Are we serious about reforming the way policing is done in this country? I wonder.
In the wake of all the recent protests against police brutality and police killings — with implicit racial bias as a subtext — at least we’re talking about it. Everyone from President Donald Trump to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to local mayors has something to say.
In 1968, the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Report), ordered by President Lyndon Johnson, warned that “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The report continued: “What white Americans have never fully understood, but what the Negro can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” And all too often, when trouble breaks out, poorly trained police or National Guard troops inflame the violence instead of quelling it.
In 2015, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, ordered by President Barack Obama after disturbances that followed the killing of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, made specific recommendations, among them: that police departments should embrace a guardian, rather than a warrior, mindset, with an emphasis on community policing, in order to build public trust; that they should have clear and comprehensive policies on the use of force, including officer-involved shootings and the use of military-style equipment; and should train officers in de-escalation techniques, and about racial profiling.
In 2020, after more unrest on America’s streets, we don’t seem to have absorbed much from the 1968 report, nor to have applied much from the 2015 Task Force.
Some departments have made major changes. Legendarily dangerous Camden, New Jersey, dissolved its notoriously corrupt police department in 2012 and replaced it with an entirely new, more community-oriented one. And crime is now way down there — although it should be noted that the cost of policing that city is way up.
Other cities, including Meriden, have long experience with community policing and officially extol it as a good idea — until budgets are cut, that is, when it’s one of the first things to hit the chopping block.
Whether any of these ideas or proposals can get to the heart of the culture of policing — a culture that seems to encourage a bunker mentality over newfangled de-escalation techniques, that often finds violence “justified” even when it wasn’t necessary, and that emphasizes the idea of the Thin Blue Line between civilization and chaos, backed up by unions that will fight almost any disciplinary action.
Police have a tough job. They regularly have to deal with characters that you or I would cross the street to avoid, and they’re made to handle situations more appropriate for a psychiatrist, a drug-rehab specialist, a marriage counselor or a social worker.
We keep hearing that police brutality is doled out only by a few “bad apples”; that most cops are honest and honorable public servants. If so, it’s more important than ever for “good cops” to turn in the “bad apples” when — as we saw in Minneapolis — one officer commits what has been charged as murder, while three other officers assist, or look on. Or in New York, where we saw three officers wearing “I Can Breathe” T-shirts. And laughing.
Reach Glenn Richter at email@example.com.