Opinion

What police reform requires

The military mindset must go

This is the editor’s letter in the current issue of The Week magazine.

The city of Newark, New Jersey, has long served as a symbol of urban decline, poverty, and crime. After the U.S. Justice Department concluded in 2014 that its police department was riddled with racism and brutality, the department hired more Black and Hispanic cops, trained cops on how to avoid violence, and began carefully reviewing every use of force. Bad cops were forced out. In 2020, Newark's 1,100 cops did not fire a single shot, or pay out a cent to settle police brutality cases. And over the past five years, crime has dropped by 40 percent. Police reform isn't quick or easy, but it's possible. It requires minimizing traffic stops, which are tainted by racism and often lead to violence, and ending the "comply or else" standard in police "warrior" training. Perhaps most importantly, says detective Patrick Skinner of the Savannah, Georgia, police, it requires police to live in the community and view citizens as "neighbors" rather than as dangerous enemy combatants in a war zone.

Skinner is a former CIA officer who spent a decade in counterterrorism efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. He moved back to his hometown to be a cop and was chagrined to find many fellow cops calling the people they police "civilians" — a tip-off to an Us-against-Them mindset. "We have to stop treating people like we're in Fallujah," Skinner says. "It doesn't work." What does work, he and other police reformers say, is for officers to see themselves as respectful public servants who must earn their communities' trust. Skinner says he constantly reminds himself to "slow down," to assess complex situations before acting, to see everyone — even people who commit crimes — as human beings deserving respect. For many police departments, these are radical ideas. But the alternative to reform is 1,000 more police shootings every year, endless rage and protests, and warfare in the streets.

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