Why we don’t want to merely “reform” the Police

Photo by Olivier Douliery / AFP / Getty Images.

Many people have heard, in the weeks since George Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer, about calls to Abolish or Defund the Police. This call has been heard in Minneapolis and across the nation, as people at large begin to truly grapple with the role of police and policing in our society.

At the same time, many people have responded to calls to Defund the Police by insisting that we ought to instead Reform the Police. In my opinion, Americans are generally anxious about radical change. We tend to gravitate toward solutions that seem more sensible and more even-keeled, often without considering whether or not they tackle the actual root of the problem. I don’t want to take up much of your time, but I do want to lay out a few reasons why reform of the police, especially at this time, would not resolve the issues that we are seeing with policing today.

  1. Many suggestions for reform are unclear about how implementation would be enforced, or put too much trust in police to enact reforms themselves.

The best example of this is 8cantwait (https://8cantwait.org/). 8cantwait promises to be able to reduce brutality and is backed by research which you can find on their website. 8cantwait is admirable in it’s efforts to use research to pass policy. The issue is implementation. For example, chokeholds have been barred by the NYPD since 1993, however, that didn’t stop an NYPD officer from using a chokehold on Eric Garner, resulting in his death. You can find out more about the Earic Garner Anti-Chokehold Act here, intended to ban chokeholds across the State of New York, but it’s not clear how to resolve the issue that, according to this same press release, nearly 1000 people have reported being subject to chokeholds by the NYPD between 2014 and 2020.

More questions abound. If we are requiring that police give a warning before they shoot, how do we measure the efficacy of that warning? What is the rubric? If a cop says “I’m gonna shoot” as they pull the trigger, did they give an adequate warning? We might say no, but will the report reflect that reality? The problem with these use of force reforms is that they require that the police also believe in using them. In a time when trust of the police is at a critical low, we are asking the public to trust that police will obey the reforms. This is hard to believe because:

2. Police Often Cover for the Abuses of Their Peers

It would be interesting to be able to see what the other officers on the scene of George Floyd’s death would have said had the murder not been filmed. We have a pretty good idea. Anecdotally, many police officers have reported being bullied, ostracized, or even threatened for breaking the Blue Wall of Silence. One of these anecdotes was published in USA Today, written by an FBI Agent, while another was published in the Washington Post. However, we know that the code of silence has been a concern for some time. In 2000, Neil Trautman of the National Institute of Ethics presented his findings on the Code of Silence to a conference of Police Chiefs. You can find an overview here. That was twenty years ago, but we have little reason to believe that anything in the last twenty years have changed. That’s because in addition to this:

3. Police Are Resistant to Reforms

Police do not wish to reform. We can speculate that this is due to a police culture that allows police to do whatever they want, but if you don’t believe police culture is toxic, it can be challenging to find hard data to support it. We do know that according to the National Center for Women and Policing, “at least 40% of police officerfamilies experience domestic abuse.” If you find this to be a shocking statistic, you aren’t alone. This would suggest that there is a current of violence running through the police, one made all the more dangerous by that same Code of Silence discussed above.

Furthermore, police unions across the country actively resist reforms, using their considerable bargaining power to prevent policies from being put in place that might do anything at all to stem the tide of police killings. Bob Kroll, president of the Minneapolis Police Union, has even been trying to get the police responsible for the death of George Floyd back on the force. This, after they killed a man using a technique that was widely criticized by police for how dangerous it is. But that’s part of the problem, there is a willingness to admit that an officer may have done something wrong, but not an acceptance that the system or culture of policing shares some blame. It’s one bad apple, ignoring that the rest of the phrase tells us one bad apple spoils the bunch.

As I write this, police in Atlanta are abandoning their posts in protest of the officer who killed Rayshard Brooks being charged with murder. Over the last two weeks, police have shown absolute disregard for the safety of the public, in addition to ignoring calls like in Atlanta, they not only arrested a CNN crew on TV, but shot and permanently blinded a photojournalist with a rubber bullet. One contributing factor to this culture is that:

4. Police Are Overwhelmingly White and in Minneapolis, not From Here

In Minneapolis, nearly 80% of the police are white, while according to 538, only about 10% of police lived in Minneapolis in 2014, recently, that number has been amended to be about 8%. Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd, lives in Oakdale. The make up of the police force in Minneapolis is very different from the makeup of the city. As people who live here will tell you, there is a bizarre, almost pathological fear from many in the exurbs about the city and how dangerous it can be. This is a common tale for many midwestern cities surrounded by smaller, more rural communities. One can only speculate on the effect that this mentality has on people who commute to the city, armed, but at the very least, it should cause some concern that these police may not feel a sense of community with the people they police. If the police behave as an occupying force in many parts of the city, it may be because:

