Is the criminal justice system, riddled with systemic racism and unacceptable episodes of violence, beyond repair? How close are we to entire communities openly rebelling against their own police forces? These fundamental questions face us during this troubled time. We will find ourselves in a deeper world of hurt if we don’t take appropriate actions.
Despite courageous leadership by several governors and legislators, the much-needed consensus of what to do has yet to emerge. Reform bills, such as the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, introduced by Democrats in the House of Representatives and similar legislation introduced or passed in several States and cities, attempt to address the need for more stringent guidelines in executing the policing function. Enactment of these proposals clearly represents progress but does not go as far as other proposals to “defund” the police.
Calls to “defund” the police have been embraced enthusiastically by many, dismissed as unrealistic by others, and comprehensively understood by few. The essence of the idea is not to eliminate police forces but to reconfigure them by eliminating functions better performed by social workers or others. The devil is in the details, but the overall concept is worth the work. One example of a “devil” is the proposal to substitute social workers for police in responding to domestic disputes. How do you know if one or both of the arguing parties is not armed, drunk, or drugged-out? Must social workers be trained to handle out-of-control people? If so, how would these “specially-trained” social workers differ from the police they replaced?
Solutions to these and other pressing issues can be developed. But we must avoid making a bad situation worse or create new problems. Defunding legislation cannot be considered or enacted in a hurried fashion. Even worse is the recent politicizing of the idea. Its unfortunately simplistic name has made it easy for some groups led by the Trump administration to use it for political gain. Should the 2020 elections be about whether the police should be “supported” or eliminated?
As a result of this obfuscation, as well as the difficulty of competently reimaging policing, it is unlikely that police will be defunded anytime soon. This will disappoint many, and may represent a missed opportunity, but does not mean that progress cannot be made. To that end, here are a few observations that point to needed change:
Accept the truth that in America today, police frighten people of color and many others. Khalil Gibran Muhammad wrote, “White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They do not understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if ‘I am not breaking the law, I will never be abused.” Once we accept that current practices reflect societal racism, the process of figuring out how to change police practices and philosophy to prevent anyone from feeling as though they are being “occupied” by police can begin.
Immediately end the militarization of police. The sight of police attired and acting like an occupying army frightens us all, but for people of color, the danger is real. Studies show that the militarization of police results in more violent encounters with the public, regardless of the crime rate for the area in which they operate. More disheartening is the finding of a 2018 study that showed that militarized police force was used more frequently in communities with large African American populations than elsewhere, even when controlling for the crime rate. Ending the use of military equipment and tactics, except perhaps in rare circumstances that require them, would be a major step towards reconnecting communities with police and restoring trust. Importantly, the pending House police reform bill places new limits on the transfer of military equipment to the police.
Improve police recruiting, monitoring, and training. The question of how Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis policeman accused of murdering George Floyd, got hired and why he could remain on the force despite multiple complaints of unnecessary and inappropriate force has yet to be satisfactorily answered. Did any psychological screening take place? If so, what was its quality? Were complaints filed against him taken seriously? If so, why was he returned to the streets?
Officer Chauvin’s record suggests he should never have been hired. He appears to have had few of the characteristics cited as important qualities for “good” police to have: Compassion and empathy, integrity, developed negotiation skills, eagerness to learn, and mental agility. Better screening of recruits to ensure that those with a pre-disposition to violence or prejudice never get hired will result in police less likely to engage in criminal activity. And add to that training the reinforcement of good behavior and police violence will decrease. For example, the officers who passively witnessed George Floyd’s murder should have been trained to immediately take action to stop it.
Enact immediate reforms to minimize police violence. This includes several provisions in the pending House bill, such as requiring body cameras, banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants, eliminating racial and other profiling strategies, and getting the Federal government involved in allegations of police misconduct by establishing a national database to track reports of abuse.
With luck, political courage, and a lot of work, we will see legislation enacted in coming weeks. That, however, cannot and should not be the end of efforts to reimagine the police function in a way that benefits everyone. It is imperative that the movement to fix the police problem continues. Our future depends on it.
How urgent is action to reform the police? Consider the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose, they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.” This quote gives us a litmus test to measure police reform. Any exercise of the police function that is inconsistent with establishing justice is counterproductive. In fact, it is abuse.
J.E. Dean of Oxford is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant. For more than 30 years, he advised clients on federal education and social service policy.