I started this current series to discuss what is wrong with our country and what we need to do to fix it. While I have discussed some of the topics that I will be including in this series, they have been included in other articles. In this series I will concentrate on a single topic. This will also mean that some of the articles may be slightly shorter than my readers have grown accustomed to, however they will still be written with the same attention to detail. This series will have no set number of articles and will continue to grow as I come across additional subjects.
The Change We Need: 5 Issues that Should Be Part of Efforts to Reform Policing in Local Communities
Transformation of police departments, their role and relationship to our communities requires a change in culture, accountability, training, policies and practices. It also requires strong leadership and transparency. Without organizing our communities and building power nothing will change.
Below are five issues that should be part of any effort to reform policing in local communities. This is not an exhaustive list but it’s a start. (Hyperlinks to resources are provided.)
1.Accountability and Transparency
The lack of trust for law enforcement that exists in so many communities is due in part to lack of accountability and transparency. Too many failures to indict officers and too many acquittals have left communities feeling that there is no justice. When someone is killed and no one is held responsible it not leaves people of color feeling vulnerable. To build trust, there must be consequences and the public must have information.
a. Accountability: Police departments should not investigate themselves. Nor should justice depend on prosecutors who rely on local law enforcement for evidence in cases they bring. Instead, accountability systems should be directed by the communities that police departments are supposed to protect and serve.
b. Transparency: Improved data collection and reporting practices are necessary to expose interactions with law enforcement and as a tool of accountability. There is no federal database tracking the number of people killed by law enforcement, use of force, or stop-and-frisks. Many local departments do not keep this important data either. Departments should collect and release this data to the public annually. The Center for Policing Equity is developing a database that 50 police departments have already agreed to use. President Obama’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing recommended that local police departments make all policies and data publicly available.
2.Excessive Use of Force
Data indicates that Black men are 21 times as likely as White men to be killed by law enforcement. Black women, Transgender people, Native American and Latinx communities are also disproportionately killed or assaulted by law enforcement. Racial disparities in use of force cannot be explained by disparities in crime rates. So what can you do? Demand that your local police department: (a) create strong community-centered accountability systems, (b) release and improve use of force policies, (c) release data on all law enforcement activities, and (d) improve training.
a. Use of Force Policies: There are no national standards on use of force, but some police departments have adopted policies intended to reduce excessive force. Such policies prohibit acts such as neck holds, head strikes with a hard object, and using force against persons in handcuffs.
b. Improved Training: Law enforcement should be required to go through racial bias training in addition to building skills in problem-solving, conflict mediation, and de-escalation tactics.
3.Discriminatory Stop-and-Frisk Policies and Practices
In New York City, data showed 81% of people stopped-and-frisked were innocent and 84% of all people stopped were Black or Latinx. In Chicago, Black people are 32% of the population, but 72% of all stops. Unfortunately, these policies and practices are not exclusive to New York City and Chicago. Does your local police department use these practices? If so, do they track data on such practices? Demand answers from your police department. Call for an end to targeting and profiling in communities of color.
4.Broken Windows Policing
Eric Garner was allegedly stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Alton Sterling was allegedly stopped for selling CDs. The Department of Justice concluded that the Ferguson Police Department overwhelmingly fined and arrested people, particularly Black people, multiple times for minor municipal code violations. These practices stem from the “broken windows” theory which asserts that addressing low-level “disorder” issues, such as broken windows, is necessary to prevent more serious crimes. However, many criminal justice experts have concluded that broken windows theory is actually just a form of “informal social control.” The practices that stem from broken windows theory, such as stop-and-frisk, disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities and there is no evidence that they are effective at reducing crime. What can you do? Read the recommendations offered by the Department of Justice in Section V of the Ferguson Investigation and talk to your neighbors about whether any of the recommendations are right for your community. Some recommendations include (a) the prohibition of ticketing and arrest quotas and (b) supervisory approval before someone can be arrested for “failure to comply,” “resisting arrest,” “disorderly conduct,” or “disturbing the peace.”
The majority of law enforcement training emphasizes technical and tactical aspects of policing. There is an insufficient amount of training focused on anti-racism, implicit bias, mental illness, age-appropriate responses, problem-solving, mediation or cultural competency. So, it is not surprising that many law enforcement officers are primed to perceive Black people as criminals and respond based on that stereotype. Recently, the Department of Justice announced that it would start training all of its officers on implicit bias. Is your police department conducting such training? If not, demand it! The Center for Policing Equity conducts training for free if your police department will share data.
These are just a few issues to get started on. Other issues to target include constant surveillance and targeting of Muslim, Black and Latinx communities; immigration enforcement by local police; undercover agents entrapping queer communities of color; and, the role of police in schools. There are more transformative changes that can be done to end the over-policing of our communities. For example, groups like SpiritHouse in NC and Safe OUTside the System (SOS) Collective are working to reduce reliance on police in their communities. Regardless of what you choose to take on, remember that the systematic oppression of Black people and other people of color can only be changed through organized collective action. In other words, keep exercising your people power!
How to Actually Fix America’s Police
Elected officials need to do more than throw good reform dollars at bad agencies.
George floyd’s death is the latest in a long series of brutal encounters between the police and the people they are supposed to serve. Police abuse has targeted people of every race and class, but members of vulnerable populations and minority groups, particularly young black men, are especially at risk.
This is well known. The solutions are also well known. Prior tragedies have resulted in a string of independent, blue-ribbon commissions—Wickersham (1929), Kerner (1967), Knapp (1970), Overtown (1980), Christopher (1991), Kolts (1991), Mollen (1992), and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing (2014)—to make recommendations for meaningful change that could address police misconduct. These groups have developed well-reasoned conclusions and pointed suggestions that are widely discussed and enthusiastically implemented—but only for a time. As public attention shifts, politics moves on and police-reform efforts wane. The cycle continues unbroken.
The problem America faces is not figuring out what to do. As an industry, American policing knows how to create systems that prevent, identify, and address abuses of power. It knows how to increase transparency. It knows how to provide police services in a constitutionally lawful and morally upright way. And across the country, most officers are well intentioned, receive good training, and work at agencies that have good policies on the books. But knowledge and good intentions are not nearly sufficient.
The hyperlocalized nature of policing in the United States is one factor here; the country has more than 18,000 police agencies, the majority of which (more than 15,000) are organized at the city or county level. Reforms tend to target single agencies. But it is not just the Minneapolis Police Department that needs reform; it is American policing as a whole.
What we desperately need, but have so far lacked, is political will. America needs to do more than throw good reform dollars at bad agencies. Elected officials at all levels—federal, state, and local—need to commit attention and public resources to changing the legal, administrative, and social frameworks that contribute to officer misconduct. As the University of Colorado law professor Ben Levin recently wrote, “Feigned powerlessness by lawmakers is common & frustrating. It reflects political cowardice or actual acquiescence in the violence of policing.” It’s time for that to change. Here is a blueprint for what they should do.
At the federal level, Congress should focus on three objectives.
The first is getting rid of qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a judicial doctrine that protects officers who violate someone’s constitutional rights from civil-rights lawsuits unless the officers’ actions were clearly established as unconstitutional at the time. As the University of Chicago legal scholar William Baude has persuasively argued, the Supreme Court has provided multiple justifications for qualified immunity—including that it is the modern evolution of a common-law “good faith” defense, and that it ensures that government officials are not exposed to liability without “fair warning” that their actions are wrong—but neither the Court’s historical nor doctrinal justifications can bear the burden of scrutiny. Nevertheless, as the Court has described it, qualified immunity “provides ample protection to all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law.”
The problem is that the Court has taken an inappropriately narrow view of what it means for a constitutional violation to be “clearly established.” Essentially, a constitutional violation is clear only if a court in the relevant jurisdiction has previously concluded that very similar police conduct occurring under very similar circumstances was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court has, for example, applied qualified immunity in a case where an officer standing on an interstate overpass shot at a fleeing vehicle, something that not only contravenes best practices, but that the officer was not trained to do, a supervisor had explicitly instructed him not to do, and was unnecessary because officers under the overpass had set up stop strips and then taken appropriate cover. Nevertheless, because no court had previously reviewed such conduct and found it to be unconstitutional, the Court held that any violation was not clearly established and, thus, that the officer could not be sued for his actions. In another case, the Court held that qualified immunity protected officers who, contrary to their training, their agency’s policies, and long-standing police procedure, rushed into the room of a mentally ill woman who they knew had a knife and had threatened officers—but was no threat to herself—without bothering to wait for the backup officers they had already called. When the woman predictably threatened officers with the knife, something she would not have been able to do had they done what they were trained and expected to do, they shot her. Again, the Court found that because no court had yet explicitly held such conduct unlawful, a “reasonable officer could have believed that [such] conduct was justified.” This ridiculous standard means that qualified immunity does not protect all but the “plainly incompetent”; it protects even the plainly incompetent. And these are just two of many egregious examples.
