EDINBURG — For the better part of two weeks in many of America’s largest cities, citizens from across the country have taken to social media and the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old unarmed black man, in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Several videos, which show Floyd handcuffed with an officer’s knee pressed against his neck for nearly 9 minutes, sparked cries of outrage in cities across the nation, including Edinburg where Lew Hill, the UTRGV head men’s basketball coach since 2016, is stepping up in an effort to spread awareness and incite meaningful change on a local level.
“Well, obviously, people are hurt. It’s 2020 and people are upset and angry because there’s been police brutality killing unarmed black men and women and all people of color,” Hill said. “There’s been a lot of talk, but not a lot of action. This is not the first time this has happened.
“There have been riots and looting, but at some point we’ve got to get over the rioting and looting and start getting things changed. I think that the laws need to be changed, and that starts at the top.”
What’s frustrating for Hill and many others is that Floyd was far from the first unarmed man or woman of color to be killed by the police in the United States.
The problem is one that’s old and widespread.
Before Floyd in Minneapolis there were also Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New Jersey, Trayvon Martin in Miami, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Rodney King in Los Angeles and many, many more unarmed black men and women who befell similar fates both throughout time and across the country.
“It’s very frustrating because I’ve got a lot of friends that are different races and different colors that are all people who have helped me get to where I am. I owe a lot to a lot of people of different races, but just to see unarmed people getting killed, that’s so frustrating and we think it’s not a problem. It is a problem. But the problem is we’ve got to talk about the problem and come up with solutions instead of just hurting one another and not respecting black and brown races because that’s what makes us all equal. That’s what we’ve been fighting for, for over 400 years: equality and the same chances that everyone else has. That’s all.”
Hill is also a father to five young black men and women and has been a coach to hundreds, if not thousands, more. For him, this moment became all about education.
“You’ve got to know your history and that’s what I always tell my guys, my players and my kids. So many kids don’t understand their history and where they came from and all the people that fought and died for them to be here where they are now,” he said. “We’ve got to listen to the youth, to their pain and their anger, because they’re still out here. Then we need to teach them as well as everyone else how to get along, why things are happening and understand the reason why we’re here today.”
The Washington Post has assembled one of the most comprehensive databases on all police shootings in the line of duty from departments across America from 2015 to 2020.
That wouldn’t include Floyd or Garner, however, as they weren’t shot and killed by the police.
The Post’s database also wouldn’t include Botham Jean, a 26-year-old from Dallas who was shot dead in his own apartment by an off-duty police officer who mistook his unit for her own. Since it was a shooting “in the line of duty,” Jean’s death is also omitted.
Mappingpoliceviolence.org — co-founded by DeRay McKesson, an activist and former administrator in both the Baltimore and Minneapolis public school systems, and Samuel Sinyangwe, a data scientist and policy analyst — is an interactive website research collaboration with extensive data on police killings throughout the United States since 2013.
Their goal is “to quantify the impact of police violence in communities,” and affect real change based on data-driven solutions.
The data shows that police killed 1,098 unarmed people nationwide in 2019 and that black and brown men and women disproportionately accounted for a majority of those deaths. The data also indicates unarmed black men and women were 1.3 times more likely to be killed as a result of police violence when compared to white men and women and three times more likely to be killed by the police period.
It also shows that police killings of unarmed black and brown men and women are consistent even with differences in geography and crime rates. And the issue is more pervasive than police killings, too.
“My experience has been no different from other people. I’ve been stopped for no reason and I’ve been harassed for no reason, but all cops aren’t bad cops. I have family members that are police officers and one of my former teammates is the chief of police where I’m from,” Hill said. “It’s like everything else, we can’t condemn a few of them to be bad because we have bad all around, but the ‘bad’ has been the case for why they’re bad. That’s the real problem.”
“We worked just as hard to build this country as anybody. I can remember going to an expensive store, I’m in my sweatsuit and obviously people don’t come up to me because maybe they think I can’t afford something or I’ll be walking through the neighborhood and somebody starts asking, ‘Do you live here?’ Or if you drive an expensive car they stop you because you’re not supposed to have that,” he added. “You go through all this and it even happens going for jobs. I might be just as qualified as the next man to get the job, but I don’t get it because of the color of my skin. I mean just look at what’s going on in football right now.”
