After the police murders of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others, we were told by the Obama administration, local mayors, and police chiefs, “Don’t worry. We see there’s a problem, but we’re going to fix it. We’ve got a set of reforms that are going to make it all better. We’re going to give the police implicit bias training, de-escalation training, mindfulness training. We’re going to hold a series of police-community encounter sessions, where we’re going to talk about racism and apologize for past wrongdoings, and at the end maybe we’ll take a knee together.
“We’re going to give everybody body cameras; we’re going to create some early warning systems to identify those bad apples so that we can weed them out. And then the public will have more trust in the police, so the police can get back to doing the important work that they need to do.”
That is almost exactly what President Obama said earlier this week in his town hall: that we need to go back to those reforms of five years ago, because we didn’t quite do enough of it. We need to get more buy-in; we need to have more police-community encounter sessions, and that will fix policing.
But Minneapolis has done all of this already. The city actually wrote a report in 2018 detailing all the fantastic procedural reforms that they had adopted, the whole menu from the Obama task force on twenty-first-century policing — the highest expression of what we call “procedural justice.” And what all these reforms share is this idea that the problems of policing are problems of professionalism and individual-level bias, and maybe a lack of transparency and formal accountability systems. And if we just fix those things, then policing can go back to its normal function of preserving law and order.
But what these procedural reforms fail to account for is the fact that the problems are in what the police are tasked with doing — not how they are doing it.
Part of the reason we make this mistake is that we’ve been driven by a growing number of horrific individual incidents of extreme police violence and murder. But the problems of policing are about so much more than that. The problems of policing are about over-policing. And over the last five years, as all these reforms have been implemented, we have seen no change to that problem of over-policing. And there hasn’t even been any reduction in the levels of police violence and killings.
We have almost nothing to show for the tens of millions of dollars that we’ve pumped into the budgets of American police to fix policing.
The anger we see on the streets in Minneapolis and across the country is in part an expression of that frustration, about the fact that we were sold a bill of goods — that these mayors trotted out these reforms to placate our movements, so that we would go to sleep and they could go back to waging a war on drugs, and a war on crime, and a war on gangs, and a war on immigrants, and a war on terror, as they always have; to flood our schools with police, to turn drugs into a criminal justice issue, to drive the homeless and those with mental health challenges into the jails.
This is not a solution to our society’s problems — it’s a way of papering over them, of trying to build legitimacy for a political and economic system that is producing mass homelessness, producing mass untreated mental illness, producing mass drug death.
It’s time that we quit trying to make police friendlier, nicer, more law-abiding.
We don’t need to give narcotics officers antibias training to deal with the racism in the war on drugs. We need to end the war on drugs. But our political leaders are not willing to take that on.
They continue to push austerity policies, in which government resources are used to push wealth up the ladder, to subsidize the most successful parts of the economy, in hope that the results will magically trickle down to the rest of us. Well, I’ve been a public employee in a union of the state of New York for twenty years now, and I haven’t seen any trickle-down yet. That’s part of the frustration we see today.
We have to rethink the way in which we turn every social problem into a problem for the police to solve. We use criminalization as an alternative to having a decent social welfare system, a social safety net, and economic opportunities for people that are distributed more evenly.
How do we get out of this mess? We’ve got to take away the police’s toys — take away their units, take away their overtime, and reduce police’s head count, ideally in a very targeted way, where we eliminate specific functions like school policing and redistribute those resources into public goods that will actually make schools better learning environments for our children. In New York City, we have five thousand NYPD personnel in city schools — more than all counselors and social workers combined. We don’t need that.
What we need is more counselors, more social workers, more teachers’ aides, more high-quality extracurricular activities. And we need to rethink the whole reliance on zero-tolerance disciplining systems that are driven by high-stakes testing regimes, where everyone is doing rote learning by the book. We need to enliven the experience for children, and we need to involve them in the production of a safe school environment instead of criminalizing them.
The “defund the police” movement that we see taking off across the country is the expression of a lot of these ideas that have been percolating across the country for years. I am part of a movement of organizations on the ground, in cities across the country, who have been pushing back against this program of mass criminalization — who have been saying, “We don’t need another jail, we need youth centers. We don’t need school police. We don’t need the police to be in charge of mental health services, we need actual mental health services.”
My hope is that what’s happening today across the country will help feed those movements and help build their power. Because I think any movement to create economic and racial justice in the United States has to involve dialing back the power of the carceral apparatus, which is going to be used against us and our movements.