Floyd’s murder shocked the nation, videos depicting the 2016 police killing of Alton Sterling swept Baton Rouge into its own reckoning with race and police violence. Sterling’s killing “deepened wounds that already existed in our communities”, Abel regarded during a recent meeting. As I learned by speaking with him and several other members of our Criminal Justice Action Team, it was this incident that first spurred them to action on issues of law enforcement accountability and reform. Real justice was never served in the Sterling case, leaving wounds left open in those communities still searching for truly impactful change.

Stories from house meetings here in Baton Rouge have made evident the need for reimagining public safety and redefining the role police play in our communities. In meetings across the city, people from all walks of life have expressed uniform concern about significant gaps in our public safety systems. Residents from different neighborhoods told strikingly similar stories about armed robberies that ended in deadly shootings on their neighbors’ front lawns. A comprehensive system of trauma support resources is needed for the many Baton Rouge citizens whose lives are impacted by violent crime. In meetings organized among parishioners of Community Bible Baptist church, people told stories about being harassed by police officers in their neighborhoods. Many also expressed their reluctance to file complaints about these incidents for fear of retaliation. In addition, several elders in our organization have complained of little to no police coverage in the far Northern parts of the city where they live. 

These stories testify precisely to that alienating kind of policing that Dr. Allen described, which only serves to drive people apart, rather than to restore healthy social bonds in neighborhoods impacted by crime. Taken into consideration alongside the open wound left by Alton Sterling’s killing, these stories speak to the need for relationship building and restoration in the midst of ongoing tragedy. 

To take one crucial step towards a reimagined public safety system, the Criminal Justice Action Team is urging the parish to create an Office of Civilian Oversight, separate and independent of the police department. Authorized to field, audit, and investigate civilian complaints, this office would bring a greater measure of accountability to community-police interactions. Accountability, as we all well know, is an essential aspect of any healthy relationship, be it between two people, or among civil servants and the communities they are meant to protect. Trusting relationships with officers who are available to citizens and held accountable for their actions makes for better-connected communities in which crime will be less likely to transpire. 

Over the past month, Together Baton Rouge has posed this question to Metro Council candidates during our District Accountability Assemblies: “Will you work with us to reimagine public safety and policing with a focus on restoring relationships in our community, ensuring adequate police coverage and community policing throughout the city?”  It’s a big question, and a tough one to answer. What we’re looking for in response isn’t an immediate solution, but an expressed willingness to think and work. 

At a recent research action, highlights from the TMO Justice Summit were screened for members and friends of our Criminal Justice Action Team. The event was an opportunity to invigorate the team with new voices and begin identifying action steps for a new phase of relationship building around public safety. At the conclusion of this watch party, Abel closed us out by centering on a key aspect of Dr. Danielle Allen’s vision for reimagining public safety with our minds set on association rather than alienation. For those undertaking this difficult work, Professor Allen offered this guiding maxim: “[We must determine] whether our policies and actions will bring health to social relationships. Everything must flow from that.”

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