George Floyd’s Murder and the New Hope for Police Reform

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The anti-racist protests dominating both old and new media these last three weeks are denouncing much more than racist and violent — indeed murderous — policing in the United States and many other countries.

All honor and mourn George Floyd. Most invoke the names of other black men and women outrageously killed by police in recent years, including Michael Brown (Ferguson), Philando Castile (St. Paul), Ezell Ford (Los Angeles), Eric Garner (New York City), Bettie Jones (Chicago), Tamir Rice (Cleveland), Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge), Breonna Taylor (Louisville), and hundreds more, named and unnamed. To these, protesters outside the United States have joined other names: D’Andre Campbell (Brampton, Ontario), Mark Duggan (London), Tina Ezekwe (Lagos), Collins Khosa (Johannesburg), James Mureithi (Nairobi), Joao Pedro Pinto (Rio de Janeiro), Adama Traoré (Paris), and countless more. The names matter because saying them — even better, chanting them — recognizes the dignity of each individual life: a dignity denied not only by the police who kill but also by the media and wider society that would prefer to leave them each anonymous and publicly invisible.

The protests began in rage, pain, and despair in Minneapolis and have quickly spread, evolving their own creative anger and militant force. Beyond police violence, the protests call out and denounce the many centers of political, economic, and institutional power reinforcing white supremacy and trampling black lives. As Opal Tometi, one of the three initiators of the Black Lives Matter movement, recently told the journalist Isaac Chotiner:

when we started Black Lives Matter, it wasn’t solely about police brutality and extrajudicial killing. That was a spark point, but it was very intentional for us to talk about the way that black lives are cut short all across the board.

The protests and the wider movements they are galvanizing are multi-racial and black-led: both of which seem essential to their power. As a white lawyer steeped in privilege, I contribute what I can to movements led by those bearing the daily indignities, pain, and violations of their rights, or led by those risking their lives and livelihoods to assert their rights, even in the face of violence. Today, showing up in this way and making one’s contributions is a practice urged upon “white allies” of the movements for black lives. The contributions may be of technical skills or practical tools, but in addition, less tangibly, white allies offer themselves, their full support, while simultaneously deferring to the strategic leadership of these movements. Such practices of deference to those bearing the brunt of injustice are as old as political solidarity itself.

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The protests are about more than police violence, but they are also about police violence. They insist we all confront the abysmal failure of decades of police reform to stop these persistent killings.

Those decades of reform began roughly in the summer of 1967, when police violence against black residents sparked days of rioting in black neighborhoods of cities across the US. Had these fifty-plus years brought successful reform, Derek Chauvin would not have killed George Floyd, and might not have been in the Minneapolis Police Department at all. The use of excessive force by police officers across the United States would be rare, addressed quickly, and, crucially, would not paint patterns of racism or bias. Indeed, it is the persistent pattern of black lives cut short by police violence that leads inescapably to the conclusion that the reform era of the last 50 years has failed. Hence, the salience of more radical calls for disbanding and defunding police organizations entirely.

This is not to deny the hard-fought victories that these 50 years have achieved. There is much more oversight of US police departments in place today, training and use-of-force policies are better, police organizations are more diverse both on the front lines and in their leadership, and the U.S. Department of Justice has more powerful tools to compel reform in departments showing patterns of unconstitutional policing. People have struggled heroically for each of these reforms, both inside and outside police organizations; but progress has proved much too gradual, too scattered, and too easily reversed.

The Minneapolis Police Department, at the center of world attention today, is a case in point, and by tracing its history of racism, violence, and reform we see the national story in microcosm. Created in 1867 with the establishment of the city itself, the Minneapolis Police Department remained in its early decades an untrained and corrupt force loyal to the city’s mayor. Its officers spent their days rounding up vagrants, breaking strikes when called upon to do so, enforcing racial segregation across the city, and committing a wide range of crimes themselves. Protests by the NAACP against the violent policing date back at least to 1922, when four black men were beaten and arrested by officers of the Minneapolis Police Department allegedly for inviting a white woman to a dance.

