As in far too many police shootings of Black Americans, the circumstances surrounding Isaiah Brown’s shooting are both painfully familiar and impossible to grasp. A harmless item in the victim’s hand (a phone) supposedly mistaken for a weapon. An unarmed Black man, seemingly in crisis, confronting an armed police response. Overwhelming use of force — Brown was shot 10 times — that strains comprehension. And now, a severely wounded victim who may not survive and if he does, will never fully recover.
But Isaiah Brown’s case is also different. Brown is a gay/same gender loving (SGL) Black man. And while we don’t know all the details of his shooting, the shooting is surfacing the long and ugly history of violence, including at the hands of law enforcement, against LGBTQ+/SGL people. It reminds us that as we face a national reckoning around systemic racism and its role in police violence, our solutions have to address anti-LGBTQ+/SGL bigotry also.
We know that LGBTQ+/SGL people are overrepresented in correctional institutions and the justice system: for instance, a stunning 42 percent of people in women's prisons identify as LGBTQ+/SGL compared with less than five percent of the overall population. We also know that LGBTQ+/SGL people of color are particularly vulnerable to police abuse: one study found that two-thirds of Latina transgender women in Los Angeles County had been verbally harassed by police, while 24 percent had been sexually assaulted by police and 21 percent physically assaulted.
Much national attention is focusing on what the federal government can do to end police violence, starting by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. But public safety is above all a local function. As we consider the best ways to save Black lives and LGBTQ+/SGL lives right now, we can look in our own backyards.
We can push our local officials to do what a young Black mayor is doing in Ithaca, N.Y., a college town that is making dramatic changes in public safety. Under Mayor Svante Myrick, Ithaca is determined to dramatically reduce citizen encounters with armed officers. It is determined to build trust with the city’s communities of color, LGBTQ+/SGL citizens, homeless residents, and residents with disabilities.
Ithaca is doing necessary and tough work by eliminating its traditional police force and replacing it with a Department of Community Solutions and Public Safety, with a force divided between armed officers and unarmed social workers. In the many, many cases where an emergency call involves human distress that is not criminal, an unarmed response can be deployed. This will save lives.
Reducing armed confrontations with vulnerable people, including people who have been profiled and stigmatized because of the color of their skin, sexual identity, gender identity, or gender expression is one clear way to head off disaster. Ending profiling and stigmatization in the first place is a critical piece as well. Local public safety departments need culturally competent training for officers engaging with the community. They need to use psychological screening, as Ithaca is doing, to screen out applicants who rank high for authoritarian tendencies — and continue screenings on a regular basis to identify officers suffering from PTSD or other untreated conditions. Local governments need to decriminalize minor offenses, like loitering, that essentially make it a crime to be poor or marginalized — conditions that disproportionately affect people of color and LGBTQ+/SGL people.
These are critically important steps. They also won’t happen by themselves. Over the last year, many of us marched against police violence and advocated to address systemic racism or pass the Equality Act. It’s vital to be visible in the streets, but it’s important to show up at city hall too. We need to be in the room when the work of local government is done. We need to be on the phone and in the inboxes of local representatives. They are the ones with the real power over public safety where we live, and they answer to us.
Today, while Derek Chauvin’s conviction for murdering George Floyd is still fresh, there is real momentum for change. Ithaca’s city council voted unanimously to transform its police force at the height of Chauvin’s trial; we have a window of opportunity now to bring other local governments to the table — while the awareness of wrongs to be righted, the pain of lives lost, is so acute. For Isaiah Brown, for Ma’Khia Bryant, Tony McDade, Andrew Brown, George Floyd, and so many more, let’s meet this moment.
Ben Jealous is president of People For the American Way and David Johns is executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.