As a judicially created doctrine, qualified immunity could be modified or eliminated by federal legislation. There is broad bipartisan support for doing so. The right-leaning commentator David French and the left-leaning UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz have both made the case against qualified immunity. The American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Cato Institute, and the Alliance Defending Freedom are among the groups that have filed amicus briefs or called publicly for the end of qualified immunity. The onetime Democratic presidential hopeful Julián Castro pledged to “end qualified immunity for police officers so we can hold them accountable,” and Representative Justin Amash, a former Tea Party Republican who is now a member of the Libertarian Party, recently introduced the Ending Qualified Immunity Act. With this scope of support, legislating the elimination of qualified immunity should be an easy first step.
A second thing Congress could do is pass legislation to further encourage better data collection about what police do and how they do it. For example, no one really knows how often American police use force, why force was used, whether it was justified, or under what circumstances it is effective. No one knows how many high-speed pursuits have been conducted or why they were initiated; how many fleeing drivers have been caught, or the number of collisions, injuries, or deaths that resulted. Only one state—Utah—requires agencies to report forcible entries and tactical-team deployments. Neither the police, nor anyone else, can tell us how many people have been injured when taken into custody, how many people have been arrested only to be later released without charges, or how many cases local prosecutors have refused to file for lack of evidence, constitutional violations, or police misconduct.
Moreover, no state or federal officials know how many publicly owned surveillance cameras police have deployed or privately owned cameras they can access, or where those resources are allocated. No state or federal officials know how many internal or citizen complaints of officer misconduct exist, whether people were dissuaded from making a complaint or their complaint was ignored or minimized, or the ultimate disposition of the complaint and whether the offending officer was disciplined. These data are not the administrative minutiae of policing; this is basic information about the everyday actions of government officials that is crucial to ensuring that such actions are properly regulated. Voluntary data sharing, such as the FBI’s current National Use-of-Force Data Collection efforts, is clearly insufficient. Congress gave the Department of Justice the power to require agencies to provide information about the use of force, but the DOJ has never exercised that authority. The federal government can require agency- and state-level data collection, coupled with a robust auditing system to ensure that accurate data are provided. This, too, is not a matter of partisan politics. Democrats tend to believe that policing suffers from systemic problems, the type that better data collection can help address, but that perspective is gaining support among Republicans, too. Tim Scott, a Republican senator from South Carolina, and Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa, introduced the Walter Scott Notification Act, named after the man infamously shot in the back and killed by a North Charleston Police Department officer in 2017. Efforts like these are simply common sense.
The final thing the federal government should do is dedicate significantly more resources to supporting police training, local policy initiatives, and administrative reviews. Police agencies around the country regularly fail to meet what are generally recognized as minimum standards for use-of-force and arrest training, frontline supervision, and internal investigations. Some have a demonstrated pattern of violating the constitutional rights of their community members. Acting with legislated authority, the DOJ has intervened in a few of these agencies, mostly through consent decrees, assisted by an appointed monitor and enforced by a federal judge. While the DOJ cannot intervene in the actions of the more than 18,000 police agencies in the United States, Congress can instruct and empower it to offer technical assistance, identify conduct standards that can serve as references for courts in civil litigation, and provide a framework for responsive and democratically accountable community collaboration, opening additional avenues of reform. It cannot do any of that, however, if the presidential administration continues to seek to cut funding for such efforts. Congress could also better regulate the industry by requiring or encouraging clear, evidence-based conditions of accreditation, making them a prerequisite for federal funding and putting teeth into police-reform efforts by reducing or cutting off funding when agencies fail to meet those conditions.
State legislatures, which can often move much faster than the pace of national politics, have their own five objectives to focus on.
To begin with, 36 states have statutes that govern the use of both deadly and nondeadly force, while six states have statutes only for deadly force. More than three-quarters of the 58 total state statutes (some states have more than one) were adopted prior to or during the 1970s, and most have not been recently amended. In the absence of statutes, states regulate police use of force through judicial decisions. But even where state statutes do exist, the courts that interpret them unfortunately tend to rely on the Fourth Amendment law. This is a problem for two reasons. First, the Fourth Amendment regulates police seizures, but state law is supposed to regulate use of force, and not all uses of force count as seizures. (Several courts have held, for example, that an officer shooting at someone but instead striking a bystander does not constitute a seizure.) State law is supposed to be broader than the Fourth Amendment, which means that referring to Fourth Amendment doctrines in the interpretation of state law can provide less protection than state lawmakers intended. Second, and perhaps more important, those Fourth Amendment doctrines are a mess; they provide little meaningful guidance that officers in the field can use to determine when and how much force to use, and the guidance they provide to courts reviewing use of force is often flawed.
Worse, many of the state statutes and common-law doctrines are contrary to good practices. Some states allow officers to use force to make an arrest if they believe the arrest is lawful, even if it isn’t and their belief is unreasonable. Others are woefully outdated, and still provide a defense to officers who use deadly force to prevent the escape of a fleeing felon. And most states authorize officers to use “reasonably necessary” force, but do not bother to define what reasonable force is or explain how officers should determine that it is necessary. Very few states admonish officers to use appropriate tactics or punish officers for egregious mistakes that contribute to avoidable use of force.
States can do better. In the past several years, for example, both Washington State and California have amended their statutory regimes, giving officers the authority to use force in the situations that require it while also providing meaningful guidance to officers and courts about what those situations are. California allows officers to use deadly force against “imminent threats of death or serious bodily injury,” and says that an “imminent threat” exists when “a person has the present ability, opportunity, and apparent intent” to cause such harm. Definitions like this, which draw from best practices in policing, give officers the leeway to protect themselves and others while also prohibiting them from acting on unfounded or purely speculative fears.
State legislatures can also amend law-enforcement officers’ bills of rights and the laws that govern the collective-bargaining rights of police unions. Most states permit or encourage collective bargaining for police unions—even states that, like Wisconsin, otherwise take a dim view of public-sector unions. Police unions do some good work; research suggests that officers at unionized agencies are, on average, higher paid and more professional than officers at nonunionized agencies. However, unions have leveraged the collective-bargaining process to create labyrinthine procedural protections that can make it exceptionally difficult to investigate, discipline, or terminate officers. Some of the limits on investigation—such as delaying interviewing an officer after a critical incident for several “sleep cycles”—are based on faulty reasoning and have been thoroughly debunked by credible scientific research. Too often, discipline is precluded by unnecessary or inappropriate procedural violations; in some cities, for example, civilians can file a complaint only during a limited period after an incident, sometimes as short as 30 days. When officers are disciplined, that discipline is subject to grievance and arbitration procedures; at one agency, a study found that arbitrators “routinely cut in half” the severity of disciplinary sanctions imposed by agency management. Officers should have a right to appeal disciplinary findings, but only when they are arguing that the agency’s decision was arbitrary and capricious or that the agency did not act in good faith. By protecting bad officers, collective-bargaining agreements and state laws contribute to misconduct.
Further, state legislatures can do a better job of certifying and, when necessary, decertifying officers. Currently, most states require most officers to be certified by a standards-and-training commission. Such commissions set minimum training requirements, but state law can impose specific training that the state commission has, thus far, omitted from the academy curriculum. Washington State, for example, now requires both violence de-escalation training and mental-health training, and the commission must “consult with law enforcement agencies and community stakeholders” in developing that training. And while most states allow for decertification—which prevents someone who has engaged in misconduct from continuing to work in that state as an officer—that authority can be tightly limited. In some states, an officer can be decertified only after a criminal conviction for a felony or serious misdemeanor. Even in states that have more permissive decertification regimes, decertification is often used only sparingly. From the 1960s until 2017, only about 30,000 officers were decertified, and three states—Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina—make up about half of those. As the decertification expert Roger Goldman has said, that isn’t because those states have a higher proportion of bad officers; it is because those states “have very active decertification programs.” States have good reason to strengthen their commitment to policing the police: According to a recent study, officers who are hired by another police agency after being terminated or resigning in lieu of termination from a prior agency are more likely than other officers to engage in future misconduct.
