How to fix America’s police | The Economist

published on July 2, 2020

It’s a historic moment

What’s his name?
—George Floyd

George Floyd

George Floyd

Protests that have quickly grown into a global outcry for an end to racism

The frustration and the rage

it’s a past-due notice

on the debts owed to black communities for the last 400 years

Who’s holding the weapons?

That demand for change has found immediate form

in the cause that sparked the fire

More than 1,000 people are killed by police in America every year

It is now the sixth-leading cause of death for young black men

No other organisation in America is allowed to act so ruthlessly

with such impunity

But given this unprecedented opportunity for change

how can the police be forced to truly protect and serve?

I’m sick and tired of it

Every single day

Ladies and gentlemen you have to back up

America’s police are heavily armed

Almost every officer is entitled to carry a semi-automatic pistol

What’s more, the Department of Defence

transfers surplus weapons to local police forces

The police force in charge of providing security in Los Angeles’ schools

was given three grenade launchers

Eventually they returned it

But they did keep 61 automatic rifles and a mine-resistant vehicle

This has ensured that the police are not just heavily armed

but they increasingly have come to look more like a military force

than like peace officers

You will be arrested or subject to other police action

Little wonder that police in America have become a deadly force

Almost 8,000 people were killed by police between 2013 and 2019

Black people, who make up 13% of America’s population

account for 25% of those deaths

They are almost three times more likely than white people

to be killed by police

Dr Phillip Atiba Goff is head of the Centre for Policing Equity

which analyses data to try to understand these racial disparities

What all that research clearly says is that crime and poverty

are not sufficient explanations for racial disparities

in stops and in use of force

So, the real question is, what’s the rest?

Some of that are the policies and the culture

and the behaviour of law enforcement

The call for reform is one that has become deafening in recent weeks

But it’s not an easy task

For a start, there are about 18,000 different law-enforcement agencies

From federal agencies, to state, city

county and even school police

Almost half of them employ fewer than ten officers

And so, when you talk about police reform

what you’re talking about is trying to get 18,000 different entities

to change their behaviour That’s incredibly complex and difficult to do

Law-enforcement agencies, for the most part, regulate themselves

Take, for example, rules around their use of force

Federal law states this must be “objectively reasonable”

But there’s no single rule establishing clearly

what this means in practice

Hands behind your back, sir

Some states and cities have passed their own laws on the subject

but not many

So, in most cases it’s left to each police agency

to create and enforce its own

use-of-force policies

If they choose to address it at all

The police are also protected by strong unions

which tend to oppose reforms

So, police unions can be incredibly powerful

Their job is essentially to protect the rank and file from litigation, from injury

But sometimes what is in the best interests of individual officers

isn’t what’s in the best interests of public safety

Police unions are very good at negotiating favourable contracts

for their members But those contracts often include

protections from discipline, which can make it really, really difficult

for police chiefs to get rid of people who they know are bad apples

This is how many people were killed by a police officer

between 2013 and 2019

And these are how many officers were charged

and convicted

The disparity is in part because prosecutors are reluctant

to bring charges against police officers

Prosecutors need to win convictions to advance their careers

To convict people, they need police to testify

And police won’t help prosecutors who go after cops

All of which might help to explain

the sense of impunity sometimes displayed by officers

not least the one responsible for the death of George Floyd

One of the people I talked to over the course of my reporting

was a sociologist named Nicole Gonzalez Van Cleve

She works on prosecutorial police relationships

And she made an observation that I found very hard to shake

And that was that during that video, you see Officer Chauvin

looking directly into the camera

as he presses his knee into Mr Floyd’s neck

He knows he’s being filmed, yet he stares directly into one of the cameras

He’s not even resisting arrest right now, bro

Professor Gonzalez Van Cleve observed that that would not happen

if he thought he would be prosecuted To her mind and to mine too

That was just evidence that he knew that

nothing was going to happen from what he was doing

Officers are also protected from civil prosecution

Under the principle of “qualified immunity”

lawsuits against them can only proceed

if there is clear legal precedent

that what the officer was doing was wrong

It’s a preposterous bar to hold somebody to account

only when someone has done that specific thing before

And so, what you’ll hear is most reformers say qualified immunity has to go

because even the egregiously bad incidents often get off the hook

because no one ever thought to be that egregious previously

With the obstacles to change seemingly so entrenched

perhaps it’s little wonder there’s been a rallying cry for more extreme action

There’s a new call for deep structural reform of policing across the country

Asking city leaders to defund police departments

One of the most important things right now

is to understand what people mean when they say defund the police

There are some people who, by saying defund the police

literally mean abolish law enforcement

The community can take care of violence

That’s not the thing that I hear most commonly

particularly from black neighbourhoods

What I hear from them is that the purpose of defunding

is to shift resources from punishment to empowerment

so that they have the ability to live lives

where you don’t have to call the police

Don’t shoot

You would never send a nurse to break up a drug narcotics ring

Why on earth are you sending law enforcement

to go deal with someone who’s overdosing?

It’s a seductive yet politically divisive idea

But for some forces defunding isn’t enough

The only solution: to start again from scratch

For years Camden, New Jersey, was among America’s most violent cities

In 2012 it had the fifth-highest murder rate in the country

That same year it disbanded its police

They shut down the police force They hired people back

They ended up expanding the force

But when they reconstituted their force

they really paid a lot of attention to best practices

to improving community relations

They wrote a use-of-force policy that’s 18 pages long, extremely detailed

one of the best, most detailed use-of-force policies in America

It seems to have worked

Camden says the number of complaints about excessive force

has declined every year

In 2014 there were 65

last year there were three

Only political will can determine whether Camden’s example

is enough to help overcome resistance to reform elsewhere

There are cities, from New York to Los Angeles

that are already contemplating similarly bold action

In the city where George Floyd was killed

the Minneapolis city council promised last night

to dismantle the police department

The Democrats in Congress have proposed a bill of sweeping reforms

which would make it easier to punish police misconduct

and restrict the use of deadly force

As Americans from across the country peacefully protest

to demand an end to injustice

But the White House is sending a very different message

Donald Trump’s approach to policing has always been

the police should do whatever they want

and they should be as tough as they can because they’re the good guys

So, my concern with Donald Trump’s behaviour is that

he has essentially taken the federal government

out of the conversation about policing

And he is for states and localities to take the mantle on themselves

Those calling for change today

can demand action through the ballot box in November

I really do believe that we collectively are going to make a choice

A series of choices and we’re going to get to decide

The future that’s in front of us on reforms in public safety and the future

that’s in front of us in terms of how we’re going to treat some of our

most-oppressed and most-abused citizens

It’s not something that’s going to happen to us

It’s something we’re going to choose

Who they choose—from city council all the way to the White House

could prove decisive in the challenge

of turning indignation into legislation

and enduring social change

I’m Jon Fasman, The Economist’s Washington correspondent

To see more of our coverage of racial injustice in America

and across the world, click the link opposite

Thank you for watching

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