Conservatives have poisoned people's minds about police reform — so it's time for a reset
Minnesota voters have made their decision on the Replace Police Department with Department of Public Safety Initiative. They voted "no." The vote asked if residents want to replace their police department with a collection of public health professionals, of which some will be "licensed peace officers" (police officers).
Efforts to reform the police have been proposed and attempted all over the country and will continue to be for some time. The Minneapolis ballot was more significant as it is the place where George Floyd was killed and is the symbolic epicenter of police reform.
I believe the conversation around police reform needs to be reset. Conservatives have done their best to poison people's minds. They have evaded the real on-the-ground issues and focused their attention on the Black Lives Matter organization, linking it to communism, among other things. Meanwhile, progressives and activists have perplexed everyone by latching themselves to confusing terminology. What does "defund the police" mean? What about "abolish the police"?
What follows is an explainer for those sympathetic to police reform. It is for people who wish to give it moral support, but are unsure about the rationale and evidence for it, or what reform might truly mean.
Police as 'violence workers'
Police are trained to administer lethal and nonlethal violence using a variety of weapons — handguns, military assault rifles, truncheons, battering rams, armored trucks, grenade launchers, pepper spray, tasers, and tanks. This violence is to subdue or detain individuals who have violated the law. To be sure, police get training on how to deal with the community and social issues like domestic violence. But overwhelmingly so, according to this 2013 Department of Justice report, police are trained to be "violence workers." Unfortunately, much of their job requires skills of non-violent diplomacy.
Consider responsibilities we give local police departments:
- Managing a city's homeless population
- Enforcing traffic laws
- Resolving family and domestic conflicts
- Tracking down and corralling truant children
- Enforcing order in schools by suppressing fights or removing unruly students
- Maintaining order in public spaces by removing homeless people, the intoxicated or the mentally ill
None of these are your standard violent crimes (murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, rape, robbery, aggravated assault) or property crimes (burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.) But these are rarely of the type requiring lethal and non-lethal violence.
There is a basic mismatch here between what police are trained to do and what they need to do. Situations requiring de-escalation, mediation and conflict resolution are "resolved" with force.
But because of media representations of police, especially reality shows, we don't see this mismatch. As a society, we have become inured to images of police administering violence to citizens. Videos of teenagers handcuffed and spread eagle on the pavement after a fight in school or a woman being tased and crying out in pain because she refused to wear a mask are not met with the outrage they deserve.
Starting with the Nixon administration's tough-on-crime rhetoric, police departments have been modeling themselves after the military. Local police officers are being trained to be warriors, complete with military-style equipment. The "enemy" is the always suspect Black and brown residents of the neighborhoods they patrol. Policies such as the "qualified immunity" and now-discredited "stop and frisk" give police departments the legal foundation for implementing this aggression.
How does this culture and policy play out in Black and brown communities? Civil rights lawyer Jim Freeman recounts his observations in his book Rich Because of Racism:
It is jarring, as an outside observer, to see how much more aggressive officers are with residents. Verbally aggressive. Physically aggressive. Psychologically aggressive. In my entire life, I have never had anyone speak to me with half as much contempt as some officers that I have seen confronting young men and women of color. I have also never had anyone feel nearly as entitled to put their hands on me as many officers do with respect to people of color.
Many white Americans living in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods are simply unaware of the degree of violence visited upon their fellow citizens in Black and brown neighborhoods.
The big question — does more police decrease crime?
Police reform is based on sound premises. Progressives will likely accept the notion that police are violence workers (everyone should, actually). They also understand that this violence is visited on Black and brown communities disproportionately. But the main concern for everyone across the political spectrum is — if we remove the police officers' presence from a neighborhood, will crime increase?
The short answer is that certain types of policing can prevent crime in the short run. Research by Scientific American suggests the focus on high crime hot-spots and high-rate offenders (as opposed to aggressively policing entire communities) helps reduce crime. Also, enlisting third parties, such as businesses, can help reduce crime.
However, increases in certain types of policing can be incredibly counterproductive. One such strategy is broken windows policing, where minor violations like loitering are aggressively enforced. Another is "stop and frisk," where police can search someone's person if they have a suspicion the person is carrying a firearm. Arrest rates do rise under these policing regimes, but it is questionable if these tactics reduce crime. Cities that employed broken windows strategies, including Los Angeles, Denver and New York, experienced declines in crime – but so did other cities across the country, raising doubts about its actual impact. Indeed, when New York City phased out "stop and frisk," the city's crime rates dropped to historic lows (before the pandemic). The cost of these hyper-aggressive demeaning policing strategies is the engendering of mistrust between citizens and police.
Even when policing achieves the goal of reducing crime, police are still administering lethal and non-lethal violence in situations where different skills are needed. The basic mismatch is occurring disproportionately in Black and brown communities. Moreover, no matter how temporarily effective police are at crime prevention, they cannot address the human needs caused by poverty, drug addiction, homelessness and a lack of avenues for building self-esteem.
These facts lend themselves to supporting some kind of police reform. And so, the question becomes, what would police reform mean in practice? What does "Defund the Police" mean?
I suggest that there are at least three broad types of reform:
- Changing the culture of policing and the policies that govern it. Police departments can shift away from an ethic of officers as "warriors" in a "war on crime" to guardians of communities. Moreover, policies can change so that police have less latitude in applying lethal and non-lethal violence.
- Redistributing some police funds toward public health and social workers. Non-violent professionals can be hired and trained to do some of the non-violent work police are often asked to do. For example, if a community has a serious homeless problem, professionals can be hired to address this specific concern.
- Transforming police departments into public safety departments with an emphasis on prevention. This is the Minnesota model mentioned at the beginning of this piece. This would reduce the number of violence workers to a fraction of professionals within a wider department dedicated to preventing crime with public health and social workers.
"Defund the Police" is a broad slogan with a variety of interpretations. This range should not be seen as internal confusion within one monolithic movement. Instead, it should be viewed as proposals from different communities with different needs sharing a similar evidence-based understanding of the relationship between police, citizens and crime.