A persistent culture of secrecy regarding personnel matters has not helped. Many states have sharply limited the public’s right to access officers’ disciplinary files or agency use-of-force investigations. Although there is, and must be, room for certain employee information to be kept confidential, an officer’s actions while dealing with members of the community and the steps that an agency takes to investigate those actions are clearly matters of public interest. The states that have passed broad sunshine laws, such as Florida, have taught us that public access can be a crucial component of police accountability without impeding proper police action. States that allow agencies to shred disciplinary records after a set period, sometimes as short as six months, are effectively making patterns of misconduct by problem employees significantly more difficult to detect. States should follow the lead of Florida and, more recently, California in passing public-records laws ensuring that disciplinary records and reports pertaining to critical incidents such as police shootings or other serious uses of force cannot be hidden.
Finally, states can rethink their approach to criminalization. “Overcriminalization” has been broadly discussed; there are so many laws that violations are ubiquitous. If everyone is a criminal, officers have almost unfettered discretion to pick and choose which laws to enforce and whom to stop, frisk, search, or arrest. And, as the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. For too long, the hammer of criminal law has been used against a wide array of social ills. The result is police over-involvement in matters that would be far better left to other government institutions and social-service providers, including school discipline, poverty, homelessness, and substance abuse. The opioid crisis remains a stark reminder that the United States cannot arrest its way out of addiction. The troubling discrepancies between how police have been cast as soldiers in the War on Drugs—a war that, despite almost identical drug-use rates between white and black Americans, is fought mostly in poor and minority communities—and how police have been seen as an adjunct to the public-health authorities addressing opioid abuse in suburban middle- or upper-class neighborhoods should be a stark warning for state legislators to rethink the scope of criminal law.
Local agencies, for their part, have much they can do. To get started, they should focus on five specific improvements.
Many agencies have accountability systems—so-called early-warning or early-intervention systems—that look great on paper but are neither followed nor audited. Since the 1980s, these systems have had the potential to identify officers before they engage in misconduct and allow supervisors to step in to prevent bad outcomes. Unfortunately, many agencies ignore their own protocols—the early-warning system becomes a meaningless administrative task—or supervisors assume that officers do not need any intervention unless they are flagged by the early-warning system. Neither error is acceptable, and both can be corrected.
The hyperlocalization of policing in the United States has resulted in many agencies either creating their own policies and training from scratch, often without the benefit of research or broad experience, or simply purchasing them from private vendors. Agency policies and training should do more to incorporate industry best practices and generally accepted principles. For example, a study of use-of-force policies at the 50 largest agencies in the country—agencies that have the time, resources, and depth of experience to get it right—shows that they are all over the board. Some merely repeat the constitutional standard laid out by the Supreme Court. Others add little more than an interpretation of constitutional law and an aspirational instruction to safeguard the sanctity of life. But it is entirely possible to adopt policies that touch on tactics and provide meaningful guidance for officers to follow in the field; we know because some agencies have done exactly that. Some have adopted policies that instruct officers to use the least amount of force that can be safely employed, and others have provided specific tactical guidance for officers making traffic stops, effecting arrests, or interacting with people who are mentally ill.
Another crucial objective is that officers must also be trained—meaningfully so—on their agency’s policies. The “read and sign” approach is an unfortunate reality; officers are expected to acknowledge that they have received new policies, but many agencies do nothing to ensure that they understand those policies. Sometimes agencies attempt to use technology to increase efficiency by, for example, having a command staff member read a policy aloud, posting the video online, having officers click the video link, and calling that “training.” It is no surprise when such “training” is ignored. We have all read too many depositions in which officers testify that they were not familiar with the content of an essential policy. Policy manuals are too lengthy for anyone to realistically expect officers to memorize the whole thing—an entirely separate issue—but when it comes to use of force, emergency driving, and a few other areas of low-frequency, high-risk activities, a more robust effort is required.
Of course, the best policies and training in the world will not mean a thing if they are not enforced. When the Phoenix Police Department adopted a body-worn camera system, for example, it had a broad mandatory recording policy that required officers to activate their cameras for almost all civilian interactions. A month after deployment, officers were recording only 42.2 percent of the incidents they were supposed to record; a year later, that number fell to 13.2 percent. The agency had the equipment and the policy; what it lacked was adequate supervision. Police reform lives or dies with first-line supervisors, and agencies need to ensure that corporals, sergeants, and lieutenants are doing the jobs they are paid to do. This, of course, requires agencies to train supervisors—a great officer does not always make a good supervisor—and to audit their decisions. In the same vein, agencies should invite external oversight. As government institutions in a democracy, police agencies must be responsive to community concerns, especially in the context of high-risk activities like the use of force and emergency-vehicle operations.
Police agencies also need to be much more transparent in the aftermath of high-profile incidents. Although certain information, such as body-worn-camera footage, may need to be withheld for a certain period to avoid contaminating crucial witness interviews, there is no legitimate justification for denying public access for months or years. The perception that police agencies are hiding embarrassing or inculpatory information is particularly destructive when agencies have readily shared video of interactions that reflect positively on the agency; nothing destroys public trust faster than a perceived double standard. As the authors of a book about police homicides, all officers or former officers, wrote: “Law enforcement agencies simply must find better ways to release more data, and to release it earlier.” At a minimum, agencies can adopt policies that presumptively mandate the release of video or other information a set amount of time after an incident, as the Los Angeles Police Department has done with its 45-day commitment. Many members of the public may see that as too long, and perhaps it is, but having a certain date will help prevent perceptions of a police cover-up.
Meaningful police reform is possible, but it will require a coordinated effort from federal, state, and local government. It will require sustained pressure from the public to push elected officials to take action. This will not be straightforward, nor will it be fast. And as the protests of George Floyd’s tragic, predictable death continue, it should be patently obvious that the country has no patience for the same old apologetic and half-hearted attempts at reform that we have seen previously. George Floyd, and all of us, deserve better.
10 big problems with policing, and approaches to addressing them
The death of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis officer didn’t just set off protests. It enlivened discussion about the future of policing, nationally and around Pittsburgh.
Renewed police-community tensions have flared on Mayor Bill Peduto’s home street, at the Squirrel Hill farmer’s market, in front of the East Liberty Target store, and in countless protests throughout the region.
The issues affect everyone, from grieving families to taxpayers.
The cost of federal court verdicts and settlements in 40 police use-of-force lawsuits within Allegheny County, since 2009, is poised to exceed $12 million, ultimately covered by taxpayers. Eight of those lawsuits stem from police-involved deaths of Antwon Rose II, Jennifer Piccini, Nicholas Haniotakis, Gary Beto, Lawrence A. Jones Jr., Mark Daniels, Christopher M. Thompkins and Bruce Kelley Jr.
A mayoral Community Task Force on Police Reform is expected to release its recommendations for Pittsburgh soon. Based on reporting by PublicSource and others, before and after Floyd’s death, here are 10 of the region’s policing problems, and approaches under consideration here, or tried elsewhere.
1. Not mayors, not chiefs, but arbitrators decide police discipline
Mayors and police chiefs can fire, suspend or otherwise discipline officers who break the rules — but may end up having to put them back on the beat if an arbitrator rules that the dismissal violated the terms of the officer’s union contract. In Pennsylvania, police discipline can, and often is, governed by collective bargaining and contract arbitration. Peduto says that thwarts efforts to change the policing culture. Union leaders argue that this is an important protection for officers and a bulwark against politicization of law enforcement.
Excerpt from the arbitration award of Jan. 9, 2020, resolving the contract dispute between the City of Pittsburgh and the Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge 1.
In Pittsburgh, the Fraternal Order of Police is even now wrestling with the city, in a Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board [PLRB] case, over changes the city made in the procedures that govern investigations into officers’ use of force.ction for officers and a bulwark against politicization of law enforcement.
Another approach: A matrix, instead of arbitration
Peduto has argued that state Act 111 — which governs contract disputes between municipalities and their police and firefighters unions — should be amended to remove discipline from the bargaining and arbitration process.
2. If officers rack up complaints, the public may not know
The Office of Municipal Investigations, the city’s internal affairs unit, releases only annual reports which don’t reveal whether there are blatant, repeat offenders in the ranks. The reports don’t provide enough detail to evaluate a system of investigation and discipline in which 549 forceful arrests coincided with just 27 use-of-force complaints to OMI and one officer punished (with an oral reprimand) for excessive force last year.
A new state law allows police departments to see the history of complaints against an officer who is applying for a job. But the act exempts such records from the Right-to-Know Law. In fact, if an officer is “adversely affected by the release of employment information,” they can sue the municipality and recover punitive damages. That means the public has little means of learning whether a department’s officers are racking up scores of complaints with impunity.
Another approach: Release de-identified data about accusations against police
Some cities in other states make information on complaints against police readily available. Minneapolis, for instance, has a detailed online dashboard that allows the public to easily search up the number of complaints, and the resulting discipline, against any officer on the force.