5. The Military to Police Pipeline Creates a Dangerous Culture in Urban Areas

One May 31st, I woke up after a restless night of helicopters overhead to find footage on my phone of police opening fire on people on their porches. It was unclear to me at the time whether or not being on one’s porch was a violation of the curfew, but watching the video, one has to marvel at the lack of concern for the safety or rights of these peaceful people, and recoil at the use of the phrase “Light ’em up!”

This moving article illustrates some of the issues of the vet-to-police pipeline. Not only does it lead to more self-destructive behavior by the police, it contributes to a cruel and macho culture which prizes violence and toughness above all else, including safety and service. Even police who were never in the military are pulled into this culture. If it feels like the police in that video seem as though they are patrolling a neighborhood in Kabul, it might be because they are behaving as though they are. Granted, of course, that Americans should not be shooting at people on their porches in Kabul either, I am simply trying to illustrate that if police often feel like an occupying force, it’s because they sometimes behave like one.

Nowhere is this more clear than in black neighborhoods, where crime is high because policing in more intense and scrutiny is higher. Imagine everything illegal you have ever done. I can say, for example, that I have smoked weed, and drunk underage. No big deal, many people have done this and more. However, I did these things as a white person in an area where police presence was low; where if I had been caught by police, charges would have been unlikely; and as a person who would have been likely to get a lighter punishment even if I had been charged with a crime. In other words, I was able to deal with police as police. However, not far from the Milwaukee neighborhood where I did these things, black men my age were contending with heavier patrols and stops, a much greater likelihood of being charged when caught, and heavier sentences when they are found guilty. They are dealing with the police as an occupying force. For more information and links to studies, consider looking at this article from the Washington Post.

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Now we can see that there are numerous issues with policing, from a culture of silence to a troubling trend of officers from outside the areas they patrol behaving as an occupying force, so what is to be done? I am not a policy expert, but these are some ideas that ought to be thoroughly explored and considered.

  1. Police Budgets Should Be Severely Slashed

The LAPD reports a budget of over $1 Billion. This is for a force of 14,000 people. Meanwhile, the LA Food Bank reports that nearly 2,000,000 people in LA County live with food insecurity. These are different issues, of course, but they give us a sense of priority. What does the LAPD need $1 Billion for? If the city spent less on it’s police force, might it be able to curb the causes of crime in the city? Crime is not random, it has trackable and clear sources. Most people do not want to commit crime, but do so due to a lack of resources. Furthermore, using police to respond to things like mental health episodes or drug use only risks criminalizing people who need medical attention. By cutting these budgets, we can more easily create systems to support people and improve their lives, thus reducing crime. Current police budgets are a misallocation of resources and do not improve safety.

2. Police Should Pay For Settlements Out Of Their Pension Fund

When police are found guilty and forced to pay a settlement to a person they have hurt or the family of a person they have killed, the city often has to cover the bill. But what if the police themselves had to pay out of a pension fund? This would provide a personal incentive not to use unnecessary force, since it would draw the ire and annoyance of the entire department as the guilty officer costs them money from their pension.

3. Police Should Immediately Be Demilitarized

There is no reason that police in Shoreview, Wisconsin should require a rocket launcher, or that police going about their business in really any city should need surplus military equipment of any kind. These weapons should be immediately destroyed and police should be barred from purchasing them. This also goes for tear gas, a dangerous chemical irritant, which should be banned and whose manufacture and distribution to other countries should also be banned. Further, police caught using less-lethal weapons such as rubber bullets improperly, by firing them into crowds directly rather than bouncing them off the ground, should be immediately fired and charged with assault.

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These three suggestions are not the end. They should continue with the eventual goal of removing police all together and replacing them with a series of new services which can actually adequately respond to crises. Most of the time I am asked “but who will respond when x happens?”, I am able to answer, “someone without a gun, who is actually trained in dealing with that situation.” The police have become a catch-all emergency service, and it has cost lives, because police culture is steeped in violence. Join me in imagining a world where crime can be reduced, where people’s needs are provided for, and where getting into a car accident doesn’t require you to interact with an armed person.

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