Criminal justice goal should be eliminating ‘systemic racialization’

Taking on built-in biases will make policing fairer and safer

BOSTON IS APPROACHING an unusual opportunity to create a bold program of police reform: the leaders of police and prosecution will be coming into their new positions at about the same time. The parallel to this is the early 1990s when Paul Evans became police commissioner within about 19 months of Ralph Martin Suffolk district attorney. The pair became partners and key leaders, along with then-US Attorney Donald Stern, in crafting a strategy on youth violence that at the time influenced practice across the US and globally. Kevin Hayden, who was recently named Suffolk DA by Gov. Baker, helped guide that youth violence effort as a young assistant DA in Martin’s office and head of Martin’s Safe Neighborhoods Initiative. If Mayor Wu chooses wisely in selecting a new police commissioner, another revolution in criminal justice practice is possible. In 2022, the big strategic opportunity is reducing and eliminating systemic racialization in the criminal justice process.   

The use here of “racialization” rather than “racism” comes from the writing of race equity expert and University of California Berkeley law professor John A. Powell. “’Racialization’ connotes a process rather than a static event,” he writes. “It underscores the fluid and dynamic nature of race… Structural racialization is a set of processes that may generate disparities or depress life outcomes without any racist actors. Systemic racialization describes a dynamic system that produces and replicates racial ideologies, identities and inequities. Systemic racialization is the well-institutionalized pattern of discrimination that cuts across major political, economic and social organizations in a society.” 

To argue that understanding and eliminating systemic racialization is not “all” the new leaders must do or be is to underestimate the reach and power of systemic racialization. Years of research indicate that racialization distorts and sometimes deranges the process, from the way many investigative practices are selected and deployed to the history and administration of the expansive drug laws that drive so much of the police agenda. Systemic racialization affects officer safety and how people are prosecuted and sentenced. It influences macro decisions in the executive suites and micro decisions in the seats in the patrol cars and district courts.  

Systemic racialization affects officer safety, for example, when officers are not educated on how implicit bias works in the human brain. Bias will direct officers to look for danger in the wrong places and miss the actual source of threat. In investigations, we’ve seen examples, such as in findings of the federal court in New York City, of large numbers of Black men stopped outside the privileges and restrictions of the stop-and-frisk procedure as laid down by the Supreme Court. Are departments too quick to serve no-knock warrants in minority communities? Especially in the case of arrest warrants, there are many safer and less costly alternatives.  Every “mistake” exacts a high price from individuals, communities, and police departments. 

The Boston Police Department and its broader community have laid a strong foundation on which to build this effort. It’s not easy to see amid the controversial cases swirling about, but we have the makings of powerful dialogue. CommonWealth‘s Michael Jonas captured this in a recent article and podcast about the city’s success defying national trends during the pandemic that have seen big spikes in homicides.

About one degree of separation stands between the police department’s harshest critics and police top leadership. (In practical terms, the police department’s leadership includes the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association.) The same is true for the DA’s office. I believe that because of our deeply tangled and warped history with race, we are uniquely situated to see how systemic racialization is marbled into our systems. Boston always talks about race because we’ve been required by history to do so.  Somewhere in all the talk lie answers. Long-term, understanding the issues will require dialogue as well as a fearless analysis of facts and figures. Leaders will need to keep people talking and doing a lot more listening to one another.   

The new criminal justice leadership can turn eliminating systemic racialization into what business strategist Jim Collins calls the “Hedgehog Concept.” Collins borrows from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay on literature, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” In Collins’s view, the hedgehog knows one big thing critical to its success. Collins, whose ideas have circulated in police executive offices for years, put it this way: “A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.” 

Meet the Author
While the opportunity is immediate, the work is long-term. It will not be completed in the tenure of a new DA and new police commissioner. The new duo will need to combine humility and intense drive to get us on the way. 

Jim Jordan is the retired director of strategic planning at the Boston Police Department. He has taught police strategy at Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and in training settings around the country.