Now that the Louisville police officers involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor have been charged, more than two long years after her death, Taylor’s family may finally get some accountability. But Taylor will never get her life back. Nor will the next person killed by police.
Thursday's decision by the Department of Justice to bring charges shows why federal laws with real teeth – and vigilant, competent federal officials – really matter. They are too often the only authorities capable of protecting our freedom and ensuring justice, whether related to police accountability, voting rights or reproductive freedom.
The president and Congress have some big decisions on their plates. They have the opportunity to enact change with bills that address underlying factors of police violence – The People’s Response Act (which provides grants to solve community issues instead of using police) and the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act (which replaces school police with trauma services).
They should take that opportunity.
Serve the interests of communities, not police interests
The truth is that we will not see the end of police violence as long as we continue to allow police departments to control the definition of public safety. That forces our communities to serve the interests of police, instead of the other way around. Police departments escalate violent practices that have proved not to work, ignore community-driven solutions that do, treat Black people as if our constitutional rights and freedoms are conditional on their approval, and blame Black communities for the realities that people in power have created, including law enforcement officials.
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We need to fundamentally change who’s in charge of public safety, who decides what the real problems are and who decides what the solutions are. We need to change who gets the money tagged for ensuring our safety – and what they do with it.
This change requires the same kind of sustained investment in Black-led community activism we have seen over the past two years, as well as the same kind of federal intervention that we (finally) saw last Thursday. When politicians and extremist police departments go unchecked, they increase harm and not safety.
Police don't keep all Americans safe
Charges against the officers were brought by the federal Department of Justice, in part, on the grounds of civil rights violations. This is what activists have been demanding since the initial mishandling of the grand jury investigation by Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. It’s sustained community activism that forces action.
Too much of the conversation about policing promotes a big lie: that the police exist to protect all Americans equally. Police disproportionately harass Black Americans. And there’s no hesitation to arrest protesters when we speak out about the trauma, pain and suffering that they cause us.
Just last month – at a protest against the brutal police murder of Jayland Walker, who died from 46 bullet wounds in Akron, Ohio – officers arrested Taylor's aunt and the father of Jacob Blake Jr., who was left partially paralyzed after a 2020 police shooting in Milwaukee.
Even so, we cannot back down. Activism focused on changing the entire system of public safety is the only antidote to out-of-control police departments. When people vote, raise their voices, demand that officials at all levels take alternatives to policing seriously – and demand that federal authorities take police departments to task for their systematic abuses and failures to protect us – we start to see the changes that will prevent the next police killing.
In Taylor's name, push new police approach for Black communities
Policing, punishment and prisons alone don’t make our communities safer. In some cases, they put Black lives in greater danger. If more police funding led to more public safety, the United States would be one of the safest countries in the world. But we know that is far from the truth.
Black communities want and need a new approach. Community-led alternatives – housing stability, food security, mental-health support, education improvements and the expansion of community resources – will help keep Black people safe.
We must continue to advocate, speak and vote loudly to promote a new strategy for public safety. We must do this in Breonna Taylor's name, and in the name of so many others.
Rashad Robinson is the president of Color Of Change, a racial justice organization with more than 7 million members that uses innovative strategies to bring about lasting change in systems and sectors that affect Black people’s lives.
This column is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Breonna Taylor: After federal charges, public safety reform must go on