Q&A: Criminal justice research expert weighs in on George Floyd protests and the sentiments driving them

Participants held fists in the air during a moment of silence at a June 2 protest over the death of George Floyd. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)
Participants held fists in the air during a moment of silence at a June 2 protest over the death of George Floyd. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

Participants held fists in the air during a moment of silence at a June 2 protest over the death of George Floyd. (Emma Whalen/Community Impact Newspaper)

As founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, Dr. Howard Henderson spends a lot of time analyzing and writing about the ways racial bias plays into criminal justice, both in the Houston area and across the country. Since the center was founded in 2018, researchers have explored the ways race plays into pretrial justice, the effects of over-incarceration on poor and minority families and the misconceptions surrounding how race, personality and crime are connected.

One day after more than 60,000 people showed up to Houston City Hall to protest the death of George Floyd—a man who died May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota—Henderson spoke with Community Impact Newspaper about the protests, the data driving them and some of the things he thinks local police can do moving forward to build public trust.

Can you talk a little bit about the establishment of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University? Why did you feel like this was something that needed to be done?

We saw the need for a center that was focused on understanding cultural sensitivity and responsivity in one space. When you look around the country, there are very few research centers that take that position. Criminal justice and race are intimately intertwined, and there is not a day that goes by where there is not an example of that relationship. Recognizing that, and also understanding that we needed to be able to train the next generation of researchers with that understanding, I put together the idea, and we went out to find individuals who would be interested in funding it. It just so happened that the Thurgood Marshall College Fund through the Center for Advancing Opportunity and their support from the [Charles] Koch Foundation came together to create these funding opportunities for these research centers to address issues in these communities. So here we are. As you see, there has not been a dull moment in this space. There is a continual need to understand cultural responsivity and sensitivity and that relationship between criminal justice and minority communities.

As you watch these protests and listen to these protesters, are you hearing any connections between what they are saying and some of the research the CJR has done?

First and foremost, the protesters are saying that they are frustrated and fed up with a system that overwhelmingly and disproportionately impacts minority communities, and the data bears that out. I think the combination of Ahmaud Arbery’s case in Georgia [and] Breonna Taylor’s case in Louisville, Kentucky, intermixed with George Floyd in Minneapolis—who happens to be from Houston—and the pandemic over a couple of months’ time, people are frustrated. The George Floyd case is one of the first times where individuals on all sides of the political spectrum were able to see in recorded video an individual who was murdered for no reason. Just the absurdity of that death, I think, was [enough for many] to overcome traditional political disagreements. You have individuals from all walks of life, from all around the world, saying, ‘You guys have to do something about that.’ At the Center for Justice Research, we hope to provide research support and solutions to many of these pressing problems in the criminal justice system in terms of how they relate and interact with the minority community.

The research says there’s an officer shooting almost every seven hours. The recent U.S. Department of Justice report found that over half of all police officers said it was not unusual for them to turn a blind eye to improper police conduct. Almost 61% of police officers said they don’t always report abuse when they see it done by a fellow officer. We have to change that. The Department of Justice found that 84% of officers stated that they have directly witnessed a fellow officer use more force than was necessary. I think the data is clear and convincing that there is a problem. I think that we now have societal consensus of that problem and accepting that data. I think we also now have a bipartisan understanding of the need to do something.

There have been other incidents of excessive force over the past decade, including some that have gotten a lot of media attention. Do you think there is anything different about the movements that are taking place across the country today?

I think so. I think you now have more of the important pieces focused on one issue, and the issue is that we have to stop unnecessary police excessive and deadly use of force. We’re galvanized and focused on one issue. The data supports that reality. Policy makers are now able to recognize that there is community sentiment behind passing such policies. That’s always one piece of the political puzzle; where does society stand on this issue? I think at this point it’s clear to say society is now saying that we at least have to do something about excessive and deadly use of force. But we also have to hold police officers accountable. I think accountability has been added to the conversation and you’ll begin to see accountability measures implemented in policies as we go forward.

Aside from George Floyd being from Houston, do you think these protests have any particular significance for residents in Harris County?

I think Harris County has always been a unique place because you have a thriving urban community that is one of the most diverse in the country. You now have a situation where you have a growing young population who now recognizes that there is support for change all around the country. We just went through the bail reform lawsuit. You just saw a whole new set of judges being placed in office. You have a progressive mayor, district attorney, police chief [and] sheriff. You have some of the most progressive county commissioners. You have an opportunity to show the world that when you have a progressive agenda—what the criminal justice system looks like. I think we’re moving forward with a natural experiment of being able to align ideologies and to reacclimate the criminal justice system in the vision of its original theoretical intent, and that is to treat all people equal [and] to be fair and just across the board.

