For years, Cephus Johnson was Uncle Bobby to a few folks, including his nephew, Oscar Grant III. Thirteen years later, Johnson points to a coin-sized gouge in the platform at the BART transit station in Oakland, Ca., saying it’s from the bullet that a transit police officer in 2009 fired into Grant’s back, killing him.
Grant’s death fueled Johnson’s new life: The retired postal worker is committed to changing policing in Oakland and, perhaps, the nation. Johnson and his sister, Grant’s mother, have built a foundation and a campaign to support families affected by deaths caused by police. "This pain, we have tried to turn into some form of purpose,” Johnson said.
Police reform activists often are friends and family members directly marked by tragedy, including the aunt of Breonna Taylor, who was killed during a no-knock warrant in Louisville and Marion Gray-Hopkins, whose son was shot by police three decades ago in Maryland. Other activists are community members or leaders who work outside the government institutions that set policies, laws and practices, reports News21.
Some work inside the system, such as the state lawmakers who changed police surveillance laws in Maryland, a Phoenix council member who started a civilian oversight office, and a police chief in Georgia whose department offers motorists auto-repair coupons instead of traffic tickets for equipment failures.
Activists and their supporters – elected officials, police and community members – say the elements of police-reform activism often take years of commitment, concerted collaboration and struggle. The journey is marked by the lessons, mistakes, debates and pushback of previous generations.
Colin Wayne Leach, a professor of psychology and Africana studies at Columbia University’s Barnard College, called activism a wide net, with disparate groups pushing for change simultaneously.
“When we think about social movements and change in society, it’s happening on many different levels at once,” Leach said. “And usually, most of us are only paying attention to the most obvious one, or the one that’s in the media, or the one we’re familiar with. It’s all happening at once, and it’s having different effects.” “That moment (of change) is the product of all those different things happening, at all those different levels, at the same time.”
In Oakland, Elaine Brown is a former top leader of the Black Panther Party, a community-forward, anti-police-brutality organization founded in Oakland more than five decades ago. Iconic images of rifle-toting men and women in black berets, fists raised in the Black power salute, lifted Black pride and challenged mainstream society’s comforts, even as the organization provided free breakfasts in Black neighborhoods while fighting police misconduct in ways that drew accolades and controversy.
Although the party became known for its deadly encounters with police, Brown said Panther leaders knew they couldn’t win a battle with police. The “goal was to educate and liberate,” she said. “We’re not going to take on the police. We’re not that stupid."
Brown, 79, calls out some younger activists for not knowing the meaning of sacrifice. “I ask the young people today, ‘What are you doing? What are you sacrificing? Are you giving up something?’
“This is my example: ‘I go to the Black Lives Matter rally and I say defund the police, Black Lives Matter, then I go home and eat a vegan sandwich and feel like I’m some kind of an activist.’ “Are you kidding me?”
Brown said reform means being willing to risk your job, to consistently confront the uncomfortable.
LeRonne Armstrong, 49, who was named Oakland police chief in 2021, grew up in a West Oakland neighborhood where he didn’t feel safe in his own bed at night. When he was 13, he lost his 16-year-old brother to gun violence.
Black representation at the top of police ranks is meager. About 8.5 percent of police chiefs in the U.S. are Black or African American.
Armstrong shares most police chiefs’ dismay at demands to “defund” the police. Officers aren’t able to respond as quickly to calls as he would like, and departments need more money to hire officers.
“If you were to talk to the vast majority of people in this city,” Armstrong said, “they would tell you that the city does not need less police. But they feel that way because they want better policing. They want fair and just policing. They want police officers that don’t violate their rights. They want police officers that do their job the right way.”
In Baltimore, Marion Gray-Hopkins, 66, remembers seeing her son on the ground from a distance after he was shot by an off-duty officer who claimed he lunged for another officer’s gun during a dispute.
Gray-Hopkins is the co-founder and executive director of the Coalition of Concerned Mothers, which provides a space for mothers who are affected by gun violence to grieve and work on reform strategies, such as repealing Maryland’so-called Officer’s Bill of Rights.
Activists are working to change laws, fight in the courts and, in some cases, get elected to office to reform policing. Sometimes, after years of trying, they drive change on their terms, he said.
Most recently, Baltimore successfully challenged police surveillance law. Maryland also was the first state to repeal its so-called law enforcement bill of rights. Elected officials said the repeal and other legal changes were accomplished through a series of incremental changes, working with Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle and other community organizations.
In LaGrange, Ga., Police Chief Louis Dekmar has innovated police reforms by teaching officers and recruits to shoot to incapacitate, rather than to kill, if the altercation isn’t life-threatening.
Dekmar is among police leaders from across the country, from Oakland to Denver to Indianapolis to Oregon, who are driving change from the top down.
Reform minded police chiefs are gaining attention. A job description for police chief in Buffalo Grove, Illinois, population 43,000, required that candidates be “familiar with progressive policing principles.”
Officials in Phoenix, the nation’s fifth largest city, this year hired Michael Sullivan, who has reform experience in Baltimore, to serve as interim chief of a police department that’s under a federal civil rights investigation.
Activists cite common sense, creativity, understanding and patience as the key to reform, for police and the public. Change, with activism, is inevitable, they say.
“The uniform is not who I am,” said Armstrong, the Oakland police chief. “At the beginning of the day, when I wake up in the morning, I’m an African American man from Oakland. When I take the uniform off at night, I’m still that same African American man from Oakland. And when I wear this uniform with honor and with pride, I’m that same African American man that just cares about his community, whether I’m in uniform or not.”
Leach, the professor at Barnard, said it’s profound that members of the public now think it’s a legitimate political question to ask what the police budget is.
“There are so many things that have changed on a small scale,” he said. “There are so many things that are now on the table that people are informed about.”