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January 11, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Reimagining Policing

by Juan R. Thomas

During my senior year in high school, I had my first encounter with the police while I was serving as president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils (IASC). Late one morning, I was driving on Route 47, (a two-way state highway), headed toward downstate Illinois with one of my colleagues, a young, white Jewish girl from Palatine, Illinois, named Abby who was elected secretary of the IASC at the same convention where I was elected president. We were traveling to a student council leadership conference. Abby and I had become fast friends enjoying our senior year, planning to go to prom (not with each other), and planning for college, and we could not wait to get out of our parents’ control (I mean house)!

Along the way down Route 47, I saw a police car pass us headed in the opposite direction. It made an immediate U-turn and began to trail me. I knew I was not speeding, so when the police officer pulled us over and approached the driver’s side of my car, I wanted to ask, “Is there a problem, officer?” As he approached, I rolled down my window, but before I said a word, he asked, “Young lady, are you okay?” Puzzled, Abby answered, “Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?” The officer did not respond to her question, but simply asked me for my driver’s license and vehicle registration. After running my plates and making sure my license and registration were valid, he let us go without a ticket or a warning.

The horrific events of 2020 have brought heightened attention to a longstanding problem of policing in America.

The horrific events of 2020 have brought heightened attention to a longstanding problem of policing in America.


When I was in high school, I did not learn about the history of policing in America. My U.S. history class (I think it was called Social Studies) did not educate me about how slave patrols enforced Slave Codes (or Black Codes) that had been passed by state legislatures after the Civil War in 1865. My biology teacher in high school did not teach me that my “race” was not a result of biology or science, but, rather, that my “Blackness” was a social construct and has been woven into the fabric of our society that sees my Blackness as dangerous, criminal, lazy, and sexually deviant. Not until years later would I come to truly understand what the professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, Eddie S. Glaude, calls the “lie”—the lies that America tells that demean Black people; the lies that say Black people are inferior, less human than white people and, therefore, deserve a lower station in American life.

Like too many Americans, I attended a high school that did not teach the whole truth about American history. The truth about our Founding Fathers (of the first eight U.S. presidents, six of them owned slaves), the truth about the brutality of slavery, the truth about the Reconstruction Era, and the truth about how the institution known as the “police” or “law enforcement” historically has terrorized Black people, has destroyed Black communities, and has been complicit in allowing other angry community residents to burn down or burn a cross on property owned by Black people.

Therefore, at the age of 17, I did not comprehend why this police officer would ask Abby this question. Why would a white Jewish girl in a car with a Black boy in 1987 (not 1957) in Illinois (not Mississippi or Alabama) not be okay? Did she look ill? It was not until I was in college and enrolled in a class titled Race in America that the weight of the police officer’s question hit me. That officer did not see a young student in his senior year of high school headed to college; he did not see a student in honors classes who had been accepted into every college and university he applied to attend; he did not see a middle-class student from a two-parent household who was driving in a car that his parents had bought for him; he did not see the president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils. This officer saw a Black boy (or perhaps in his mind he referred to me in a more often used derogatory term) with a white girl in a car and became suspicious, at best, or worse: feared for this white girl’s safety and life.

This issue of Human Rights magazine focuses on policing in America. The horrific events of 2020 have brought heightened attention to a longstanding problem of policing in America. I’m sharing my story about my first encounter with the police more than 30 years later, but Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Michael Brown Jr., Alton Sterling, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd cannot share their stories. This, now, becomes our task.

 If my story seems trivial today, their stories are forever tragic. If my story sheds some light on apparent assumptions that police officers make about race, gender, and perhaps violence and sex, their stories expose the worst possible outcome when these assumptions, that come from a lack of education about and engagement with people of color, become lies they believe. If my story is an example of a police officer who was “just doing his job” because he was initially concerned about a fellow citizen, their story is what happens when an officer’s initial concern becomes an unreasonable anxiety and, later, quickly escalates into an unfounded fear for his own life, which makes him “shoot first” and ask questions later. Sadly, later has been after the death of an unarmed Black person. There but for the Grace of God, Go I that during the academic school year 1987–88, Juan Thomas was not a 17-year-old unarmed Black boy killed by a police officer while driving through Yorkville, Illinois.

We assume people know history. This assumption is wrong, and, in this issue, Dr. Connie Hassett-Walker provides a historical roadmap for much of the unknown history of policing in America and how different communities in our country have been “policed” by law enforcement. She explains why there is significant distrust of law enforcement officials in communities of color that dates back to the days soon after institutional slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, and southern states passed Black Codes that restricted newly freed persons from the right to vote and from sharing public spaces with whites, such as schools, libraries, and restaurants.

My high school history books glossed over this aspect of American history and skipped from the Civil War that ended in 1865 to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. I have learned by reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law the history of racism in policing and the criminal justice system. Racism in policing is no laughing matter, but when Hassett-Walker introduces David Chappelle’s 2015 skit about racist cops, I am reminded that before Chappelle, there was a comedian named Richard Pryor telling these same truths in 1974 (Google “Richard Pryor 1974”).

