On June 8, an offensive letter by state Rep. Tony Cornish, a former law enforcement officer, appeared in the Star Tribune. The letter, headlined “Really, this isn’t complicated,” purportedly aimed at helping “reduce the use of force by police,” but in reality blaming the victims of police brutality using racially coded rhetoric such as “Don’t be a thug” and non sequiturs such as “Don’t hang out on the street after 2 a.m.” Cornish told KMSP-TV (Fox 9) news that he wrote the letter because “I just got sick of cops being used as a scapegoat when something goes wrong.”
Something does seem to go wrong far more often than it should with policing in the U.S. Police kill over 1,000 people (many unarmed) each year — a population-adjusted rate wildly greater than in other comparable countries. Police, in fact, are not used as scapegoats. They are almost never held criminally accountable for the violence they inflict upon citizens they swore to serve and protect. In Minnesota, police have killed at least 147 people since 2000, but not a single officer has been indicted. Minneapolis alone has paid out $20 million over the last decade to settle brutality cases even as internal investigations routinely clear the officers and prosecutors rubber-stamp their conduct.
Nekima Levy-Pounds, president of the Minneapolis NAACP, reacted to Cornish’s letter: “As an elected official in this state, Tony Cornish had a prime opportunity to demonstrate positive leadership on matters of race and policing. Instead, his divisive rhetoric showed disdain for the African-American community and the serious concerns surrounding the inequitable treatment and racial profiling we often face at the hands of law enforcement. His comments are also a distraction from the real issues related to the need for an overhaul of our system of policing.”
Cornish seeks to place the full blame for police brutality on those being victimized. For example, his “advice” included: “Don’t be a thug and lead a life of crime so that you come into frequent contact with police.” Research shows that racial profiling by law enforcement officers happens with great regularity in Minnesota. A recent ACLU study of Minneapolis found that black and American Indian citizens are arrested at rates almost nine times higher than whites for identical low-level offenses. It is of little consequence whether people of color are living the most honorable lifestyle; they will still have a higher likelihood of contact with law enforcement authorities.
With footage seemingly being released daily showing police officers killing unarmed people of color, Cornish’s narrative only seeks to blame the victims for their own deaths in encounters with police.
Cornish’s other “advice” included, “Don’t flap your jaws when police arrive,” suggesting that if a person being stopped is submissive, he or she will walk away from the encounter alive and well. However, he completely overlooks the masculine ideologies driving police culture and the authoritarian personality of officers. He suggests that people who ask questions during a traffic stop are causing officers to escalate the situation.
As a former cop himself, Cornish should understand that there are a disturbing number of cops who are white supremacists and who view people of color as inferior. By white supremacy, we mean here “a system of power and domination, determined consciously or subconsciously, and embedded in logic, thought, speech, action, perceptions” (Utsey, Ponterotto and Porter 2008).
Cornish states: “If you think you are wrongfully treated, make a complaint.” Of the first 439 misconduct cases handled by the new Office of Police Conduct Review, none resulted in any form of discipline. What’s the point of filing a complaint when the people who review the complaints are working from the same white supremacist lens?
Cornish waited for the legislative session to end to blame people of color for their own subjugation. Ironically, he is the co-author of a bill to restore voting rights to people on probation (HF 342, SF 355). His rhetoric explains why he didn’t allow his own bill to be heard this session. He doesn’t believe in second chances; he believes in the long arm of the law, as evidenced by the fact that he wears a pendant of handcuffs during each legislative session.
Across the nation, unarmed black men are disproportionately killed by police, even after accounting for all other relevant factors. The author of a 2016 study told the Washington Post that “officers are perceiving a greater threat when encountered by unarmed black citizens.” In Minnesota, the Star Tribune presented an (incomplete) list of police killings since 2000 and found that black residents make up 6 percent of the population but 28 percent of these deaths, while American Indians are 1 percent of the population and 6 percent of the deaths. But when polled by the Star Tribune, a plurality of white voters incorrectly asserted that Minnesota’s criminal justice system does treat blacks and whites equally. Black voters correctly stated, by an overwhelming majority, that the system is biased.
Speaking with Fox 9, Cornish protested that he is not a racist. (He has black relatives! He’s been on mission trips to the jungle!) But his letter employs widely acknowledged racially coded language (“thug”) and stereotypes about respecting authority. Like many white Minnesotans, Cornish hasn’t experienced racial discrimination or profiling and doesn’t care enough to learn.
Perhaps Cornish should recommend that people not experience mental illness. Or not drive while black. Or not walk to or from night jobs. But we know this is putting the onus in the wrong place. True solutions start with fixing policing: actual accountability from internal investigations, review boards and prosecutors for misconduct; a mandatory emphasis on de-escalating encounters and full crisis-intervention training for all officers; more restrictive use-of-force policies that unambiguously prohibit unnecessary violence; body-camera policies that help protect the community rather than shielding the police from scrutiny; a requirement for officers to carry liability insurance and pay premiums beyond the base rate, and a significant increase in the hiring of officers who come from and know the communities they serve.
Cornish’s letter is a disgraceful contribution to the serious subject of police reform. Someone expressing the sentiments he did has no business chairing the House public safety committee. He should resign this position, and going forward voters should take a good hard look at whether he can effectively represent the interests of all of his constituents.
Rachel Wannarka is a member of the Minneapolis NAACP Criminal Justice Reform Task Force and a special education teacher at Boys Totem Town in St. Paul. Jason Sole teaches criminal justice at Hamline and Metropolitan State universities and is chair of the task force.