3. Civilian review of policing is criticized as ineffective
Remember the brawl at Kopy’s bar between Pagans motorcycle gang members and Pittsburgh undercover detectives? The Oct. 12, 2018 incident was a topic at the Sept. 22, 2020 meeting of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board. CPRB Executive Director Elizabeth Pittinger told the board that since the district attorney didn’t criminally charge the involved officers, and the police chief didn’t discipline them, there might be little for her agency to do. Board members discussed the possibility of a public hearing, and Pittinger says it’s coming soon, but two years after the incident, the CPRB still hasn’t taken action.
In Allegheny County’s suburbs, meanwhile, there is no system of civil review of police misconduct complaints.
Another approach: A stronger city board, and a new county board
A referendum question on the ballot in November will ask voters whether the city should compel officers to cooperate with CPRB’s investigations. The referendum would also require the police chief and mayor to review CPRB’s recommendations before making final determinations regarding discipline. If it passes, it could still face legal challenges if it conflicts with the city’s contract with the police union.
4. Suburban police budgets and procedures are uneven
While the city has recently been the site of protests, the deaths of Rose, Piccini, Beto and Kelly, all at the hands of police outside the city over the last decade, show that the use of deadly force is a countywide controversy. Rose’s death, especially, led to scrutiny of the wildly uneven pay, training and accountability among the county’s 100-plus police departments.
The Mon Valley epitomizes Allegheny County’s fragmented policing structure. Most boroughs and townships have their own departments, while East Pittsburgh is policed by the state, and Forest Hills covers Chalfant.
Another approach: Merge small departments
5. A badge may not solve a behavioral health crisis
Three of the deaths listed above (Piccini’s, Beto’s and Kelly’s) stemmed from police handling of incidents that appeared to start with mental or behavioral health problems, rather than any intent to engage in violent crime, according to lawsuits filed by their families. While Allegheny County offers Crisis Intervention Training to police, it’s far from universal and doesn’t always keep mental health outbursts from turning tragic.
Another approach: Address mental health problems with medical and social services
Pittsburgh is already working to expand a North Side-based effort to keep troubled youth out of jail. The Allegheny County Health Department is funding a Congress of Neighboring Communities effort to take the concept of Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (from the criminal justice system, to the social service system) to the suburbs. And it looks like the county may be preparing to do more to better address behavioral crises.
6. Traffic stops too often spiral out of control
In 2015, Pittsburgh police saw a Black man driving, and an officer referred to him insultingly and wondered if he was “lost or something.” The officer’s partner concluded he was “scared,” and they decided to stop him “just on principle.” That stop turned into a high-speed chase, at the end of which a 12-year-old girl was severely injured. The city has agreed to a $392,000 settlement in the resulting lawsuit. (Settlements are typically not admissions of wrongdoing.)
Excerpt from a motion filed by the plaintiff’s attorney, Alexander Wright, in a civil lawsuit in federal court alleging injuries to a 12-year-old at the end of a high-speed chase by Pittsburgh police that started with a traffic stop.
Black residents may be more likely to dread encounters with police, and in Pittsburgh, they are statistically more likely to face traffic stops. Last year the percentage of Pittsburgh traffic stops involving Black drivers easily outstripped the Black share of the population, according to the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police annual report. The same was true in 2018 and 2017.
Charts from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police 2019 annual report show that Blacks are more likely to be pulled over than whites.
Another approach: Shift traffic duties to unarmed civilians
One U.S. city is moving forward with removing police from traffic stops altogether. Lawmakers in Berkeley, Calif., approved a plan in July that would shift the responsibility from police to unarmed city employees.
The plan, which is believed to be the first of its kind, calls on the city to create a Department of Transportation to enforce traffic laws and parking rules independently from law enforcement.
Officials in Montgomery County, Maryland, are considering a similar approach — though they must first overcome the hurdle of Maryland state law, which says only sworn officers may enforce traffic law.
7. Surprise tactics can escalate situations
Portland made national news in mid-July when federal law enforcement officers began pulling protesters into unmarked vehicles. A month later Pittsburgh followed suit, when plainclothes police jumped out of an unmarked van and apprehended a protester. The tactic, which was captured in a viral video, prompted public outcry and questions about its constitutionality, and Peduto said it would no longer be used against peaceful protesters.
Another approach: Limit, or ban, plainclothes police
In June, New York City’s police department made a move that its commissioner, Dermot F. Shea, called a “seismic shift” in culture: disbanding many of its plainclothes units. According to the New York Times, Shea said the units were involved in a disproportionate number of civilian complaints and fatal shootings by police.
8. Black youth are treated like criminals in schools
As in many places in the U.S., Black youth in Allegheny County have been consistently overcriminalized by police, schools and the criminal justice system at large. A September report by the Black Girls Equity Alliance found that Black girls in Allegheny County are 10 times more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than white girls, and Black boys are seven times more likely to be referred than white boys.
Another approach: Remove police from schools
Since the death of George Floyd, several U.S. cities — including Minneapolis, Denver and Portland — moved to cut ties with police, citing the criminalization of students of color and a need to reevaluate their relationships with local police departments. In June, parents, activists and advocacy groups called on Pittsburgh Public Schools to do the same.
9. The policing budget is vast, and not fully disclosed
The Pittsburgh Bureau of Police operating budget is $115 million this year. That’s a little less than a fifth of the city’s overall operating budget, which experts told PublicSource is “on the light side.”
But that doesn’t account for all of the money the city spends on policing. The city’s capital budget, which funds major projects like new construction or repairs to existing facilities, includes other policing and public safety costs. Big ticket items in this year’s budget include $2.7 million for the relocation of the Zone 5 police station, $950,000 for upgrades to the Zone 4 station, $600,000 toward a new public safety training facility and $450,000 for security camera replacements and maintenance. The budget also allotted $376,000 to the Equipment Leasing Authority to purchase 16 police patrol motorcycles.
Another approach: Provide a comprehensive police budget — and further involve the community in the decision-making process.
Activists and lawmakers PublicSource spoke with called on the city to provide a comprehensive breakdown of its police spending and to make sure residents are included in the budget creation process.
10. Concerned citizens take a back seat in police policymaking
In June, while the image of George Floyd’s death was still fresh, a new Allegheny County Black Activist/Organizer Collective issued a dozen demands to Peduto and Fitzgerald, ranging from the removal of police from schools to the end of no-knock warrants and cash bail. Peduto then created a Community Task Force on Police Reform, and Fitzgerald’s administration later quietly launched an Allegheny County Crisis Response Stakeholder Group.
Peduto’s panel initially included one member of the activist/organizer collective, Brandi Fisher, but she dropped out. The county panel, as initially constituted, included members of three community organizations, but no established police accountability advocates.
Another approach: Get civilians involved in police policy long-term
In Los Angeles, police policy isn’t set by a chief or a mayor. It’s set by five commissioners, all civilians, who meet weekly and publicly. It’s now led by a former federal prosecutor but includes one social justice activist and an advocate for community-based organizations.
Since 2017, Seattle has had an inspector general, picked by a search committee and approved by the city council. Lisa Judge, the city’s current IG, is a lawyer with experience working with police departments, but is not a current or former cop. Not only does she audit the department’s performance, review complaints and suggest policy improvements, but she has “unfettered access,” per the city website, including at the scene of use-of-force incidents.
Similarly, Denver has, since 2005, an Office of the Independent Monitor, also headed by a civilian. That office in June agreed to investigate the Denver Police Department’s use of force in addressing the protests that followed Floyd’s death, a process which the city’s Department of Public Safety had reportedly committed to support.
America’s Policing System Is Broken. It’s Time to Radically Rethink Public Safety
In Minneapolis, the first days after George Floyd’s killing exist in memory as kind of a blur. Even so, the burning of the Third Precinct police station on May 28 was a signal event, and not only for residents of the south side, where Floyd was killed and so many buildings went up in flames. Five miles to the north, residents of the city’s other substantially Black area worried the chaos was coming their way. That night, Phillipe Cunningham, a city-council member representing part of North Minneapolis, drove around for 2½ hours without seeing any cops at all. They were hunkered in their stations.
In the void they’d left, a community stepped up. On Emerson Avenue, gang members took pride of place in the phalanx guarding the So Low Grocery Outlet, one of the north side’s only two super-markets. “We locked it down for seven nights,” says the Rev. Jerry McAfee, a Baptist preacher who works with gangs. Members of his patrol were identifiable by green and white bandannas and weapons not necessarily displayed. “Here’s what I can tell you,” McAfee says. “Fort Knox wasn’t guarded any better.”
