Part 1: Fixing the Police

When politicians and police talk about reforming the police, it’s good to be skeptical. From The Guardian (see the article for a number of links):

Body cameras, bias training and other popular initiatives have not addressed systemic problems

New York banned chokeholds. Seattle required de-escalation training. Los Angeles restricted shooting at moving vehicles.

But those reforms did not stop police from killing Eric Garner, Charleena Lyles or Ryan Twyman, who died when officers used the very tactics that the changes were supposed to prevent.

Since the early days of Black Lives Matter protests six years ago, lawmakers and criminal justice groups have pushed reforms aimed at curtailing discriminatory and deadly police conduct. Some mayors and police chiefs mandated the use of body cameras for police officers. Other local governments passed regulations that banned controversial policing tactics. Departments hired more officers of color, and African American officers took over troubled departments.

But as the death of George Floyd continues to spark a national reckoning over police violence and an avalanche of videos has shown militarized officers brutalizing protesters, city leaders are facing mounting pressure to recognize that those incremental reforms have not addressed systemic harms and, as some studies show, have not diminished bad behavior by police.

Activists say those realizations have created unprecedented momentum for the more radical ideas they have long promoted, like defunding and abolishing police, and reinvesting in services.

“We’re watching in real time all these alleged ‘reforms’ failing,” said Phoenix Calida, a sex worker rights activist in Chicago. “None of it is doing what it’s supposed to. De-escalation isn’t working. Using ‘less violent’ methods isn’t working. Having cameras for accountability isn’t working. So why did we dump all of this money into ‘reforms’?”

The false promises of popular reforms

A growing body of research suggests that some of the most widely adopted reform efforts have not succeeded at curbing police violence in the ways the policies intended.

Research into the use of body cameras by police officers has shown no statistical difference in behaviors or reduction in force when the cameras are on. Body cameras also haven’t stopped egregious killings, have rarely led to discipline or termination, and have almost never yielded charges or convictions.

In 2018, three years after Sacramento began a $1.5m body-camera initiative, officers fatally shot unarmed Stephon Clark in his family’s backyard. The release of the videos traumatized the family, but prosecutors ruled the killing was justified because officers thought his phone was a gun.

In Oakland, California, a police department monitor found that officers were failing to properly turn on cameras nearly 20% of the time.

And over the years, police have mostly used footage to prosecute civilians, research shows….

Policies aimed at preventing excessive force and protecting free speech rights at protests have similarly led to little change. In protests across the country this week officers from some of the same departments that enacted reforms were seen violating those policies.

In Austin, policy dictates that officers may use beanbag rounds to de-escalate potentially deadly situations or “riotous behavior” that could cause injury. But at one of the early protests after Floyd’s death, police fired a beanbag round at a 16-year-old boy’s head, even though he was alone on a hill far from officers, and appeared to be watching the events. His brother said the ammunition fractured his skull and required emergency surgery. “The policies certainly don’t allow you to shoot an unarmed child in the head for no reason,” said Emily Gerrick, managing attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project.

In Los Angeles, protest footage analyzed by the LA Times appeared to show officers firing projectiles at someone’s head and firing from a moving vehicle, both of which are prohibited.

And although New York’s governor touted a new state law passed this week banning police use of chokeholds, others have called it “useless”, noting that the city police department had banned the practice in 1993, two decades before an officer placed Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold.

Studies have also come to mixed conclusions as to whether increasing the diversity of police forces has led to culture changes within those departments.

One researcher who interviewed hundreds of residents of Ferguson and Baltimore after the uprisings in 2015 found increased representation didn’t address structural and cultural problems within the departments… Despite its relatively diverse force, Baltimore continued its “severe and unjustified disparities” in stops and arrests of black Americans, the justice department found in 2016.

When Eddie Johnson stepped up as Chicago police superintendent in 2016 following intense controversy over the killing of Laquan McDonald, he immediately faced backlash for saying he has never witnessed misconduct in 27 years on the job….

“People thought that being black he would understand systemic racism,” said Calida, the Chicago activist. “Having more racially diverse police isn’t going to help”…

Efforts to train officers to more frequently use non-lethal force have also not stopped tragic killings. In 2017, Seattle insisted it had created a progressive model for crisis intervention and de-escalation training, aimed at finding ways to slow down situations, isolating people so they can’t harm others, and using non-lethal force.

But when Charleena Lyles called 911 to report a burglary, two officers showed up to her door, and within less than three minutes shot her dead in front of her one-year-old son, later claiming she was holding a knife. Both officers had completed the crisis training.

There is also minimal evidence that implicit bias trainings affect officers’ prejudiced behavior on the job, and some research suggesting they could even be counterproductive, making officers resentful and more entrenched in racist viewpoints. In San Jose, California, earlier this month, a black community activist who had trained police on implicit bias for years, and personally knew the chief and others, tried to de-escalate a confrontation between officers and protesters. Police shot him in the groin with a rubber bullet…

These kinds of repeated scandals are reminders that misconduct, abuse and brutality aren’t isolated acts that reforms can fix, activists said.

“The issue is not a ‘bad apples’ problem,” said Alisa Bierria, an organizer with Survived and Punished, a prison abolition group. “There is something specific about the institution of policing that is intrinsically violent.”

That idea was exemplified this month in Buffalo when two officers were suspended after video showed them shoving a 75-year-old peace activist to the ground. More than 50 officers, the entire emergency response team, resigned from that unit after the suspension, apparently in support of the two colleagues.

The push for alternatives

In the wake of protests, a handful of US mayors have pledged to reallocate some funds from police, and many more have, once again, promised to improve policies.

But given the failure of many past reforms, a coalition of activists actively opposes such moderate policy shifts and argues the US needs more radical change, pointing at the failures of past reforms. These activists say that it would not only be a waste of the momentum of these global protests, but that continuing to rely on police departments to address their own violence will simply lead to ongoing harm.

They point at the continued power and influence of police unions and legal protections for police officers accused of wrongdoing and excessive force as barriers to change. If police and politicians who oversee law enforcement continue to adopt policies that focus on fixing individual behaviors, they say, it will not address institutional and deeply embedded cultural problems….