Hassett-Walker reveals a truth that is well-known in the African American community that Rebecca Brown and Cynthia Conti-Cook further depict in their article title, “Crime Without Punishment.” Each of these scholars makes the claim that the history of police brutality in the African American community has been perpetuated by laws, policies, and a cultural practice that hides police misconduct, often intentionally. Brown and Conti-Cook argue that secret statutes that purportedly protect a police officer’s privacy only create a culture of mistrust and obstruct justice and, as a result, police reforms are needed. These authors note 20 different states have laws on their books that completely shield police misconduct or police disciplinary records from public view. While Brown and Conti-Cook likely would applaud the American Bar Association House of Delegates, which in August 2020 adopted Resolution 301A, calling for the elimination of the legal doctrine of “Qualified Immunity,” their article reminds us that we still have serious work to do.

If education is the great equalizer, then the lack of education and knowledge continues to keep us divided. The election of Joe Biden as our 46th president indicates that most Americans want to turn a page, but this election also proved again how deeply divided our country remains. Our country’s divisions are a result of poor education and miseducation (Carter G. Woodson). Education can be both formal and informal, and Janel George’s article offers an important introduction into the principles of Critical Race Theory (CRT).

CRT was birthed from a curriculum known as Critical Legal Studies, whose thesis is that the law is not objective or apolitical. While this is debatable, many people in the African American community and other communities of color have existential experiences that underscore how the law has been complicit in maintaining an unjust social order. I sincerely doubt that if I had been a white boy, that police officer would have pulled me over and asked my white female friend if she was okay. Or, because I am Black, to what extent would that police officer in 1987 have been concerned about Abby’s safety if he had appropriate diversity and culture sensitivity training or taken a CRT course caught by Derrick Bell or Kimberlé Crenshaw?

Unfortunately, the late Derrick Bell, who was the first African American tenured professor at Harvard Law School, cannot teach a course that most Americans, especially law students, should be required to take on CRT because, as Attorney George explains, CRT is not “diversity and inclusion training,” but rather a practice of interrogating race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and has manifested itself in other fields of scholarship and practice.

Education and training are important, but real police reform requires police accountability and for police and communities to move forward together. In this issue, Terrance Cunningham and Dayvon Love both present articles on the ongoing need for police accountability and how police and communities can build a healthier, trusting, and stronger relationship. Cunningham offers specific solutions that demand serious consideration on the federal level. Love echoes the “lie” by reminding us of a 2014 study named “The Essence of Innocence” that provides evidence that police officers’ differential treatment of Black people (particularly youth) is rooted in beliefs that Black people are inherently more violent that non-Black people.

In the late 1980s, I remember as a high school student participating in the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) Program that the author Courtney Shannon mentions in her article, “Ending School Contracts with Law Enforcement.” For me, this program was a positive experience, but, as Shannon notes, the relationships between students and law enforcement officers have become more contentious, and school administrators have instituted policies that “police” a student’s behavior rather than instruct, nurture, or guide a student to proper or more appropriate behavior.

As a former school board member, I saw first-hand what can happen if a student comes to school hungry because his family cannot afford groceries and he then steals a candy bar from the cafeteria. How should school administrators respond when a student sees her father abuse her mother at home and then comes to school and gets into a shouting match (or fight) with her classmate? These are serious and important questions that Shannon raises about the future of law enforcement officers in our public schools and other restorative solutions to curtail law enforcement involvement for nonviolent student behavior that stem from social, psychological, and emotional issues.

Sustained leadership requires the ability and willingness to be a lifelong learner. The 2014 article published by Law for Black Lives offers valuable lessons and insights for lawyers who are serious about supporting vulnerable communities. “Movement lawyering” wrestles with the notion of power and where power originates. Is power in the courtroom and the statehouse or is it found in grassroots organizing and in the community?

Finally, I conclude this introduction with sincere expressions of gratitude. I am grateful for all the authors in this issue for offering their insight and solution-oriented perspectives on reimagining policing in our society. I hope readers will share this edition with their elected officials, community leaders, colleagues, and other individuals in their circles of influence. I am grateful to those soldiers who are on the battlefield doing the hard work of police reform and community building. I am grateful to the formal and informal educators who teach our children an authentic, unvarnished, and balanced fact-based truth about who America was, who America is, and who America can be. I am grateful to the law enforcement officers who keep our neighborhoods and communities safe, who follow the law, and who do not abuse their state-sanctioned authority. Lastly, and perhaps most personally, I am grateful that during the 1987–88 school year, the police officer who pulled over Abby’s friend because he was concerned about her safety did not do something that might have led Abby to become a witness to another encounter of unnecessary force (better known as excessive force) by a police officer and possibly the death of an unarmed Black man.

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Juan R. Thomas

Of Counsel, Quintairos Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A.; Vice Chair, ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice; Council Member, ABA Section of State and Local Government Law

Juan R. Thomas is of counsel at Quintairos, Prieto, Wood & Boyer, P.A., in Chicago; the vice chair of the ABA’s Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice; and a council member of the ABA’s Section of State and Local Government Law. Thomas was the youngest person ever elected to serve on his hometown school board (at the age of 25) from 1995–2000. During the summer of 2020, he was appointed to a three-year term on the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents after serving as the 75th president of the National Bar Association from 2017–18.