In an integrated neighborhood a mile and a half away, unarmed residents in orange tees formed a perimeter around the other supermarket. Night after night, they challenged the white youths circling the block in pickup trucks without license plates, vetted unknown volunteers and—it dawned on more than one of them—edged toward an approach to public safety that might supplant the deeply flawed one that had provoked the mayhem around them.
What could replace the police? The question, until recently confined to activist circles, has been forced into national debate by a brutal logic: If the killing of Floyd truly left Americans with a resolve to address systemic racism in their country, shouldn’t the starting point be the system that produced his excruciating death? Almost two weeks after now former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck, the Minneapolis city council concluded that its police department was beyond reform and must instead be replaced. In a unanimous vote, the council embarked on a yearlong quest to produce a “new model for cultivating safety in our city,” explicitly steered by the desires of the people most oppressed by the current one.
If Minneapolis produces a new safety paradigm, the implications will be profound—reaching beyond the horror of police killings toward a rethinking of a criminal-justice system lamented by liberals and conservatives alike. If it fails, a status quo deeply rooted in the control of Black bodies will remain the norm, “and this will have been a nice little moment in history where we almost did something,” says Jeremiah Ellison, a council member for Minneapolis’ north side.
Residents’ safety hangs in the balance, and so does a movement so new, it still needs a good name. Though Minneapolis council members linked themselves to “defund police” by announcing their bold initiative while standing behind letters spelling out the protest slogan, their ambition can’t be summed up in two words, much less two words with the potential to be so easily misunderstood. To succeed, the movement needs a more precise slogan than “defund,” to capture an actual intention that has been all but impossible to articulate because it comes, for now, from another world, one that acknowledges that Black lives matter.
“We’re in a time of theorizing,” says Oluchi Omeoga, a co-founder of the Minneapolis activist group Black Visions Collective. “We’re trying to build a world that does not exist yet.”
In that world, the core mission of public safety is not enforcement but care, and a call to 911 is more likely to produce a specialist in the problem at hand than a police officer carrying a gun, 15 lb. of gear and the additional weight of three centuries of racialized law enforcement. The new system would look for solutions from the very communities that the old system regarded as the sources of problems and guide investment accordingly. Law enforcement would not disappear, not in a country with more guns than people. But the officers who remained would be highly professional and trained in an ethos of valuing life. They would be focused on solving people’s problems rather than locking people up and would work alongside those they serve.
Countless hours have been spent in the past few weeks discussing what has gone wrong in policing, but Minneapolis voters may take action as early as November, in the form of a referendum that would allow city lawmakers to continue exploring a new approach to safety. Everyone already knows it’s going to be hard. Camden, N.J., a city more than a thousand miles away, has been held up by many as an illustration of what the existing model can be. But the experiences of citizens there reveal not just the potential for real change but also the limits of what has been possible—at least so far—while still keeping residents safe.
“As an elected official, I will not make any decisions whatsoever that will decrease safety,” says Cunningham. “Everything that I do is about increasing the safety of the residents. And it is very clear that this system that we have now is not doing that.”
One thing the system does have is longevity. Today’s modes of policing in the U.S. can be traced back hundreds of years, and with them an understanding of why, in 2020, according to the database Mapping Police Violence, a Black person is three times as likely as a white person to be killed by police.
In America’s early years, towns protected themselves informally, with the help of a part-time night watch—though night watchmen were notorious for simply using their shifts to get drunk. The country’s first publicly funded police department started in Boston in 1838, with the primary goal of protecting property.
But in some places, “property” included human beings. “In this country, for the years that cover the 1600s to the mid–19th century, the most dominant presence of law enforcement was what we call today slave patrols. That’s what made up policing,” Harvard history professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad told NPR this year. These patrols were tasked with providing swift punishment for runaways and enslaved people who broke the rules, and assuaging the white population’s fear of a revolt.
Long after the Civil War, sheriff’s departments administered slavery’s post-bellum by-products, segregation and Jim Crow oppression. During World War II, after thousands of African Americans moved to Oakland, Calif., to find work in the shipyards, the city responded by recruiting Southern police officers. In the postwar boom, redlining—which prevented home loans from going to Black people—enforced segregation of neighborhoods and denied Black people homeownership, the primary route to middle-class wealth. Maintaining that system reinforced the imperative of the slave patrol: vigilant oversight of a population perceived as threatening despite, or perhaps because of, its being oppressed.
The modern civil rights movement in the 1960s changed laws but not the fundamental nature of policing. Black and brown people have been disproportionately targeted by programs like the New York police department’s street-stop effort known as stop and frisk, which a federal judge ruled in 2013 was used in an unconstitutional way. The past few months have served as a searing reminder of how those dynamics play out in today’s society. As protesters took to the streets, speaking out against racism and law-enforcement violence, some departments seemed to prove their point; in New York City in May, police drove an SUV into a group of demonstrators. In Philadelphia, police teargassed protesters trapped in a channeled roadway.
The recent “militarization” of local police—with departments nationwide receiving armored vehicles left over from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—obscures more than the faces of officers: the truth is, cops rarely confront violent crime. Cadets spend most of their average 21 weeks of training on defensive tactics and firearms. But time-use studies find that patrol officers mostly deal with traffic, medical calls, accidentally tripped burglar alarms, arguments and the like. In 1999, when Baltimore was called the most violent city in America, its mayor said its police spent 11% of their time on crime, half of that not serious. In smaller places, studies have found that all crime occupied 7% to less than 1% of an officer’s time.
“There’s a mismatch between how we’ve constructed cops and what they actually do,” concludes New York University law professor Barry Friedman in a 70-page paper he wrote in March, titled “Disaggregating the Police Function.”
Officers are not only unequipped to handle what former Milwaukee police chief Ed Flynn has called the “intractable social problems that are dumped in the laps of our 25-to-30-year-old first responders.” They also often arrive heavy with the tools of forceful control: baton, Taser, firearm. Thanks to redlining and its reverberations, the neighborhoods where those social problems tend to run especially deep are often those where Black and brown people have been confined. And as Phillip Atiba Goff, a co-founder and the CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank focused on addressing racial gaps in law-enforcement impacts, points out, they are also the areas that tend to be highly policed: Black and Hispanic people are more likely than white people to have multiple interactions with the police.
It’s a dangerous mix and has left many minority communities with scant reason to view the police as allies. Especially in the years since smartphones made it easy to share high-quality video, the world has been treated to a view of a problem that is much older than that technology, whether it’s an officer caught on camera shooting someone in the back or using a choke hold: such incidents define policing for Black Americans. And beneath the headline-making moments caught on video lie policies from the Fugitive Slave Act to stop and frisk.
That history is a large part of why many activists and academics alike have come to believe that the relationship between Black Americans and U.S. police can’t be solved with incremental change. “The community brings its problems to the police to work out solutions within the community, but the police don’t have any of the tools that we really need to solve these problems,” says Alex Vitale, a professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The End of Policing, which argues that reform, training and department diversity don’t go far enough. (A study released in July found that diversity on a force did not in fact lead to less police violence.)
But changes on a nationwide scale will be challenging. There are around 18,000 police departments in the U.S. There is no real federal oversight when it comes to policing agencies. Police departments across the country look mostly the same because, by and large, it has been assumed that there is pretty much one way of doing things.
“If we go down this path to re-examine what policing looks like, we need to make sure we know what really works. We need to look at what our potential outcomes will be,” says Joseph Schafer, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at St. Louis University. “If you were going to sit down and create a policing system from scratch, it wouldn’t look like what we have right now.”
The citizen patrols left the streets of North Minneapolis when the police returned. But for several days after, McAfee was still hearing from gang members, looking not for trouble but its opposite. “Most of the guys that we work with, they love this community,” he says. “They was still calling, showing up, ’cause they needed purpose.”
On the city council, Cunningham and Ellison were not the only members who saw opportunity in the unrest. The Minneapolis police department (MPD) was deeply troubled, and activists had been beating the drum for change. In 2017, on the 150th birthday of the force, a group called MPD150 published a history of the department’s brutal treatment, including the 1990 killing of 17-year-old Tycel Nelson, shot in the back as he fled, and the 2015 death of an unarmed Jamar Clark, which prompted weeks of protests. One chapter called for abolishing the department in favor of “community-led safety programs.”
That once radical notion had already been gaining traction among academics. Two years after serving on President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Yale Law School professor Tracey L. Meares wrote that “policing as we know it must be abolished before it can be transformed.” Researchers at other major universities gathered at the same conclusion.
