Policing in America Is Broken. There Are Solutions

Reforming the police isn’t easy, but it can be done.

Oakland California police
Police in Oakland, California at night, May 1, 2015 (Thomas Hawk)

Since George Floyd, a black man, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, cops have been caught on video arresting and beating up Americans for speaking out or doing nothing at all, driving their cars into a crowd, tear-gassing peaceful protesters and bystanders, and arresting and attacking journalists.

The New York Times puts it well: “Facing protests over use of force, police respond with more force.”

They are being egged on by President Donald Trump, who has described the protests as “acts of terror”, called on governors to “dominate” the streets and threatened to deploy the military; Republican senators, who have suggested the police commit war crimes to suppress the protests; and conservative media, who portray all demonstrators as far-left radicals.

Double standard

Violence is not the answer, but it’s not hard to understand why some Americans may have lost faith in the democratic process.

African Americans are almost twice as likely to be pulled over by police than whites even though they’re less likely to carry contraband in their car. Black men are two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by police than white men. African Americans comprise 12 percent of the population but 33 percent of prisoners. Police and prosecutors are tougher on black suspects, especially black men, than others. Black men are routinely arrested and prosecuted for misdemeanors and victimless crimes when whites aren’t.

It’s instructive to compare how the police is responding to the George Floyd protests to how it responded to the largely-white anti-lockdown demonstrations. In Michigan, armed (!) white protesters forced their way into the state capitol to demonstrate against the COVID-19 quarantine. Police did nothing.

Imagine if black protesters were armed.

(No easy) solutions

There are no easy solutions. Jonathan V. Last lists some of America’s problems for the conservative anti-Trump website The Bulwark:

  • Some police officers are bad at their jobs: because they’re racists, psychopaths or incompetent.
  • Bad police officers aren’t held accountable.
  • There is looting and rioting in American cities.
  • Law enforcement doesn’t handle protests well.
  • The president of the United States is deliberately stoking tensions.

But there are solutions:

  • Demilitarize the police. The sight of armored personnel carriers and body armor never calms things down. It dehumanizes the police and intimidates protesters, making it more likely that something will go wrong.
  • Institute community policing, ideally with officers who live in the communities they serve. In many black communities, too many (white) cops live out of town.
  • Explicitly instruct officers to deescalate first and use force as a last resort. Ban chokeholds and strangleholds. Require a warning before shooting. Restrict shooting at moving vehicles. This may sound like common sense, but it isn’t. (More here.)
  • Ban assault rifles, stun grenades and tear gas from crowd and riot control.
  • Break down the “blue wall of silence” that stops police officers from reporting on each other. Require officers to intervene if a colleague uses excessive force. Require officers to report all uses of force. Reprimand those that don’t.
  • Stop giving police unions everything they want. End problematic contract stipulations that makes it difficult to investigate officers and erase records of misconduct, in some cases after as little as two years. (More here.)
  • Fund nonprofits that help to reduce crime and improve communities. For every ten such organizations in a major city, murder rates fall 9 percent, violent crime rates 6 percent and property crime rates 4 percent.

It can be done

None of this is groundbreaking. Some of it has been known for fifty years, going back to the 1967 race riots. Many of these policies have been implemented in Canada and Europe. Some police forces and individual police officers in America have taken them to heart.

  • In Flint, Michigan, the sheriff put down his helmet and baton and asked protesters how he could help. When they chanted “walk with us,” he and his men did.
  • In Camden, New Jersey, the police chief joined the protests.
  • In New York, a cop deescalated a standoff by kneeling with demonstrators.
  • Officers in various other cities did the same.
  • When a rock was thrown at officers in Dallas, Texas, the police chief spoke with protesters, told them to stop and they did.

This is what good policing looks like.

The problems

What makes the rest of America different?

  1. Racism and white entitlement.
  2. Guns. American police officers are three times more likely to kill than their Canadian counterparts, and many times more likely than their European colleagues, but they are also more likely to be killed. So they are more likely to draw their weapon out of caution, which makes it more likely they will use it. American police officers are trained to kill whereas Canadians and Europeans are instructed to aim for the arms or legs.
  3. Politics. Democratic-governed cities have implemented police reforms and seen police killings fall. Republican-controlled suburbs and rural areas have not and seen police killings, and gun crime generally, rise.
  4. Misguided notions of toughness and strength, from the president’s desire to “dominate” his fellow citizens to police officers whose instinct is to reach for their teargas canister or firearm when they are disrespected or disobeyed rather than talk.