Police Reform in America is Fraught with Problems
A pervasive lack of commitment on the part of administrators
Under tremendous public pressure to overhaul police tactics after the brutal public killing of a Black man George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, President Donald Trump and several cities in the US have initiated reforms to make the police people-friendly, especially Black-friendly. But the issues to be tackled are so many and deep rooted that attempts at reform, made thus far, have failed.
There has been a pervasive lack of commitment to the cause on the part of administrators, politicians and the White majority at large since reform began to be talked about after the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.
A poll in June revealed that 74% of Americans support the recent protests over Floyd’s killing. Another poll had the same number saying that they thought Floyd’s death was connected to a broader problem with how the police treated Black Americans.
Sensing the current public mood, President Trump passed an Executive Order to ban “chokeholds”. But he added a rider which almost nullified it. When a police officer feels his life is at risk, he can resort to a chokehold. Further, this order will apply only to those police departments which “choose to get certified”. Certification is not compulsory and that gives room for non-observance of the norms Trump says he is trying to establish.
The other disconcerting part is that, contrary to the growing view that the US police are routinely high handed and racist, Trump thinks that only a “tiny” number of police officers use excessive force and that it is not done to denigrate the entire force.
While saying that he wants “professional standards to deliver a future of safety and security for Americans of every race, religion, color and creed," he has criticized the “defunding” of police departments in order to provide for social and economic amenities to the Blacks and Latinos so that deprivation-related crimes are reduced. Trump is also firmly of the view that “Americans demand law and order". He has hailed efforts by the police to quell the recent violence.
However, to soothe feelings, Trump met families of people who lost their lives due to police violence. "We are one nation. We grieve together. And we heal together. I can never imagine your pain or the depth of your anguish, but I can promise to fight for justice for all of our people. And I gave a commitment to all of those families today," the President told the bereaved families.
Besides Trump, the US Congress is working on two competing bills to reform the police. The one Democrats are working on is more radical than the one being formulated by the Republicans. For example, Democrats consider the chokehold to be equivalent to lynching, while Republicans are more accommodative.
Several cities have independently initiated their own reforms. New York Mayor, Bill de Blasio, has announced a series of changes which include the creation of a database that will track the 1,100 odd pending cases involving allegations of police abuse. It will include the officers’ names and the charges. New York will also publish all internal trial decisions and eventually make all disciplinary records, past and present, accessible online.
Earlier in June, de Blasio pledged to cut police funding. Apart from banning chokeholds (by which Floyd was killed), police should now release all body camera footage and audio within 30 days in cases where the officer concerned had caused death or substantial bodily harm, or fired a weapon that could have killed. The new guidelines require the Police Commissioner to decide whether to strip the officer of badge and gun or suspend the officer within two days. Internal investigations in those cases must generally be concluded within two weeks.
In Los Angeles this month, ‘Black Lives Matter’ activists and members of the City Council succeeded in getting the Mayor to propose moving US$ 150 million of the Police Department’s nearly US$ 2 billion operating budget to health and job programs for the Blacks and the poor. In New York, more than 230 current and former members of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s staff signed an open letter demanding that US$ 1 billion be reallocated to “‘essential social services,” like housing support and health care. A survey had revealed that Blacks wanted social services on a priority basis on the grounds that these help limit crime or deviant behavior and prevent police intervention.
The New York police commissioner announced that he was disbanding the anti-crime unit, a plainclothes team of hundreds of officers that targeted violent crime and was involved in some of the city’s most notorious police shootings.
History of Police Reform
As stated earlier, police reformation is not new. Between 2014 and 2017, at least 16 states had enacted new laws regarding the use of force. One 2014 law in Utah restricted officers to “use only that force which is reasonable and necessary” for executing a warrant. And nine states in that time period changed the law to provide more transparency in investigations of deaths involving police. Georgia law states that officers may use deadly force if they “reasonably believe” a felony suspect has a deadly weapon, poses an immediate threat of physical violence, or if they have probable cause to believe that the person has committed a crime that involves serious physical harm, or the threat of such harm.
According to New York Times about 1,000 people were killed by the police in 2019, which is about the same number killed each year going back to 2013. The overall numbers haven’t gone down despite reduction of killings in the cities because in suburban and rural areas, police killings are rising.
Progressive rules have been flouted. Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island in 2014 by a police officer who used a chokehold though that had been banned by the New York Police Department more than two decades earlier. Minneapolis had a policy that required officers to intervene if they saw an officer use excessive force, but the three officers who were with Chauvin did not step in to save George Floyd.
Training is only for a short period. The Police Executive Research Forum’s survey in 2016 found that training agencies spend on an average 58 hours on training for recruits on how to use a gun and 49 hours on defensive tactics. But they spend only eight hours on de-escalation and crisis intervention which is what policing boils down to.
After George Floyd’s death, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, Steve Fletcher, tweeted about the city’s police union as an obstacle to change. Today, the largest union, the Fraternal Order of Police, has more than 2,000 local chapters and nearly 350,000 members. One study shows that when Sheriffs’ unions were allowed to bargain collectively in Florida in the early 2000s, complaints about violent police misconduct rose 40%. Louisiana has a law, which the police unions lobbied for, that says investigators have to wait 14 days to question an officer who used a weapon or seriously injured or killed someone, and 30 days are needed to question an officer accused of other misconduct.
Civilians have an estimated 400 million guns in the United States. Such civilian weaponization has called for police weaponization and militarization. Officers and men also go through “warrior training” like in the army. Between 1998 and 2014, the value of military hardware sent to police departments skyrocketed from US$ 9.4 million to a startling US$ 796.8 million.
Militarization began during Prohibition in the 1920s, when gangs had started using the Thompson submachine gun and the Browning Automatic Rifle. In the 1960s, the US saw another wave of police militarization during the race riots and the War on Drugs. Between 1997 and 2014, US$ 5.1 billion worth of weapons had been transferred from the Department of Defense to the police forces, reports say.