“It’s all broken in policing,” says NYU’s Friedman. “We have decided to treat the police as a one-size-fits-all remedy for everything that’s wrong.” Friedman argues that most of the duties that have accreted to police would be better dealt with by someone else, including traffic enforcement (which parts of New Orleans have awarded contract rights to a civilian firm to handle), care of the homeless (fielded in Denver by volunteers), drugs (more widely understood since the opioid crisis as an addiction grounded in despair) and mental-health crises (which Eugene, Ore., has dealt with since 1989 using counselors from a nonprofit that fields some 20% of 911 calls).
Mental illness accounts for a growing share of the jail population nationwide. That, in turn, argues for a public-health approach to safety, says Ebony Morgan, whose father was killed during an encounter with police in Eugene in 1996. A registered nurse, she works with the CAHOOTS program (short for Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets), which last year sent a crisis counselor and a medic to 24,000 calls. “If you have the option that doesn’t have the potential to escalate into something fatal, that is just so important,” she says. “It’s about trying to shift that lens back to the community responsibility, for folks to acknowledge that the way that we as a society treat people will have an impact on the rest of their life, and maybe even its duration.”
In her classes at Johns Hopkins University, political scientist Vesla Weaver presents two charts comparing the world’s most developed countries. The first shows spending on social welfare. “The U.S. is way out there in the stingiest part of that graph,” she says. “Then on the other side, I show public-safety expenditure. We are way out on the extreme other end.” Her point is a stark one: reorienting police funding “almost involves a recharacterization of the American state.”
That may well be the idea embedded in the assertion that Black lives matter. And like the movement that carries the name, the new safety paradigm percolated from the grassroots. Weaver says the closest things to a pilot program were efforts, undertaken over the past five years in poor neighborhoods in Chicago and Baltimore, that relied on a community’s own self-knowledge. “This is what safety really feels like,” she says. “It doesn’t mean the police. Us harvesting our own things. Us being mentors to young men in our neighborhoods.”
This, then, was the positive alternative taking shape when Floyd’s death abruptly pushed open the door to new ideas. But dipping a toe in the waters of change has proved ill suited to the outraged anger that has swept across the country since late May. Calls to “defund the police” rose to the top—for some, shorthand for the argument that public funding spent on law enforcement would be better spent on social services, but for others an idea that raises the specter of complete lawlessness. In a few places, the battle cry has been taken literally: the Los Angeles police department’s budget was cut by $150 million, the NYPD’s by $1 billion. The amounts may be invested instead in social programs, perhaps even for more than a fiscal cycle.
But only the City of Lakes appears intent on what its city council terms a “transformative new model for cultivating safety.” The Minneapolis council’s June 12 resolution called for a full year of study, “centering … stakeholders who have been historically marginalized or under-served by our present system.” After moving very quickly—“It all just happened so fast, to be honest,” says Cunningham—the idea is to proceed deliberately and consult widely.
“The only way we can solve this problem is, you gotta talk to me,” says Olivia Pinex , who was working at a south Minneapolis food bank on one recent day. “There’s a lot of solutions inside the community, but the problem is the police officers want to kill us first and then talk to our family. How about we talk first?”
No matter how that conversation goes, nothing substantial can happen without a change in the city charter. Getting a referendum to that effect in front of voters is a complicated process, opposed by Mayor Jacob Frey, who would lose line authority over the police department—and by the powerful police union. Also working against the council is a wave of violence: “gunfire incidents” in Minneapolis were up 224% in June and 166% in July, compared with a year earlier. At the moment, voters may feel they face a choice as stark as the contrasts on display along the corridor of Lake Street, where the plywood on storefronts alternates between elaborately rendered messages of aspiration (Unlearning Whiteness) and desperate pleas (Don’t Burn and Kids Live Here). With nothing in between.
“The people who stoked this fire of ‘defund,’ they need another way to say it,” says Houston White, who owns a luxe barber-shop on the north side. “It’s a PR and narrative nightmare. This is such a fragile discussion.” White, for instance, says he would prefer that a call about a loud stereo not be answered by “an officer with his hand on a gun.” But he also remembers his troubled youth and says the threat of arrest helped scare him straight.
In truth, not even activists who call for “abolition” expect the police to vanish. “I don’t think that the Minneapolis police department will be gone even next year, even in five years,” Black Visions Collective’s Omeoga says. “But it’s a transition. We know that this system is not working for us.” If a referendum to change the city charter does pass (or if the process takes so long that the question doesn’t get in front of voters until November 2021), the council will have more time to try to bring around skeptics, some of whom are indignant at not being consulted already. One is McAfee. The preacher casts the Black Lives Matter generation—intersectional and independent and often younger—as at once naive and rigid.
And yet McAfee seems to be on the same page as many Black Lives Matter activists. He arrived at his interview with TIME in sweats, having rushed to a home where a gang member was on the edge of violence. He had organized volunteers to stand between protesters and the north side’s own police precinct, and Minneapolis police confirm asking him to provide security at George Floyd’s memorial service. Years ago, McAfee says, “we had an on-call thing” that brought a “community-response team” to hospitals to head off retaliation after someone in the neighborhood was injured by another. That program was successful, he says, because the people have learned what works—they had to, given the risk of summoning police.
“What we’ve done for years is what the hell they’re talking about doing,” McAfee concludes.
It’s not so easy to formalize such arrangements into a municipal system. A buy-in from the current police chief would help (though it is highly unlikely, given his obligations to the mayor). As a Black veteran of the Minneapolis department widely admired for his efforts to change its culture, Medaria Arradondo is cited by activists as proof that the problem is the system, not individuals. But there will still be a place for cops in a new paradigm, and Cunningham recalls telling Arradondo, “I want you to know that while I don’t necessarily believe in reform, I believe in you. So if you could build your ideal force, if you did not inherit this system, what would that look like?”
Some have been looking east—to Camden, N.J., widely regarded as the current exemplar of change in urban policing.
There, Pyne Poynt Park, home of the North Camden Little League, presents a clear view of the Philadelphia skyline. On a mid-July day, as temperatures inched above 90°F, Bryan Morton, a community activist who runs the league, offered a group of his older players reminders from the sidelines as they warmed up and got ready for practice: “Don’t forget the pitching machine. Y’all know the layout.” Morton started the league in 2011 in response to the high crime rates in Camden, as a way to give kids something to do. At the time, he says, none of the parks in the neighborhood were safe for kids to play in.
The ball field’s waterside position is a little removed from Camden’s downtown, but the problems within the city had their way of reaching the park. Sometimes when it was time for practices to start, drug dealers would still be using the same space to sell. “Shoot-outs were common; high-caliber weaponry was the norm,” he says.
At around the time when the league was launched, Camden, which is majority-nonwhite and nearly half Black, was one of the poorest cities in the state, with a 2012 median household income of about $22,000 and a poverty rate of about 40%. It also had among the highest crime rates in the country. Even so, says Morton, the members of the city’s understaffed police force spent their time in their cars or planted behind their desks.
“When you think of shootings, you think they happen in the evening or at night,” says Wasim Muhammad, a lifelong resident of Camden and minister of its Muhammad’s Temple of Islam No. 20. “We started having gunfire in broad daylight downtown. It was just out of hand.” And, he says, the police weren’t helping. In his view, the department was like a structure too unsteady to be worth shoring up: “Sometimes a building can be so damaged it’s not that we’ve got to repair the building; we’ve got to tear the building down and start a new one.”
Which is, essentially, what the city did. At the time, its budget was already running at a deficit, and statewide financial issues led then New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to cut state aid that paid the salaries of hundreds of Camden city workers. Nearly half of the police department was laid off in 2011, and because the union was unwilling to negotiate pricey elements of their contract, no new officers were hired. When 2012 saw an all-time-high murder rate, the county and local government had the leverage to disband the department entirely; even the union couldn’t stop the move, not that it didn’t try. The department relaunched in 2013, under county control rather than the city’s. Many of the laid-off officers were rehired for the revamped department. Also new: when the department reunionized, it was under new leadership—leadership that Camden County communications director Dan Keashen says is committed to working with the local government to keep costs reasonable.
County freeholder director Louis Cappelli Jr. and former Camden mayor Dana Redd say they had two main objectives when they relaunched the department: reduce the crime rate, and make citizens feel safer. For Redd, a Camden native, this meant making sure residents had a voice in what the department would look like. “That’s probably the side that I’m very proud of, because while we were going through the difficult times in Camden, I spent quite an enormous amount of time meeting with the community, communicating with people,” Redd says. “I wanted to assure them that we weren’t going to quit because the going got tough.”
