The message is clear: Policing in America is broken and must change. But how?
A discussion about how to reform policing.
Moderated by Emily Bazelon. Photographs by Malike Sidibe
On Memorial Day, the police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man. Three officers stood by or assisted as a fourth, Derek Chauvin, pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd said he could not breathe and then became unresponsive. His death has touched off the largest and most sustained round of protests the country has seen since the 1960s, as well as demonstrations around the world. The killing has also prompted renewed calls to address brutality, racial disparities and impunity in American policing — and beyond that, to change the conditions that burden black and Latino communities.
The search for transformation has a long and halting history. In 1967, the Kerner Commission, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes of uprisings and rioting that year, recommended ways to improve the relationship between the police and black communities, but in the end it entrenched law enforcement as a means of social control. “Neighborhood police stations were installed inside public-housing projects in the very spaces vacated by community-action programs,” writes the Yale historian Elizabeth Hinton, author of “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime.” In 1992, after the acquittals of three Los Angeles police officers who savagely beat Rodney King on camera, unrest erupted in the city. The police were ill prepared, and more than 50 people died. In 1994, Congress gave the Justice Department the authority to investigate a pattern or practice of policing that violated civil rights protections.
Since 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement has made police violence a pressing national and local issue and helped lead to the election of officials — including the district attorneys in several major metropolitan areas — who have tried to make the police more accountable for misconduct and sought to decrease incarceration. The killing of George Floyd in police custody shows how far the country has to go; the resulting protests have pushed the Minneapolis City Council to take the previously unthinkable step of pledging to dismantle its Police Department. But what does that mean, and what should other cities do? We brought together five experts and organizers to talk about how to change policing in America in the context of broader concerns about systemic racism and inequality.
Alicia Garza is the principal of Black Futures Lab, the director of strategy and partnerships for the National Domestic Workers Alliance and a founder of Supermajority, a new women’s activist group. Between 2013 and 2015, she helped coin the phrase #BlackLivesMatter and helped found the Black Lives Matter Global Network. Her forthcoming book, “The Purpose of Power: How We Come Together When We Fall Apart,” will be published in October.
Phillip Atiba Goff is a founder and the chief executive of the Center for Policing Equity, a research-and-action think tank at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where he is also the Franklin A. Thomas Professor in Policing Equity.
Vanita Gupta is the president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. She led the Justice Department’s civil rights division from 2014 to 2017.
Sam Sinyangwe is a founder of We the Protestors, which created a database that maps police killings, and Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence. He is also a host of the “Pod Save the People” podcast for Crooked Media.
J. Scott Thomson served as the police chief in Camden, N.J., from 2008 to 2019 and was the president of the Police Executive Research Forum from 2015 to 2019. He is now executive director of global security for Holtec International.
This discussion has been edited and condensed for clarity, with material added from follow-up interviews to address developing news.
The Use of Deadly Force
Emily Bazelon: The conversation about how to invest our tax dollars to keep the public safe has broadened a great deal in the last few weeks, but let’s start with a relatively narrow question — what kind of change can take place within Police Departments? Phil, your Center for Policing Equity worked with the Minneapolis Police Department from 2016 to 2018. Over the past five years there, the police have used force against black people at seven times the rate it has been used against white people. Chief Medaria Arradondo, the city’s first black police chief, who took over in 2017, quickly fired Derek Chauvin and the three officers who were with him. But for years, complaints of misconduct and excessive use of force rarely resulted in discipline. Chauvin had a record of at least 17 misconduct complaints over his 19 years in the department, yet he was a training officer for new recruits, including two of the officers present at Floyd’s death. What do you take from your work in Minneapolis?
Phillip Atiba Goff: After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, we, along with partners, got a grant from the Justice Department to address racial bias in policing. We invited Minneapolis to be one of the six cities we would work with. Our trainings were designed to help the police recognize interactions that are likely to result in discriminatory behavior, or undermine trust, and practice not to do that. And later we also used analytics to put resources back into the community. For example, in North Minneapolis, the police were giving out a lot of tickets for broken taillights, so we recommended they give out vouchers to get those lights fixed instead.
But the Minneapolis police have struggled for a long time with pockets of resistance to those kinds of changes. One terrible lesson of George Floyd’s death is that we don’t have mechanisms to stop terrible officers from doing terrible things on a given shift.
Bazelon: The Supreme Court has given the police a lot of leeway to use force. In 1989, in the case Graham v. Connor, the court held that officers could use force if doing so was “objectively reasonable” from their point of view in the moment.
Sam Sinyangwe: The police in Minneapolis put George Floyd in a neck restraint. Their department’s policy allowed them to do this if someone was exhibiting what’s called active resistance, which really means they’re trying to get up, or the police officer says they are, as he’s pressing them down. We’ve known for a long time that these neck restraints are dangerous. There was no reason for the Minneapolis police to authorize that tactic. In early June, the city banned it, as some others have.
J. Scott Thomson: The Supreme Court standard allows for a lot of situations that should never develop. Think about the mentally ill individual who refuses to drop a knife when a police officer tells him to. The law as the Supreme Court defines it allows the officer to advance on him and then shoot him — not because someone is necessarily in danger but because the person didn’t comply with the officer’s verbal commands. But why advance in the first place if it’s not necessary? How can any industry be considered legitimate, professional or trusted if it holds itself to only the absolute lowest permissible standard?