In Minneapolis, the riots of 1967 were sparked most directly by the failure of police to intervene as they watched a brutal beating of a black boy by a group of four white boys. The uprising and protest led the City Council to create a new Civil Rights Commission with the power to investigate civilian complaints against the police. Within just a few years, however, a newly elected mayor, who was also a former head of the police union, revoked the Commission’s authority.

In 1989, Minneapolis police officers threw a stun grenade into an apartment during a drug raid, causing a fire that killed two elderly black residents whom police did not know were living there. The two deaths led to renewed protests and another reckoning with racism in policing. The longstanding president of the local chapter of the Urban League told a reporter that :

“police misconduct and brutality has been going on for at least the 21 years I’ve been here, but I think the deaths pushed the issue beyond the point of tolerance that usually is the case in matters of police misconduct.”

In response, the City Council created the Civilian Review Authority in 1990, again with power to investigate civilian complaints, though not to impose any penalties itself.

The tug-of-war over civilian review continued for more than twenty years. From 1997 to 2002 a city official assumed control of the nominally independent CRA on an “interim” basis, after which it was shut down for two years. In 2007, the City Council adopted a new law reviving the CRA, but in 2012 the police union successfully lobbied the state legislature to remove permanently its ability to issue statements on police accountability, rendering it useless. Since then, review of civilian complaints has been housed in the Office of Police Conduct Review inside the city’s Department of Human Rights.

Minneapolis is just one of hundreds of cities where this deadly dance of reform and retreat is rehearsed again and again, and civilian review of complaints against the police is just one of dozens of reforms that have experienced a similar series of advances and counter-attacks. This is not a story of incremental reforms amounting in time to transformation, but rather political resistance blocking or reversing even small reforms over decades.

The same pattern can be seen in the efforts by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice to seek injunctions against patterns and continuing practices of unconstitutional policing by state and local police agencies. The Justice Department under President Carter sought its first injunction against a pattern of racially biased police violence when it sued the City of Philadelphia in 1979, but the federal courts ruled that the Attorney General had no authority to seek such orders, regardless of the strength of the pattern. Repeated efforts to authorize such law suits failed in each new Congress until the 1994 Crime Bill included this authority, mixing this progressive provision with the bill’s now-notorious elements that put the mass in mass-incarceration.

Armed with this new power, the Civil Rights Division brought a handful of law suits and settled them with “consent decrees” in the last years of the Clinton Administration and the first years under President George W. Bush, requiring reforms to be implemented and monitored by the courts in Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans, and elsewhere; but following President Bush’s reelection in 2004, the Department sought no new injunctions. The Obama Administration brought new energy to the use of the Justice Department’s “pattern-and-practice authority,” but even so, the Department found that court mandates produced mixed results and could only succeed when they won the cooperation of local officials, leading to more voluntary agreements than law suits. The Minneapolis Police Department requested and received such a Diagnostic Report during the second term of Obama’s presidency. To no one’s surprise, the Trump Administration’s Civil Rights Division has abandoned the use of its pattern-and-practice authority, continuing the pattern of retreat from gradual reform.

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The murder of George Floyd is calling the question on 50 years of reform and retreat. Exasperated with the inevitable reversal of each hard-won reform, protesters are now calling for more radical solutions: closing police departments or severely restricting their roles, cutting their budgets, and replacing them with other kinds of services that can deliver safety and emergency response in today’s heavily policed urban communities. There are other debates underway about the ways in which police departments police political protest, and the roles of police unions in electoral politics; but the signal debate is whether to abandon the strategy of piecemeal reform for the wholesale reorganization of policing in the cities of the United States.

