Why Reform Won’t Cut It: A Series On Police Reform

While the death of George Floyd inspired protests across the world, many are coming to a close as demonstrators are calling for real reform and legislation. Key objectives include creating a system that administers justice blindly and promotes racial equality. But how can we address deep-rooted systemic problems that require cultural change from everyone, and not just the police or our governmental institutions? Banning chokeholds is a positive step in the right direction, but it does not guarantee that the law will be followed, so how can we hold police accountable?

Comprehending the futility of police reform can be understood by looking at Los Angeles’ attempts to change, and the evidence that much of it has failed, indicated by the events of the past month. Many viral videos show police beating peaceful protestors, including one officer that was charged for beating a homeless man. One would think that a city that made international headlines for the 1992 beating of Rodney King would have trained its officers to avoid police brutality, but police conduct over the past month suggests otherwise. In order to enact meaningful change, it’s important to look at some of the department’s key failings in the implementation of its federally mandated consent decree.

In the year 2000, the federal government had threatened to sue the Los Angeles Police Department after the Rodney King beatings, a failure to enact reform, and a department with ties to gangs and drug rings. Los Angeles police officers were not only openly racist towards black citizens, but had no system of accountability. Instead, the city entered into a consent decree that allowed an independent monitor to observe the department’s implementation of a comprehensive list of reforms, including enhanced training and accountability measures. The police chief was also replaced, and the department hired William Bratton, a veteran law enforcement officer who had experience leading Boston and New York’s departments before coming to L.A.. Bratton believed in “precision policing,” a Minority Report method of using Big Data to analyze a district’s crime stats and send officers to areas where a crime would likely be committed, based on an analytical model. However, community activists objected to this policy because it could “lead to aggressive policing in communities of color, where reported crime tends to be high,” according to the Atlantic. 

Precision policing can also have an adversarial relationship with community policing, another goal of Los Angeles’ consent decree. With the precision policing model, an officer is sent to an area where crime is likely to happen, usually at night and in a neighborhood with a high rate of crime. The officer is unlikely to step out of their vehicle unless there’s a reason to do so, whether it’s a direct threat, or something that they consider suspicious. If a cop does step outside their vehicle to respond to a citizen, it’s likely that the conversation will become confrontational, meaning that a citizen living in a high crime community will likely see a police officer as a threat, and officers will develop negative implicit biases in communities of color. Community policing, on the other hand, relies on building relationships between cops and the people that they serve. The goal is to not only develop positive relationships, but to foment a culture of trust between the police and the citizenry they’re bound to serve. However, trust is precarious, and the militarized response that police have shown over the past month has not only escalated peaceful protests, but illustrate a need for widespread change across police departments.

Traditional police reform has failed us, so how do we go forward? One clear solution is putting more money towards social reform and social workers that can address some of the problems that police are forced to respond to. Approximately 10% of community contacts that the police make are with people who have a mental illness, ranging from schizophrenics to those experiencing psychiatric symptoms, and an improper response can lead to an unnecessary police shooting. Instead of a cop with a gun, on-call social workers could be called to respond to a situation that they have extensive training for, and could even provide psychiatric help to those who need it. Expanding our social safety net would also be a viable solution, including improved public housing, addiction treatment, nutritional services, and even socialization programs designed to get people out of their shell and develop relationships. 

No reform is perfect, but it’s clear that while traditional police reform (like enhanced training and body cams) may be helpful, it does not produce the cultural reform and change that we must demand from our police in order to promote racial and social equality. It’s sickening to watch protesters being dispersed with tear gas, and the use of force against those who are marching for equality. Why should we be giving police riot gear, but not investing in the medical supplies necessary to fight a pandemic? Social reform is the base of the societal pyramid, and without properly funded education, food assistance, or housing, how can we be satisfied in a society that perpetuates inequality? New York’s police department has a budget of $6 billion, but is unable to provide rent security to the thousands of New Yorkers who are about to be evicted during an economic and health crisis. It’s clear that the U.S. will never “go back to normal,” and why should it? We need to actively be shaping our future, and disinvesting in our police departments is a necessary step in creating a world we want to live in.

If you’d like to help create change, please donate to the National Urban League, an organization that promotes economic and social justice for African Americans. Donating is an easy way to promote change, and I’d appreciate it if you helped join the fight by supporting this fantastic organization.



Cameron Edgington
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