Talking Points

De-fund or re-fund the police, small reforms are happening all over

Something quiet and unexpected happened over the weekend in Lawrence, Kansas, the town where I live: The city's new police chief announced a ban on no-knock warrants and chokeholds by the department's officers. The controversial tactics weren't used all that often — Lawrence isn't typically a hotbed of violent crime — so it's possible not that much will actually change, but the symbolism seemed a good way for the new guy to get off on the right foot in a Dem-voting college town. "This is just one way to help foster trust with the community," Chief Rich Lockhart told the local paper. 

It's a tiny victory for police reformers. But it's a victory nonetheless.

Those victories seem to be in short supply these days. The surge of violent crime in America has blunted the surge of public support that reformers experienced in the #BlackLivesMatter summer of 2020, after the violent, wrongful deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of law enforcement. There was a moment when Republicans — led by Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — expressed interest in some sort of reform. It seemed possible the doctrine of "qualified immunity" that largely protects officers from lawsuits over civil rights violations might be weakened, and public safety reimagined in ways to de-emphasize armed policing in favor of less potentially violent methods

The moment has passed, at least for now. Scott bailed on reform negotiations last year. The Supreme Court in October turned back a challenge to qualified immunity. 

And on Monday, President Biden unveiled a budget proposal that asks Congress for $32 billion in new spending to put more cops on the street. American police were never actually defunded, but the "defund the police" slogan has become so toxic that Biden and other Democrats are doing everything they can to prove their tough-on-crime bona fides. 

"We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police," Biden said earlier this month at his State of the Union address. "The answer is to fund the police. Fund them with resources and training they need to protect our communities."

So, a question: Has the BLM-inspired police reform movement failed? 

I don't think so. The opportunity for a sweeping national overhaul has passed, if it ever truly existed. But incremental, local progress is possible — and indeed, has been made. Lawrence isn't the only locale to take action: In the months after Floyd's death, half of America's 65 largest police departments banned chokeholds. The Justice Department did the same thing last year, after Biden took office. These small-scale examples are plentiful. And the public's awareness of police abuses is probably greater than it's ever been.

It's not enough, clearly. For reform advocates, Biden's budget feels like a setback — or maybe an example of misplaced priorities. For now, it seems, the tiny victories will have to suffice.