One thing the new department didn’t immediately solve was use of force and discrimination. As part of a major investigation of policing in New Jersey, in 2018, NJ Advance Media combed through data from every local department in the state; Camden’s use of force from 2012 to 2016 was on the high end. The investigation found a spike in complaints after the county took control and as crime began to drop; the vast majority were dismissed by the department. And even adjusted to account for population, a Black person in Camden was 8% more likely to have a police officer use force on him or her than a white person was.
Those numbers only started to change later. In 2014, the department instituted an “Ethical Protector” training program, after which excessive-force complaints began to fall, and about a year ago the department stepped it up with a new use-of-force policy—vetted by the Fraternal Order of Police and ACLU alike—that authorized deadly force only “as a last resort” and that was touted as a potential model for better policing nationwide.
Today, in Camden, officers have a mandate to de-escalate as often as possible. The department uses a virtual simulator to train officers to handle a wide variety of situations, from a homeless man who refuses to budge from in front of someone’s garage to a distressed man ready to throw his child off a bridge. In that training, whatever the scenario, the officer’s goal is to preserve life. The simulator isn’t the only technology in which the county has invested. The department can monitor blocks that are overdue for a visit and keeps tabs on whether officers are lingering in their cars or walking the streets. It reviews body-camera footage from the streets, studies it and tries to correct any mistakes officers might have made.
Joseph Wysocki, who was part of the old department, has served as the new department’s chief since 2019. His goal is to get his officers to build relationships with the citizens whose safety is their job. “You have to work with the community. It’s not us vs. them, it’s us together,” he says. Wysocki proudly recounts a department barbecue at which a local kid at first had to be cajoled into asking an officer for a plate, only to later be spotted playing basket-ball in the street with that same officer.
Some evidence in favor of the relaunch is not just anecdotal. Murders are down 63%, and robberies are down 60%. Overall violent crime is down 42%. It’s hard to pinpoint cause and effect here: these shifts took place in the context of a national period of economic growth, which reached Camden too, to an extent, as the poverty rate sank by over 5% by 2019. The unemployment rate, 10% in early 2012, came down to 4.4% by the beginning of this year; though the exact link between economic conditions and crime has proved hard to pin down, a certain amount of improvement in safety may be mere correlation. But some community members, like Morton, say the new police force has helped the city get there. And the park where his Little Leaguers play is no longer a drug-trade hot spot.
“Before the change, the police department did not care about our safety,” Morton says. “When they made the transition, they built partnerships with members of the community.”
That Camden is home to a community is plain to see. Its residential areas look worn down, but people who walk the streets wave to one another. Morton knows, however, that this community was skeptical about whether the relaunch would bring the needed change. To him, just as the police had to be held accountable, the people had to be open-minded about the possibility of moving beyond the past.
To others, seven years under new management has not resolved that skepticism. For one thing, the department still does not ethnically reflect the city it is protecting. “There is one Black captain,” says the Rev. Levi Combs III of Camden’s First Refuge Progressive Baptist Church. Metro police officers are disproportionately white, and most don’t live in the city. Combs dismisses the department’s rebirth as primarily a financial decision—city officials estimate they could be saving up to $16 million a year with the department under county control, in part by escaping perks that were baked into the old contract, though the savings in early years were not in fact as high as predicted—and the supposed community buy-in as mere window dressing. “It’s marketing the city of Camden to attract more white people and more affluent people,” he says. “We have a lack of jobs, homeownership, lack of education resources.”
Advocates of a new safety paradigm see Camden as a case study in the boundaries of reform. Freed of a recalcitrant union and trained to prioritize life, police may well be seen as less of a threat by the community they are meant to serve, they say. But that’s a long way from a transformational model of safety built not around policing but instead around investment in the lives of Black citizens, who for decades were viewed as a source not of solutions but of threats. “There is no investment in our community,” says Combs.
Sure enough, even as Camden’s experience has become the go-to example of revamped policing, the defunding movement has hit there too; after all, when the department was reimagined, the size of the force increased. While Wysocki acknowledges that Camden’s original police department was essentially “defunded” when it was shut down, he worries that a national movement to shift dollars away from law enforcement may hit departments in their budgets for officer training, the very aspect he believes has contributed to his city’s turnaround.
Camden shows that it’s possible to hit restart on a police department and to have public safety improve after such a move. But the city also shows that such a drastic change doesn’t guarantee a fix—and, perhaps, that there’s little reason for a department to wait to be defunded before it starts prioritizing the people it’s meant to protect.
This critical moment for the future of public safety is not America’s first. “We have been in crisis around policing before, and very little changes,” says NYU’s Friedman. “And I’m going to be extremely disappointed if we find ourselves in disappointment several years down the road.”
Thousands of people have taken to the streets across the nation protesting police brutality and systemic racism. At the same time, violent crime has surged in some cities. The usual summertime bump in crime may well be compounded this year by a pandemic that has left millions of Americans out of work-—Camden’s unemployment rate is even higher than it was in 2012—and, some officials have suggested, by slowdowns from some police forces unhappy at being publicly vilified. (Police departments tend to say they’re not slowing down, just overwhelmed.) But the residents of poorer neighborhoods are the ones who stand both to lose and to gain the most. And the recent violence is both ammunition for those wary of too much change too quickly and a reminder of the need for a public-safety solution that actually works.
“Some people look at [the new paradigm] as the removal of trained officials to deal with violent incidents,” says Goff of the Center for Policing Equity. “Police can help communities stay safe from the violence of crime. They can’t protect the community from the violence of poverty. Being poor is violent.”
If this summer proves to be a time for progress on the problems that make everyone feel less secure, the protests and the pandemic won’t be the only things that set 2020 apart. For some activists, it finally seems possible to take that difficult step forward on the unspoken but perhaps more crucial counterpart to “defunding” the police: funding communities to help them protect themselves. If one side of the coin is on display in Camden, the second side is not yet minted.
“I think that some of these words are easy to misinterpret,” Goff says of the effectiveness of defunding as a catchall term for what needs to happen. “I’m interested in having a brand-new conversation on what public safety looks like. I care more about making sure that vulnerable communities have the resources they need so they don’t have to call the police in the first place.”
There’s an appetite for that in Minneapolis. Betty Davis, a chemical-dependency technician who lives in nearby St. Paul, is eager for the Minneapolis city council to move ahead. “Do something: classes, seminars, something in the community so we know how to step in,” she says. “Educate the community. Get it together. One chord.”
The challenge—for Minneapolis, or whatever jurisdiction fashions what will amount to a test run for the new paradigm—is to find both the language and the structure that works for everyone. There is an elegance to the idea: use the mantle of “public safety” to funnel resources into the community that needs them, and knows how to keep itself safe, and in doing so will make others feel safe as well. No less important, “the state” can begin to remake its historical dynamic with the Black community, by leading with something other than a gun.
In researching his book Uneasy Peace, which seeks to account for the dramatic decline in urban crime rates over the past two decades, Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey came upon one telling contributor: for every community nonprofit set up to confront violence, the local murder rate dropped by about 1%.
“I think a model of public safety that starts with care or concern is exactly right,” says Sharkey, “but it also has to be carried out by people who understand how to create safe streets, who are trained, who are trained to shift their work and their practices so that they’re not dealing only with people who walk through their doors but are instead looking out and saying, Where are the problems in this community?”
On those safe streets, nonprofit organizations, local community groups and neighborhood leaders will be empowered to take charge of situations. A social worker with proper training and funding will respond to a non-violent call, instead of a cop with a badge and a gun. If there’s fear of potential violence, an officer will accompany the social worker and be available should the need arise, perhaps waiting at the curb. And if the streets are ever going to be truly safe, while all this is going on, people motivated by care and concern will be working behind the scenes to address the underlying issues that gave rise to the problem in the first place.
“There are going to be lots of places where it’s a disaster, I’ve no doubt. And there are going to be places where there are really bad outcomes,” Sharkey says. “I think what we have to recognize is—that’s already happening. That’s going on right now. We’re not working toward a utopia. We’re working toward a different model that will, on average, produce different outcomes.”
After hundreds of years of cities and their police departments doing the same things and getting the same results, any different outcome is a big ask. But it’s a future worth imagining.
Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police
Why Police Training Must be Reformed
On February 9, David Joseph, an unarmed African American teen, was killed by a police officer in Austin, Texas. Joseph, a student at Premier High School, had plans to further his education in college this coming fall. Joseph is just another victim of a larger national trend that needs to be reversed. In 2015, 224 unarmed Americans lost their lives at the hands of police, of which 57 percent were African American or Latino. While it is important to recognize that police officers have a dangerous job, it is also important to realize that they take an oath to serve and protect their community. Killing unarmed citizens is a violation of that oath. Police departments across the nation are currently reforming their policies to reduce excessive use of force by reforming their training to focus more on de-escalation tactics. Whether this will successfully change the perception of police officers from one of warriors to one of guardians has yet to be known.
