Opinion Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

Why we must hold law enforcement officials accountable for racism

A Bergen County, N.J., sheriff's officer uses a razor blade to peel off the name of Michael Saudino, who resigned on Friday as sheriff of Bergen County, in gold letters from the glass entrance of the Bergen County Jail in Hackensack, on Sept. 24, 2018. Photo by Tariq Zehawi/NorthJersey.com via USAToday

(RNS) — Last week, WNYC, a public radio station in New York City, released secretly recorded audio files that captured a New Jersey sheriff, Michael Saudino, making biased comments about African-Americans, a homophobic remark about New Jersey Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and an anti-Sikh statement about New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.

After apologizing and briefly withstanding calls for his resignation from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, from the local congressman and from Grewal, Saudino stepped down.

In condemning Saudino’s remarks, which implied Grewal got his job only because he was a Sikh, Grewal said, “I have thick skin and I’ve been called far worse.”

Grewal is not exaggerating. Since January, when he became the first Sikh attorney general in American history, death threats have become a “fact of life,” he has said. Just six weeks ago, two long-tenured local radio hosts found themselves in a national firestorm after making racist remarks about the attorney general’s Sikh identity.

It’s bad enough that he has had to develop “thick skin” for racism over the years, especially because such attacks produce an unwanted distraction for someone who has critical work to do. It’s even worse when racist comments come from officials such as Saudino who are elected to represent the will of the people.

Bigotry has no place in law enforcement. Certainly racism has no place among its top officials, particularly when our society is reckoning with racist policing, mass incarceration, forced family separations and police brutality.

Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino has resigned. Photo courtesy of Bergen County sheriff

Scholars such as Michelle Alexander have recently shed light on the historical intertwining of anti-black racism and law enforcement practices. In a moment when we have more clarity than ever about the types of biases that inform American policing, we must be incredibly sensitive to how prejudice colors our actions – and we have to be vigilant about rooting such bigotry out of our systems.

If we know that an officer is racist, we must demand that the officer be held accountable for his or her behavior. When the elected leader of an entire law enforcement agency is confirmed to be racist? That person must be kept out of office.

As Saudino was under fire in New Jersey, news broke that an Oklahoma police chief who resigned in disgrace after being tied to active neo-Nazi hate groups was almost immediately hired in a neighboring department – by a chief who was fully aware of his racist views.

This is a problem.

Racist policing makes us all less safe. We see this most clearly in the case of young black men who fear their lives are at risk during every police interaction. As a man whose identity as a Sikh is almost always visible, I empathize. I would likely feel the same way if I were in their shoes, especially given the long history of police brutality and killings of young, black men. RIP Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice and so many others.

Racist policing also erodes trust between marginalized communities and law enforcement agencies. If I feel like the officers prefer to terrorize me rather than serve and protect me, then why would I go to them in moments of need?

I first realized this a few years back, during a road trip from New York to Michigan with one of my college roommates. We were cruising through rural Ohio when a patrol car turned on its sirens to pull us over. Dave was driving, so I asked if he was speeding. He said he didn’t think so but he wasn’t totally sure.

The officer walked to the driver’s side of the window, looked right past Dave, and stared straight at my turban. After a few seconds of silence, he spoke slowly and loudly, as if expecting me to not understand English: “DO YOU HAVE AN ID?”

Dave looked at the officer with confusion and asked innocently, “Wait, what? He’s not even driving. I am.” The officer ignored Dave’s comment and continued to stare at me.

This wasn’t my first rodeo, and I understood what was going on. I also knew enough to understand that I was the mercy of this officer and that resisting his instructions could come with a risk to my life. I hated the feeling of powerlessness around cops, and I was especially unhappy about not calling him out on his racism. But I knew the best way out of this mess was to just comply. So I did.

I slowly pulled my wallet from my pocket and handed over my ID. He took my license back to his car to run it through his system and, I imagine, to see if I popped up on the terrorist watchlist. I imagine he didn’t often come across people in rural Ohio who looked like me – turban, facial hair, brown skin and all.

Dave, realizing what was happening, was upset. I asked him not to give the officer a hard time, explaining that it just wasn’t worth it. “Just trust me,” I said.

When the officer returned and gave us clearance to go, we thanked him and went on our way. We rode in silence for a while. Dave was still fuming. And then he said something I didn’t expect – “They treat you like this, and then they expect you to report hate crimes when they happen? That makes no sense.”

I leaned back in my seat and laughed softly. “Exactly,” I told him. “This is the struggle for so many minority communities. We’re expected to trust the same people who so often terrorize us.”

The erosion of trust is a real problem, and it has become especially problematic as more and more attention is paid to the institutionalized nature of racism in American law enforcement. This has manifested itself in several ways in our society, from racial profiling at airport security to the school-to-prison pipeline.

Look. I’m a believer in redemption and forgiveness. I think that’s one of the most beautiful things to come out of our ugliest moments of violence and destruction.

But I am also a firm believer in justice and fairness. And if the role of law enforcement is to help us create a more just society, then there is absolutely no room for officers who are bigots. Allowing them to continue in such roles is to concede that the broken system will continue to be broken — and the communities most damaged by racist policing will also continue to be broken.

Holding law enforcement officials accountable is not just the right thing to do in terms of morality. It also helps us root out the individuals who are most prone to perpetuating the injustices that are tied to the system. And it signals to marginalized communities that we are committed to addressing the systemic issues by taking racist policing seriously.

This is why Sheriff Saudino was right to step down from his position. It’s why the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office should commit to diversity and anti-racism training. And it’s why we should make a collective commitment toward a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to racist policing.

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

16 Comments

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  • On my rare visits across the pond the increase in the background level of fear is unavoidable – and I’m thinking primarily of rural New England as opposed to Middle England. We have concerns in the UK, but there is not generally the palpable fear of poverty, of ill-health, of crime, of hell, of “other”.