There are activists on both sides of this debate. While press attention is focused, as usual, on the most extreme demands — in this case to defund and dismantle police departments — there are activists speaking up for persistence in the longstanding project of gradual reform. These advocates want a revival of the Justice Department’s pattern-and-practice investigations, greater integration of smartphone video into existing mechanisms of police accountability, continued improvement of use-of-force policies, greater respect for procedural justice in police interactions with civilians, and genuine commitment to principles of community policing. These are the kinds of reforms championed by the President’s Commission on 21st Century Policing, empaneled by President Obama but its recommendations dismissed by President Trump.

The crucial disagreement separating the two sides in this debate is over community control. The reform agenda promises to reduce police violence, but it does not remove authority over police policies and strategy from police leaders and elected officials. The activists urging the defunding and dismantling of police want control of public safety resources — money, personnel, and institutions — to move into the hands of the communities that depend on these services.

That language of local control is deeply embedded in the history of American policing, in contrast with the police histories of Europe and the 19th and 20th century colonies of European imperial powers. This is why there are more than 18,000 separate police organizations in the United States, in contrast to the handful of police agencies in most countries, or the several dozen in the federal structures of Brazil, Germany, or India, for example. But for all the talk of local control in the United States, this has never meant local control by those being policed. It has meant local control by local elites including, at various times and places, white slave holders, factory owners, financial and media titans, chambers of commerce, and racist and nativist organizations.

What if this tradition of local control could be claimed by the black and brown residents of working-class and middle-class communities who are most dependent on public police services for their safety and for help in emergencies? This is the question being posed by the movement to dismantle the police organizations that have repeatedly refused to cede that control. There have been experiments here and there with community control in the United States, including in Minneapolis in the 1960s, but never on the scale now being proposed.

Some limited community control, or at least community participation, has been part of the gradual-reform agenda as well, but it has proved elusive in practice. Specifically, community participation in setting police priorities and strategies was among the principal promises of “community policing,” a term of art with many definitions, but usually including officers assigned to the same neighborhoods on a regular basis, out of their cars, engaging constructively with community residents.

The architects of community policing envisioned police and residents meeting regularly and cooperating in the design of solutions to local crime problems, co-producing public safety. In some cities, local community organizers were paid to build and maintain active citizen engagement; in others, local residents were elected to serve on community policing councils. New York City’s only black mayor, David Dinkins, and his black police commissioner, Lee Brown, put community policing at the center of their major reorganization of the city’s police department in 1990. Rather than defund the police, they persuaded voters to impose a tax surcharge to increase police budgets aligned with this new philosophy. Indeed, beyond the United States, the hope that community policing might become a truly participatory form of democratic policing inspired the drafters of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution to require the establishment of Community Policing Forums in every community of the post-apartheid nation.

Perhaps predictably, however, the failure to deliver community control has been the greatest disappointment with the implementation of community policing decade after decade, from New York and Chicago to Johannesburg. A few of the most determined efforts to give community councils a meaningful voice and role in community policing succeeded for as long as three or four years, but the few successes depended on the commitment of particular police and community leaders. Community control in most cases never took hold, and, where it did, it has not lasted. In short, where it was adopted, community policing has gotten a lot of police patrol officers out of their cars and helped some become better problem-solvers. It has helped to reduce crime in some places. Crucially, however, the promise to black and brown communities of joint control over police priorities and strategies has never been fulfilled.

George Floyd’s murder has produced anger and outrage, but also perhaps the greatest chance in fifty years to break the cycle of reform-and-retreat by forcing a meaningful measure of community control. Of the many useful elements included in the reform legislation endorsed by Governor Walz in Minnesota and being considered by the legislature as I write this, the most significant may be the funding for community groups that could act as alternatives to the police. If proposals like this take hold, a new era of community control over public safety and police resources may finally be dawning. Any serious program of community control will bring its own challenges, but power will have shifted in ways that it has never shifted before and the new challenges will be welcomed.

Editor’s Note: This post forms part of our ongoing symposium on Black Lives Matter. All posts in this symposium will be available, as they are published, to read here.

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