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Too Little Has Changed About American Policing In the Last Few Decades. It’s Time For Something Different.

The killing of George Floyd demonstrates that incremental police reforms are insufficient in the absence of a comprehensive plan to transform law enforcement and its stated purpose.

Candles burn at a memorial placed where George Floyd was killed.Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.

The choking death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin—and the subsequent protests and unrest across America amid a pandemic and economic turmoil—have shocked the conscience of the nation. 

While I, too, watch the events in America unfold with rage and disbelief, I am not shocked. In 1997, I was a New York human rights activist who organized the first national conference on police brutality and misconduct, and hearings held by the Congressional Black Caucus. It was the height of the era of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, whose tenure was a nightmare for Black and Latinx New Yorkers with his reign of police violence, racial profiling, and stop-and-frisk tactics. I co-produced a documentary on NYPD brutality and worked with the victims of police abuse and their families, including Black and Latinx men, women, and children who were beaten, choked, shot, harassed, and humiliated by police officers, and, in the rarest cases, were brought to justice. In addition, I worked with human rights groups, legal defense funds, civil rights and liberties organizations, and judges and progressive law enforcement organizations to find solutions to an epidemic of abuse.

Little has changed since that time—or since the urban rebellions of the 1960s, which often were precipitated by “police actions” which “increased tensions and ultimately led to violence,” according to the 1968 Kerner Commission report.

That is not to say that police departments haven’t enacted reforms. Some law enforcement agencies have instituted body cameras, although some officers conveniently do not activate them when someone dies, as was the case in the recent police killing of David McAtee, a Black man in Louisville. And some departments, including in Minneapolis, have introduced implicit bias training, de-escalation training, and other measures. 

And yet, the killing of George Floyd demonstrates that these more incremental reforms are insufficient, at least by themselves, and in the absence of a comprehensive plan to transform law enforcement and its stated purpose. For that transformation to happen, law enforcement officials must realize that police violence is systemic, not the handiwork of a few bad apples. 

“Much of the public debate has focused on new and enhanced training, diversifying the police, and enhancing community policing as strategies for reform, along with enhanced accountability measures,” wrote Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College, in his book, “The End of Policing.” “However, most of these reforms fail to deal with the fundamental problems inherent to policing.”

Police have assumed the role of an occupying force for years in Black and Latinx communities, operating in these neighborhoods not to serve and protect, but rather to contain and control. The “us vs. them” mentality with which police regard protesters and citizens has only worsened with the increased militarization of police forces across the nation.  

There are several reasons policing has been slow to change. Police unions and the terms of their contracts shield them from accountability, and qualified immunity protects them from lawsuits. A lack of strong national guidelines for law enforcement or meaningful community control in most jurisdictions also leaves them unchecked.

Vitale and others have called for the defunding of the police and a shift to community-led programs, including healthcare, housing, and jobs for communities impacted by mass incarceration, crime, and police violence.

And racial justice and anti-police brutality organizations have made a host of proposals that call for a paradigm shift in American policing, alongside more immediate, incremental reforms—which, when added up, and if effectively executed, could provide safeguards against police violence and save lives in a system currently rife with flaws.  

In its policy platform, the Movement for Black Lives has proposed democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement, giving the communities victimized by policing the authority to control budgets and policies; hire, fire, and discipline officers; and issue subpoenas.

In addition, Campaign Zero, an anti-police violence organization, has called for constructive policies, such as an end to policing of minor offenses as well as “stop and frisk” and racial profiling, and an implementation of uniform standards limiting the use of deadly force. It also calls for independent investigations and special prosecutors that remove inherently conflicted local prosecutors from police violence cases—consider the appointment of Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison as prosecutor in the Floyd murder—and reformed federal law to allow more federal prosecutions of police killings. Widespread use of body cameras, a stronger public right to record police, and racial bias training of police officers would bring accountability, as would ending the profit motive in law enforcement practices—including eliminating fines and fees, ticket and arrest quotas, and property confiscation—and requiring that department budgets pay for misconduct settlements.  

Campaign Zero also advocates ending the federal government’s 1033 program—which allows local police departments to procure military equipment—and enacting local restrictions prohibiting law enforcement agencies from obtaining military weapons.

Meanwhile, Color of Change recommends making officer misconduct records and disciplinary histories publicly accessible, creating a national registry of officers recommended for termination because of misconduct, and responding to mental health crises with healthcare rather than police intervention, thereby reducing fatal police shootings.   

While proper training isn’t a panacea, it’s also still important. And President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing—which was designed to build trust between law enforcement and the community and strengthen community policing—said, “Law enforcement culture should embrace a guardian, rather than a warrior, mindset to build trust and legitimacy both within agencies and with the public.” The task force also recommended policies and practices based on “procedural justice” and “a culture of transparency and accountability to build public trust and legitimacy.” 

But high-level changes to training might not make much of an impact without more substantial restructuring of police unions and police departments. When Minneapolis banned warrior-style police training—instilling in officers that every encounter with a civilian could be their last—the local police union decided to still make the training available. 

The culture of police unions and the tone set by the White House also undermine incremental reforms. The Minneapolis Police Union president, Lt. Bob Kroll, spoke at a 2019 Trump rally, where he praised the president for “letting the cops do their jobs,” and criticized Obama for “the handcuffing and oppression of the police.” Trump has urged police officers and immigration officials to be “rough” with suspects, whom he referred to as “animals.” 

Color of Change has also urged elected leaders to refuse political contributions from police unions, who have enabled and encouraged police violence for years. “These unions are toxic, and they should be treated as such,” said Color of Change President Rashad Robinson in a recent statement. “Accepting their money is no different than accepting money from the gun lobby, or big tobacco. It’s a signal that you are on the side of white supremacy,” he added.  

And the protestations from some officers and their supporters that policing is a tough job belie the toxic and criminal culture of some departments, which act as a repository for domestic and sexual abusers and should not exist at all.  

As I heard the police helicopters, sirens, and gunfire in Philadelphia during the citywide curfew on the eve of June 1, the 99th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, I was reminded that these problems are rooted in centuries of history.

The U.S. never came to terms with its legacy of institutional and systemic racism, of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, and now it has come back to bite us. Among the first police forces in America were the slave patrols, which deputized white men in the South to monitor and search the plantations, prevent slave rebellions and escapes, and take Black lives without punishment. The patrols stopped slaves they found on the road and ordered them to produce a pass from their master to prove they were authorized to leave the plantation and weren’t breaking the law. Even today, policing has not shed that slave patrol mentality in Black communities. This is because society and its institutions have not divested from institutional racism and structural inequality, opting to reduce racism to a matter of bad people hurling epithets rather than systems of oppression, power, and privilege. However, as institutions do not exist in a vacuum and are led by people, it is necessary to educate society on this country’s history of slavery, race, and violence. A true transformation will come when law enforcement no longer views its mission as protecting property over human lives, monitoring and waging violence against low income and working communities, instilling fear, and suppressing social justice movements.   

Given the outrage over the ways police departments operate in communities of color and poor communities in particular, the time and the conditions are ripe for systemic change—not just the tweaking of a fundamentally broken institution.

Police use of excessive force against peaceful protesters and journalists in Minneapolis and across the country suggests the U.S. has reached a seminal moment in its history. Citizens are questioning the role of law enforcement because its current configuration has been rendered unsustainable. Now is our opportunity to take advantage of this turning point in history and transform policing, lest we repeat our mistakes and produce more George Floyds.   

David A. Love is a Philadelphia-based writer, commentator, and journalism and media studies professor. He writes for CNN, Al Jazeera, Atlanta Black Star, theGrio, and other publications.