    All exist of course but only in localised areas will you really feel that that fear is having a major impact on people’s lives whereas, ISTM, that it blights a much higher proportion of the US citizens I’ve had dealings with.

    I suspect that an increased level of fear provides a context that is eagerly exploited by unscrupulous individuals. In my experience – the greater the level of fear the more visceral the response to a situation. The more visceral the reaction the less that reason need be employed to justify the exploitation.

    Racism is an easily activated response in the fearful. And keeping the “not us” marginalised, by creating a non-level playing field, a reaction is provoked. People who are hungry enough will steal – for themselves and for their kids. That stealing (or whatever) can then be used to “justify” further discrimination – be it racial, sexual, regional, etc. and the spiral of fear and blame grows

    One of the techniques used to keep people fearful is to keep them in tension, to create uncertainty which can only be settled by accepting the proposition that the fear-monger is propounding.

    The ultimate uncertainty is that of “what happens after death”. As far as anyone knows the answer is that there is, for the individual, nothing after death – fear of being dead is therefore totally irrational. By overcoming that rational thought and replacing it with superstitious belief a whole society was manipulated to the extent that sufficient turkeys voted for Christmas to ensure their mass slaughter.

    I suggest that it is not coincidence that some religious organisations in the US seem to be at the forefront of opposition to anything that decreases the level of fear. The opposition to the ACA, the refusal to allow women the freedom to decide their own actions, the anti-LGBTQ lobby, the vocal attempts to equate pseudo-science with the genuine article – none exclusively promoted by religious groups – but many of your loudest voices claim to be acting on behalf of the Christian deity (and since he’s keeping schtum they get away with their ridiculous posturing).

  • Not really sure why this article from the ACLU wound up on the pages of RNS.
    It’s obvious that racism doesn’t belong in policing much less anywhere else. That being said, I take issue with articles such as these that take a few incidents of racist cops and imply that policing in general is racist. The demographics of large city police departments is beginning to or already has shifted to match that of the communities they serve; so the whitey cop argument is going to fall by the wayside sooner rather than later.
    The comments made in this article (other than driving while turbaned) is a blue vs. criminal element issue; of which, I am all for the blue. If you want to talk about bigots, let’s talk about the criminal element in our inner cities that use kids as lookouts and teach them not to trust to police.
    That being said, I don’t have a problem with any cop checking a guy out.

  • Well, if police are killing people of color of all ages and genders, that would be racism. If they’re killing young African-American males, that’s probably targeting. We can argue whether the targeting is warranted or not, but to brand it as racism is to risk missing the point. The police are not shooting old ladies of color, or middle-aged postal workers of color, or WNBA athletes of color. They’re shooting at those who fit the description of violent criminals.
    Again, we can argue whether there’s any justification for targeting, and I imagine there are arguments to be made on both sides. We can also ask whether a deep-seated racism underlies the targeting. I suspect it does in some, perhaps many instances. But to simply brand it as racism doesn’t advance the discussion. Most racists aren’t cops. Most are just ordinary people. Some may even be Sikhs. If we’re going to solve this problem, let’s begin by trying to understand it.

  • He’s just a white, liberal suburbanite who moved away from the big city he grew up in because he didn’t want to raise his family there because of the crime (mix of people).
    Yet, he and those like him are the biggest SJW’s pointing out racism when anyone defends the police or draws attention to the shitholes the inner-cities have become.
    I live in one of the largest cities in America; I know a TON of these hypocrites. They like to pass judgement while drinking their microbrew as they tirelessly manicure their lawn with organic fertilizer.

  • “If they’re killing young African-American males, that’s probably targeting.”

    Or young African-American males are more prone to confronting police rather than obeying police orders, carrying guns, and being engaged in crimes. And that’s what the research shows.

    https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/12/upshot/surprising-new-evidence-shows-bias-in-police-use-of-force-but-not-in-shootings.html

    The predominant victims of these thugs are members of the black community.

    A good hard look at Baltimore – for an example – shows a cowed police force, disarmed ordinary citizens (Maryland is rife with anti-gun zeaolots), and enough thugs that prosecutions without a change of venue stand a good chance of being unsuccessful because witnesses either won’t testify or cease to live.

    “They’re shooting at those who fit the description of violent criminals.”

    Or, more accurately, they’re shooting violent criminals with long records.

  • I agree with you. There’s bias against many groups, including women. But bias has different consequences than racism does. I don’t equate bias with racism, and the article speaks about racism.

  • I’m 52 years old. I’ve lived in a half dozen States in the United States. I’ve been to a half different colleges. I’ve been around all kinds of people through out my life. In all my years, I have never met ONE single racist, bigot, or anti-Semite. All of these slurs are tactics to avoid mature and factual conversation. Period.

  • Grewal said, “I have thick skin and I’ve been called far worse.” By better men (paraphrasing Pierre Trudeau)

  • “I have never met ONE single racist, bigot, or anti-Semite.”

    Said the man who always posts links to white supremacist sites..

    I guess you either avoid looking into mirrors or are a vampire and cast no reflection.

  • Fear is in our DNA, it is part of our human genetic evolution. AND as you say it is easily manipulated by those without a conscience, or sense of right or wrong, or what is or is not ethical. ALL done in the name of power, controlling the masses, filling the coffers, keeping the religious leaders in control of their minions.

  • Yup – simple but powerful evidence for evolution.

    Those who ignored authoritative people when young (don’t go near the edge, keep out of the water, avoid fire etc.) were less likely to pass their genes on to a further generation.

    When the long grass one is in rustles the being that runs from the wind will survive, the being that assumes it’s the wind occasionally gets eaten.

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