3 ways to reform America's police
Protests against police brutality continued across the nation through the weekend, sparked by George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody two weeks ago. Too many police departments and individual officers have responded to the protests by doubling down on the abuse — demonstrating to the world just why the protests were needed in the first place.
In Buffalo, two officers were charged with assault after knocking a 75-year-old man to the pavement, injuring him. In Philadelphia, a 30-year veteran of the force is being charged with clubbing a Temple University student. An Erie, Pennsylvania, officer was put on desk duty after he kicked a protester. In Atlanta, two officers were fired for using excessive force against a pair of black college students. In Virginia, a Fairfax County police officer has been charged with misdemeanor after repeatedly using a stun gun on a black man "without obvious provocation." The internet is flooded with videos of police in cities across the country unleashing tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and beatings on journalists and peaceful demonstrators.
The brutality has sparked new calls from the left to "defund the police." Some who use that phrase want massive reforms; others really do want to abolish police departments entirely. In Minneapolis, where the protests started, members of the City Council are ready to disband the police department and start fresh.
Certainly, events of recent weeks prove it is far past time to remake American policing.
We can start by dispensing with the "few bad apples" myth. In Buffalo, 57 officers quit the department's emergency response team to protest the charges against their colleagues involved in shoving the elderly man to the ground — and gathered to applaud the men when they emerged from the city's courthouse. In Philadelphia, the officer charged with assault was on the job despite having a notorious history of transgressive acts. In New York and Washington, D.C., police have beaten and teargassed protesters after "kettling" them, leaving them with no place to go. There are of course fine officers in every department, but these examples suggest the problems are widespread and deeply rooted in the culture, and solving them will require more than an extra few hours of diversity training every now and again.
The challenge is huge. What can be done?
Change how police do their jobs. This includes taking a close look at things like tactics, training, and equipment. Law enforcement budgets must be revamped, so that resources can be directed toward better, earlier methods of dealing with homelessness, drug addiction, and mental illness — methods that don't rely on men and women armed with guns.
City, state, and federal leaders should also consider reducing the number of punitive laws on the books. Eric Garner died at the hands of New York police because he was selling "loosie" cigarettes, far from a capital crime.
And when officers do meet the public, they don't need to be outfitted like an invading army. There is little reason for most departments to own mine-resistant vehicles — which were designed, after all, for the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In Congress, there are burgeoning efforts to demilitarize local departments by ending a Defense Department program that sends them surplus equipment.
Hold police accountable. As my colleague Bonnie Kristian noted last week, the Supreme Court is in a position to end "qualified immunity," a legal doctrine that protects police from liability for civil rights violations committed on the job. Ending this immunity is a start. Reform-minded police chiefs should also be empowered to root out bad cops from their departments. Right now they're all too often hampered by arbitration processes that return offending officers back to their jobs. When officers are fired, they should stay fired. They shouldn't be able to hop over to the next town or state for a new law enforcement job.
Curtail law enforcement's political influence. By now it is well established that police unions are a prime obstacle to reform: They negotiated the arbitration processes that keep bad officers on the job, and often veto other efforts toward accountability. Police unions "defend the narrow interests of police at the expense of public safety," Reason's Peter Suderman astutely observed last week. The argument for busting police unions is growing stronger by the day.
These efforts should result in smaller, more focused, and more accountable departments. It will likely be a long and difficult project, but every video of Americans being unnecessarily tasered, beaten, kicked, gassed, injured, or killed is more proof that the time for real police reform has come.
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