How do you think our leaders in county government and law enforcement should be responding right now?

I think they’ve responded appropriately. I think we just saw yesterday a well-managed citywide protest. If you compare the protest in Houston to other cities, I think it was one of the more well-orchestrated—more positive, solutions-oriented—protests. I think what you are going to see now is an opportunity for the city to show that this is the way that it’s supposed to be done.

What are some tangible changes you would like to see made in Harris County?

For one, we have to understand the need to deal with the whole notion of qualified immunity. A lot of that can be challenged through the district attorney’s office and be opened to identifying ways to hold police officers accountable who move beyond the expected scope of their work and participate in excessive and deadly use of force. On the local level, the district attorney can make those sorts of decisions. I think in Harris County we have a district attorney who has tried to hold police officers accountable. I think that’s what the community is asking for. I think that’s the first thing that needs to happen. The community needs to see that officers are being held accountable for behavior that is not only unacceptable but essentially against the law.

Two, I think there needs to be the creation of a local, state and national database to keep track of excessive and deadly uses of force because in order to be able to manage the behavior, you need to be able to understand the extent of the issue.

Three, I think probably one of the most important pieces is to go back and retrain these officers. Training is important because you no longer have a generation of people that are going to just accept authority’s decisions without questioning that. With the advent of social media, they are able to disseminate information in real time across the world, and they are able to complain in nontraditional formats. Before, if you had a complaint, you would go to the police department and fill it out, and sometimes, you would not hear anything back on that. But now, you can go to social media, and you can voice your discontent, and the [dissenters] are able to align and galvanize energy to state their case against injustice as they see it.

There’s training in several areas that I think are very important. One is cultural competency. Two is implicit bias. Three is conflict resolution. But I also think there needs to be training that allows you to understand how you respond according to your autonomic nervous system, the system that kicks in when your heart rate begins to rise. If you are a police officer and you feel threatened or there is something going on around you where you are not in your normal everyday thought process, you respond differently than you do otherwise.

What do you think the likelihood is that you see any of these types of solutions implemented in any form in Harris County?

I think the likelihood is very high. I think we have a police chief who understands the need to be culturally sensitive. I think they will begin to improve upon their existing training modalities there.

The database issue is a more difficult challenge. I’m pretty sure the sheriff and the police chief keep internal information on that, but it would be great to see that made public and done in a manner that allows and respects the sanctity of the police officer’s day-to-day location. I’m not asking for a police officer to be exposed by name, but it would be nice to know the extent to which citizens file complaints and the occurrence of excessive deadly uses of force in the city. If you listen to some of the protesters, they are saying they want to know about what’s happening with different cases. I think more transparency is always good. I think a lot of them are concerned about some recent police shootings. I think they have legitimate questions about that, and the more the police chief can answer their questions, the better they will be able to allay any concerns in that space.

What are the consequences of not acting in this current moment?

One, you have civil unrest. We all understand that around the country—cities, counties, rural and urban—people are protesting. Within that protest, there are looters. You have serious damage to infrastructures as a result of looters. I think it’s hard for some people to separate the two, but they are different. I would hate for the looters to impact the rights and privileges of protesters to voice their legitimate concerns as they’ve been doing, but you’ve seen situations where some of those have gotten out of hand.

No. 2 is when you look at the perceived legitimacy of the system. The research tells us that when the community respects the legitimacy, they are less likely to commit crimes; they are more likely to support the needs and the concerns of the police; they are more likely to work together. So the more illegitimately the police and the criminal justice system are seen, the research tells us, the more crime is committed, the more distrust people have in the system, and so you begin to increase the gulf that exists already between the police and some segments of the community.

What sort of research is the CJR currently working on?

One project is to look at understanding this notion of qualified immunity and what qualified immunity means to everyday police practices. If police are able to be held accountable for their actions, does that impact their behavior? Does that reduce the number of complaints? Does that reduce the occurrence of excessive use of force? That’s kind of helping us merge that legal piece with quantitative data in terms of understanding how all of this could maybe be affected by policy changes.

Another project we’re looking at is different ways and different training types that could be implemented to help improve the relationship between the police and the community. What we do know is [that] the better the relationship [is] and the more the community and police interact, the less likely you are to see some of these cases that have led to the civil unrest around the country right now.
By Shawn Arrajj
Shawn Arrajj serves as the editor of the Cy-Fair edition of Community Impact Newspaper where he covers the Cy-Fair and Jersey Village communities. He mainly writes about development, transportation and issues in Harris County.


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