In a speech Sunday, President Obama highlighted the “gulf of mistrust” that separates the police from too many of the Americans they’re employed to protect. He was right to do so. But in focusing on the racial aspect of the problem, the president left out an important cause—and an important part of the solution.

As President Obama didn’t quite make explicit, too many police officers and law enforcement agencies have earned that mistrust by the way they have treated black Americans in too many cases—and by the way supervisors, agencies, and the courts have responded to police misconduct. 

The president is quite right that perceived racial discrimination by police, prosecutors, and courts corrodes our society. And that’s true even in those cases where the only clear wrong is the discrimination itself. Indeed, even if considering race in a given context helps fight crime, it can still have a corrosive effect.

But many of the worst things police do to black Americans, the things that most justify mistrust, aren’t just discriminatory; they are violations of individual rights whatever the race of the victim and whether or not his race played a role. And when the police disproportionately violate the rights of black people, there are two issues to be addressed: One is the disproportionality. The other is the lack of respect for rights.

Obama speech police brutality Ferguson blacks incarceration ratesAnd there are many things the federal and state governments can do to make law enforcement more rights-respecting. They can work on prosecuting police officers who commit unjustified acts of violence. Forfeiture laws can be reformed to stop encouraging legalized theft . The Pentagon can stop giving military equipment to police departments, especially police departments that are suspected of civil rights violations . (The president has already taken a step on this one.) The Supreme Court’s doctrines limiting police officers’ and other government employees’ liability to lawsuits for violating people’s rights can be trimmed back or eliminated. The Court’s decision authorizing police to stop and frisk people without probable cause can be overturned—by a constitutional amendment, if need be. And the drug laws, which not only are often enforced in discriminatory and rights-violating ways, but also violate rights by their own nature, can be repealed.

The more our federal and state governments can restrain the police from violating individual rights, the more they’ll protect black Americans—and the rest of us—from the police. But making sure the police uphold individual rights requires focusing on the issue of respect for rights. The president didn’t even mention it.


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