For Hill, the pathway forward begins with making meaningful changes now.
“The laws have to change. Up to now, things haven’t changed because police officers are still doing it and getting away with it, so nothing has changed. But it needs to change, and hopefully things will start to change.”
One of the local-level policy changes that has been advocated for nationwide has been the “Right to Know” bill on police transparency, which has already been passed into law in some states.
California’s “Right to Know” bill, which passed into law in 2018, states, “The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.”
Another local-level policy change that many have recently called for is the banning of all choke and strangle holds by local law enforcement agencies in the line of duty. Los Angeles, Minneapolis and several other major metropolitan cities have moved to ban both if they hadn’t already.
“People just think you can do anything to anybody, especially without any resistance and just being mean and hateful and you don’t have any issue. That’s the problem is that the laws have to change,” Hill said. “If I kill somebody — right? — I’m getting charged for murder. The same thing has to be true for them. If they’re killing unarmed men and women of color, they have to be charged with murder and then they have to be found guilty.
“It’s one thing to be charged and it’s another thing to be found guilty. What we just saw on camera is disgusting. It’s a whole bunch of adjectives besides disgusting that you can’t say. We’ve got to stop that.”
According to the mappingpoliceviolence.org dataset, 99% of all police killings nationwide from 2013 through 2019 have not resulted in any officers being charged with a crime. Out of the 1% of police killings where charges are filed, only about 25% of cases culminate with a conviction of an officer for any crime.
There are positive steps to be taken forward, however.
McKesson and Sinyangwe created a second website, useofforceproject.com, which advocates for eight specific use-of-force policy changes that have been empirically proven to reduce police killings by at least five and by as much as 25 percent in the departments where they have already been implemented.
The eight use-of-force policy changes are: 1) Require officer to use all other means before shooting; 2) Require all use of force be reported; 3) Ban chokeholds and strangleholds; 4) Have a use-of-force continuum; 5) Require officers to de-escalate the situation when possible; 6) Enforce a department duty to intervene if another officer uses excessive force; 7) Restrict shooting at moving vehicles; 8) Require a warning before shooting.
For Hill, the fix is straightforward.
“I try to teach our guys to treat each other with respect and love. It’s an old cliché, but I use it all the time when I write or talk to people or tweet because if we respect each other’s strengths and weaknesses and culture settings and just be good to everybody, then things will change,” he said. “It doesn’t matter to me what color or race or religion you are, I treat you the same, and I think everybody else needs to learn to do that. A lot of people do, I’m not the only one, but I think the world would be in a better place.”
Hill, who has jettisoned across America from New York to Nevada, Kansas to the Carolinas and Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas, too, praised the Valley for its inclusivity and diversity during his time in Edinburg.
Hill has stepped up locally as a voice for change and a leader in the local community.
“We’re bringing awareness and UTRGV is here for the fight for the long run,” he said. “Not just for two weeks and not just because it’s the story right now, but to continuously say something six months from now or a year from now. Keep the energy going. That’s the one big thing that we talked about. Don’t let this topic die down in a week or two.”
Hill, along with UTRGV Vice President and Athletic Director Chase Conque and university president Guy Bailey, have partnered with student and campus leaders at UTRGV in order to open a dialogue about race in America to promote education, understanding and change.
In a statement to the university and local community released by the UTRGV Department of Athletics via Twitter on Friday evening, Hill stressed the need for the conversation to continue beyond a few days or weeks to metastasize into lasting and meaningful change.
“I think my AD and the coaches have done a great job and I think the great leadership of Dr. Bailey has showed up in these cases, too,” Hill said. “I think we’re ready to fight for the cause.”
“Listening and talking are great, but that’s just a part of it. We’ve got to start putting things into action. We’ve got to be coming up with solutions to the problem.”
Those interested in making a donation can do so at mappingpoliceviolence.org and useofforceproject.org to support McKesson and Sinyangwe’s nonprofit work in tracking and developing data-driven solutions to police violence.