Bazelon: Alicia, you’re a longtime activist, and you live in Oakland, Calif. In 2009, a police officer there shot and killed a 22-year-old black man, Oscar Grant, who was lying face down on a BART station platform. This was one of the first police shootings to be filmed by a bystander on a cellphone. After that, activists worked hard for civilian review of the police, with real enforcement mechanisms. How has that worked?
Alicia Garza: There’s a deep sense in the black community that when the police commit harms, they’re not held accountable, and of course that erodes trust. People in these communities often ask why the police fight so hard to keep investigations and complaints in the shadows. The continual push to shield the police from responsibility helps explain why a lot of people feel now that the police can’t be reformed. Civilian review boards are one way to address that, but they often lack teeth. If you can’t hire and fire officers, or even make a recommendation for discipline that sticks, then you don’t have real power. That is a big frustration.
Bazelon: Sam, you’ve tracked police killings and nonfatal shootings around the country. What have researchers found?
Sinyangwe: In 2013, when the Black Lives Matter protests began, we didn’t have the data to understand what policy interventions could address the problem of police violence. Now we do, and the data nationwide show that 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. That’s because in suburban and rural areas, police killings are rising.
But if you look at the 30 largest cities, police shootings have dropped about 30 percent, and some cities have seen larger drops. In some of these cities, like Chicago and Los Angeles, activists with Black Lives Matter and other groups have done a lot of work to push for de-escalation, stricter use-of-force policies and greater accountability.
Thomson: In 2019, when I was chief of the Camden police force, we adopted a use-of-force policy with the help of Barry Friedman, a law professor at New York University, and the Policing Project he started there. The policy mandates that the police de-escalate a conflict, use force only as a last resort, intervene to stop excessive force and report violations of law and policy by other officers.
Bazelon: I can see why that’s a starting point, but Eric Garner was killed on Staten Island in 2014 by a police officer who used a chokehold that was banned by the New York Police Department more than two decades earlier. And Minneapolis had a policy in place that required officers to intervene if they saw an officer use excessive force, but the three who were with Chauvin — who were much more junior than he was — didn’t step in to save George Floyd. What else does it take to prevent more of these deaths?
Thomson: Within a Police Department, culture eats policy for breakfast. You can have a perfectly worded policy, but it’s meaningless if it just exists on paper. You get trained in it when you’re a recruit in your three to six months at the police academy. But in too many departments, officers never receive more training on the policy or even see it again unless they get in trouble. They are then befuddled by being held to account for behaviors that regularly exist among their peers, and they feel scapegoated.
At the Police Executive Research Forum, we released a survey in 2016 that found that agencies spend a median of 58 hours on training for recruits on how to use a gun and 49 hours on defensive tactics, but they spend about only eight hours on de-escalation and crisis intervention.
To change the culture around the use of force, you have to have continuous training, systems of accountability and consequences. In Camden, when an officer uses force in the field, supervisors review the body-cam footage. The following day, internal affairs and a training officer also review it and either challenge or concur with the supervisors’ findings. If they see something wrong, they bring the officer in and go over the tape. If the supervisors had approved something unacceptable, they, too, are held to account.
Vanita Gupta: Let’s talk about Congress. There are 18,000 law-enforcement agencies in this country, and I don’t think we’ve seen major federal legislation for police reform pass since the 1990s, when Congress gave the Justice Department the power to investigate departments for civil rights complaints. This is why civil rights groups are pushing for several measures. These include a national registry of police misconduct — for infractions like excessive use of force or falsifying a police report, as well as terminations and complaints — to stop the cycling in and out of officers who have poor disciplinary records. There also needs to be a national standard for force to be used only as a last resort, a ban on chokeholds and an end to qualified immunity, a doctrine from the Supreme Court that shields the police from being sued when they break the law.
A few weeks ago, none of this was at the forefront. For several years now, there has been a growing bipartisan consensus for addressing mass incarceration. But policing has been this untouchable area outside it, even though police stops and arrests are the front door to the rest of the system. Now, with these massive, multiracial protests across the country, House Democrats have introduced a sweeping bill, the Justice in Policing Act, to address police misconduct and racial discrimination, reflecting the accountability framework of the Leadership Conference, the civil rights coalition that I help lead, signed by 430 groups.
Bazelon: Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has asked Tim Scott, the party’s only black senator, to come up with a legislative response to the protesters’ alarm about the police that their party can back. That’s striking in itself, given how aligned Republicans have been with a conservative message about law and order.
Gupta: My fear is that Republicans will just go for mealy-mouthed, piecemeal measures. This is a real moral moment, reminiscent of the moment on the eve of the passage of major civil rights legislation in the 1960s, which Republicans ultimately joined in supporting. If they are serious this time, they should be adopting the Justice in Policing Act.
Bazelon: Some states are starting to act. California legislators have introduced a bill to ban chokeholds, for instance. After years of resistance, on June 12, New York repealed the law that kept secret the disciplinary records of police officers.
Gupta: Granted, this is about reforming the police, not reinvesting the money that is spent on them. But so long as we are going to have policing, this is a big deal.
The Power of Police Unions
Bazelon: 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. “They distort hard-earned labor laws to defend indefensible behaviors,” he wrote.