Some people believe that stressing individual instances of excessive use of force trivializes the work of an officer. They point to the numbers released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics that indicate only 0.5 percent of the 44 million Americans who interacted with a police officer suffered threats or experienced force. But statistics like these miss the point. Relations with the police in communities of color have always been strained by the history of brutality. Contemporary instances of police brutality reinforce this strained relationship. White Americans, unaware of this history, are eager to write them off as isolated incidents rather than acknowledging modern-day discrimination.
African Americans aren’t the only demographic with a historic distrust of the police. The racial context of a city is extremely important for how citizens, black and white, evaluate the police. Police in majority-black cities are held more accountable by white residents than the police departments in majority-white cities. Community-police relations tend to be worse in majority-black cities because white residents gave the police department lower marks.
No one denies that police officers have highly stressful jobs. Police officers attempt to maintain law and order in a country that is overflowing with guns. The stress from this can result in heightened cynicism, excessive aggression, and even temporary memory loss. To reduce this stress, some police departments are now instructing officers to slow down the situation and call for backup. But many police officers feel that calling for backup is a sign of weakness.
Police training is also problematic. Currently, training focuses too much on firearm skills and omits vital exposure to non-lethal weapons and conflict management. The median time of basic recruit training is 18 weeks, not counting field training. Nationally, police departments spend an average of 60 hours on firearms training and 44 hours on self-defense. Less deadly weapons, like Tasers, can be alternatives to guns. But agencies only provide an average of 8 hours of training for Tasers, which is only 25 percent of the necessary training required according to manufacturers.
The ability to defend oneself is an important skill for police officers to have. But the emphasis on firearm skills and self-defense should not compromise the training on mediation skills and conflict management. Police departments only offer an average of eight hours in mediation skills. Moreover, only 39 percent of agencies mandate that all officers go through conflict management training. The importance of conflict management cannot be underestimated. Police officers need to have the necessary training and knowledge to manage their emotional and physiological reactions, particularly in high stress situations.
Instead of viewing police officers as guardians of a community, the rhetoric around the police often revolves around a warrior image. The political discourse during the so-called “War on Drugs” painted police officers as foreign occupiers in communities where they waged an ever-lasting battle against the enemy, which included all residents. But this warrior mentality obscures an important part of policing: the interaction between police officers and the community. People care more about how they are treated by the police than about falling crime rates. When a police officer views himself as a guardian, he or she cares not only about reducing crime but also protecting the residents. King County in Washington State developed the LEAD model to supplant the warrior mentality. Under this model, office training emphasizes listening and explaining the decision-making process to residents. The key of the LEAD model lies in diverting drug offenses into social services instead of relegating them to the criminal justice system.
This cultural shift from warriors to guardians can be observed in policy changes in a few other police departments around the country. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department adopted a policy stating, “the department respects the value of every human life, and the application of deadly force is a measure to be employed in the most extreme circumstances.” Recruiting videos of police departments are also coming under more scrutiny. Videos that show powerful weapons and glorify the use of force, like the one used by the Denison, Texas Police Department are now heavily criticized. With these recruiting videos, police departments may be attracting officers who would be better suited to fight a war than to actually do policing.
Policing in the United States drastically changed during the 1980s as the War on Drugs ramped up. New York’s Rockefeller Laws and “broken windows” policy lead to a crackdown on crime while also hurting the communities where many police officers worked. These zero-tolerance policies should be eliminated. Innocent, unarmed civilians are losing lives because of the lack of training in de-escalation process. Although police departments are starting to reform their policies, many years of history cannot be erased solely by policy change. It takes time for these wounds to heal. Only when police officers see themselves as part of the communities they operate in rather than enemy combatants can America end police brutality.
Trust, Training, and the Constitution
Understanding the Oath
Protect and Serve
Law enforcement officers are some of the most visible constitutional protectors in the world. We ask them to pledge to defend and uphold the Constitution, but like most of us, it’s unlikely they have read the Constitution recently, if at all. Add to that the fact that much of their police academy training regards the Constitution as an impediment to efficient police work and suddenly officers find themselves in direct opposition to their oath instead of focusing on their utmost responsibility.
“Law enforcement officers take an oath of office to uphold the Constitution of the United States,” says Teresa Gooch, the Law Enforcement Division Director for Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS), the agency in charge of providing training to the Commonwealth of Virginia’s officers. “The best way an officer can uphold, support, and defend the Constitution is to have a thorough understanding of what is required of them.”
Montpelier is leading the charge in targeted constitutional education for law enforcement officers. Instead of focusing on how the Constitution limits law enforcement, Montpelier teaches law enforcement agents to embrace the Constitution as a steadfast and reliable guide for securing communities.
As with any government job, it’s imperative that law enforcement officials are deeply in tune with the rules and regulations that govern their work. In a field that’s heavily scrutinized and often dangerous, having a strong constitutional foundation is important when making split-second decisions. When emotions take over in intense situations it can lead to misjudgement, which can be the difference between the life and death of another person, or themselves. A poor decision, influenced by heightened emotion in the heat of the moment, can also be the difference between constitutional policing and an abuse of power.
Right now there is a crisis of trust between law enforcement and the public, and in some communities this is not a new phenomenon. Constitutional policing (or the lack thereof), is at the heart of this distrust. Every news cycle widens the chasm between police and the public, where citizens feel like their rights are being violated by the very people tasked with defending them. As sworn guardians of the Constitution, it’s vital that law enforcement officers have a deep and detailed understanding of how the Constitution informs their goal of protecting and serving the public. We don’t think it’s enough for cops to read the Constitution; we want them to understand it and most of all, believe it.
“This is what we do every day of our careers. It should be mandatory for all LEOs. In almost 22 years of law enforcement, this is the first class I have attended that gave me a better understanding of the basis for the Constitution.”
CONSTITUTIONAL LAW ENFORCEMENT PARTICIPANT
The immersive nature of studying the Constitution at Montpelier sets our programs apart from other training opportunities. Instead of sitting in large lecture halls or hotel conference rooms, participants are tasked with engaging each other and faculty on core American ideals at the very home of the architect of the Bill of Rights. Participants are housed on the property overnight, affording continued opportunities for discourse after the sessions have dismissed.
Montpelier aims to be at the forefront of helping to repair the public trust in law enforcement in the coming years.
The Future of Policing
How do we move forward in an era where biased policing seems to have become the rule, not the exception?
When community trust in its law enforcement erodes, this compounds already tense relations between some communities and police departments, particularly due to disproportionate targeting of minority groups. In fact, according to Gallup, only 49% of non-whites feel confident that the police will protect them from violent crime, compared to 60% of whites. There’s a catastrophic breakdown of the reciprocal relationship that should exist between law enforcement and the community, the image of law enforcement is tarnished, and it becomes a vicious, dangerous cycle of violence and mistrust.
A step towards solving this systemic issue, is to ensure public safety officers act constitutionally. To begin to rebuild trust between the community and the police, law enforcement must commit to understanding not only their constitutional limits, but take to heart that they are sworn guardians of constitutional liberty. The trust that an officer will exercise his or her power constitutionally is what legitimizes that power and the government itself.
A commitment to the Constitution is how we ensure that those who are tasked with protecting our rights and liberties aren’t abusing them, and as new situations and technologies challenge existing presumptions of policing, it’s crucial that constitutional considerations are front-and-center. Without this backbone, the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve will continue to fray, and it’s this coexistence that we as a society rely on so that we can live freely and safely—something that’s beneficial for officers and the public.
advancementproject.org, “The Change We Need: 5 Issues that Should Be Part of Efforts to Reform Policing in Local Communities.”; theatlantic.com, “How to Actually Fix America’s Police: Elected officials need to do more than throw good reform dollars at bad agencies.” By Seth W. Stoughton, Jeffrey J. Noble, and Geoffrey P. Alpert; projectspublicsource.org, “10 big problems with policing, and approaches to addressing them.” By Rich Lord & Juliette Rihl; time.com, “America’s Policing System Is Broken. It’s Time to Radically Rethink Public Safety.” By Josiah Bates and Karl Vick; ojp.gov, “Factors That Influence Public Opinion of the Police.” By John Ashcroft, Deborah J. Daniels and Sarah V. Hart; icp.harvard.edu, “Why Police Training Must be Reformed.” By David Gutierrez; montpelier.org, “Trust, Training, and the Constitution.”;
What Is Wrong With Our Country?