The Moment Must Be About Real Police and Justice Reform, Not Vague Hashtags

Police reform is not a taboo subject, nor is it a radical idea.

Photograph courtesy of Serichai Traipoom.

It’s time we had a centuries-long overdue national conversation about deep and meaningful police and criminal justice reform in the United States of America. In fact, this moment in which so many risk their lives to peacefully protest police brutality will mean next to nothing without it.

In recent years we’ve seen momentum around initiatives like body cameras, diversity amongst police leadership, and de-escalation training. The truth is that, at best, such reforms represent just the tip of the iceberg and, at worst, are cynical compromises which only serve to pacify concerns without getting to the heart of the issue of why so many black lives are ended at the hands of police officers—and many more still are blunted by America’s expansive prison industrial complex.

In a country governed by a constitution that explicitly protects the rights of protestors and the press, and has nothing to say specifically about the establishment of police, why have we been seeing police, dressed in riot gear, targeting protestors and journalists unprovoked? Why do we see those officers dispatched like an invading army while healthcare professionals in this country have been forced to fight a pandemic in ponchos and garbage bags? Why is it, in a country where the state is supposed to be legitimized by the consent of the governed, so few people seem to know who oversees the police in their local communities? How did we get to a place where so many feel that democracy offers us too few options to address the situation?

It is easy, and perhaps comforting to many, to think that this is the way police have always operated in this country—that it’s even a necessary feature of society. In fact, there wasn’t a single professional police force in this country for the first 62 years of its existence. The past 40 years have seen a massive, historic expansion of police funding and duties—often to the detriment of other community services, and yet often agreed upon by both Republican and Democrat politicians.

It is also easy for some to imagine that any plans for serious police reform are radical, untested, and nascent ideas—that they’re forged in the heat of the moment, too taboo for mainstream politicians or media to even seriously consider. In fact, alternatives have existed for decades, studied and advocated by academics, civic leaders, and even many who have worked inside the system. They work in other countries. And promising reforms are already being pursued by a new class of prosecutors in some parts of America which can be expanded, improved, and built upon in conjunction with deeper reform.

Would that really be so impossible? Well, in the past 10 years—when the reigning corporate buzzword has been “disruption,” altering the way we do everything from hailing a cab to ordering a burrito—why do we find it so hard to think big about disrupting the criminal justice system? It was ambitious for presidents to implement and undertake the development of programs like social security, medicare, and medicaid. But in the last 15 years, the United States has gone from existing under the leadership of a president who promised an “unconditional war on poverty” to being led by one whose expansion on the “war on drugs” has directly caused this country to have the largest prison population—larger than any other country in the entire world by both sheer size and per capita.

It must be noted that this shift was ushered in with a blast of purely racist political rhetoric including Jesse Helms’s “hands” ad to Ronald Reagan’s obsession with “welfare queens,” and beyond.

We should not obscure these things in brand-safe hashtags or meaningless social media actions. If we truly believe in democracy, we must live up to its responsibilities and have hard discussions about realities. We’ve failed for too long when it comes to police accountability.

The issue is, of course, expansive, but not untackleable. We leave you with some points to consider, and hope we all continue to learn, listen, and take action on the issues.

• As a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2018 conceded, “Accurate and comprehensive data regarding police uses of force is generally not available to police departments or the American public. No comprehensive national database exists that captures police uses of force.” In fact, nationwide data about policing, including statistics about corruptions, abuses and even police suicides (believed to be 50 percent higher than the average of all occupations), is basically non-existent. In an era of data, that’s a huge roadblock for journalists, scholars, policy makers and activists to fully address the situation. The Department of Justice already collects nationwide crime statistics, so why is data that might have anything to do with police accountability so vague and hard to come by?

• Still, the data we do have is telling. America’s 1033 program allows the transfer of excess military equipment to civilian police forces. One study found that if a police force acquires $2,539,767 worth of excess military gear, the number of civilian deaths at the hands of police doubles in that year. (The study also found increased military gear also leads to a higher number of pets killed by police, illustrating an increased dependency on violent solutions.) President Obama had rolled back portions of the 1033 program in 2017 through executive order, but President Trump essentially undid that order when he took office.

• “Many Americans think controlling crime is solely the task of the police, the courts, and corrections agencies,” reads a Presidential Commission report from way back in 1967. “In fact … crime can not be controlled without the interest of and participation of schools, businesses, social agencies, private groups and individual citizens.” Yet, in the 53 years since that was written, police budgets in major municipalities have ballooned, while support for social agencies, schools and other community programs have shrunk. In many cities like Los Angeles and New York, officials have proposed massive cuts to all other aspects of the budget in light of the pandemic except police.

• There is little patience left amongst activists for the “few bad apples” theory of police behavior, especially considering it can be so hard to get rid of those “few bad apples” in the first place. Take, as one example, the Florida cop Sgt. German Bosque who has been fired six times for a number of incidents that involve the finding of an empty bottle of vodka and a crack pipe in his patrol car to 16 allegations of assaulting citizens only to get his job back each time through arbitration clauses upheld by police unions. Other corrupt officers simply get fired by one agency only to get rehired by another nearby police agency. Former presidential candidate Julián Castro has long advocated for a national database of police officers who have been decertified to prevent such rehirings.

• We’ve come to a point in society where we all agree that mental health problems are an epidemic, but that conversation has to grow beyond wearing Instagram-friendly face masks as a form of “self-care” and reminders on Twitter to drink water and take deep breaths. Too often police are tasked with responding to mental health situations that should be handled by better-suited professionals. To fully respond to the crisis, we need to address the toll our current unequal healthcare and economic systems take.

• Sometimes anecdotes are helpful to fully understand the problem. In the early 1980s, the City of Miami Police Department had not hired a new police officer in five years. Then, thanks to Reagan-era policies, it was forced to double its police force in size by hiring 600 new officers in short order. In 1985, three drug smugglers were found drowned in the Miami River. It was eventually discovered that they had died at the hands of police who were found to be stealing from drug dealers to run their own cocaine ring. Eventually at least 10 percent of the entire police force was found to be corrupt and either fired or disciplined. It’s an eye-popping example, but ramping up police forces comes with unexpected consequences (often not so immediately dramatic, but insidious still), and we’ve known this for quite some time.

• There is also no question that, point blank, America’s failure to address police and criminal justice had lead to the death and dismantling of black lives. Black people are more likely to die at the hands of police officers. Black communities are more likely to be targeted by questionable policy policies like “Broken Windows” theory and “stop and frisk”. Black children are more likely to get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline, and black people are more likely to get caught up in our often-senseless system of criminal justice that has long since lapsed on its mission to truly rehabilitate.

Related: Justice for George Floyd: What to Read and What You Can Do