Police: Reform, Defund, or Disband

Former Vice President Joe Biden has announced his support for efforts to reform police departments in the United States and to address systemic racism in police departments.  Others have demanded the defunding of police departments.  Finally, there is a group of police critics who are demanding the disbanding of police departments.  Each of these approaches present potential promises and dangers.

Reform usually consists of at least some of the following:  1) improved training, 2) prohibiting use of choke holds, 3) greater transparency concerning allegations of police misconduct, 4) national registry of police officers who have been found to abuse their positions or, in some suggestions, have had allegations of abuse lodged against them, 5) procedures to facilitate the removal of abusive officers, 6) independent investigations of allegations of police abuse, and 7) employment of the same standards for prosecution of police officers as those for non-police officers.

The history of reforming police departments in this country is not remarkable for its success.  Reforming law enforcement is extremely difficult.  Typically, the demand for action to implement reforms wanes in the face of concerted resistance from the police rank and file and “law and order” politicians playing to the fears of the public.  Unfortunately, the opposition to law enforcement reform usually employs at least racist dog whistles, which not only defeats the reform agenda but also reinforces the use of brutal force against minority communities.  When reformers have succeeded, such success is at best incomplete as only a small part of the reform agenda is implemented.  Most significantly, reform agendas rarely confront the issue of systemic racism directly.  Moreover, such agendas rarely address the serious issue of non-abusive officers tolerating the illegal conduct of their peers.  Until there is a cost imposed on the “blue wall of silence,” meaningful change will not occur.

Defunding police departments typically refers to the reallocation of resources to other areas to benefit the community.  The theory is that crime can be fought by supporting and growing community programs that have reduction of criminal activity as a direct benefit.  This is essentially a punitive measure taken against the police department for allowing brutal law enforcement behavior.

The danger of defunding arises from the possibility that ultimately the areas of funding deprivation could be training, community outreach, diversity recruiting, and other such areas and programs.  A less well funded police department does not automatically constitute a better or less dangerous police department.  Defunding without accompanying reform seems to be a non-starter.

Disbanding police departments is the most radical of the proposals for addressing police brutality.  It is not the complete doing away with law enforcement of a city or town.  It has only occurred once, in Camden, New Jersey.  The results were quite successful as crime fell and relations with the community improved.  In this alternative the police department is disbanded and then reformed.  Officers may reapply for their jobs but have no guarantee of rehiring.  The rebuild of the department addresses all areas of training and policing.  It is a complete reform of the department.

Nevertheless, any attempts to address police misconduct toward the public must involve directly confronting the issue of systemic racism in law enforcement.  The are several well documented instance of unarmed black men dying at the hands of police from the use of choke holds.  Conversely, one is at a loss to name one unarmed white man whom police killed by using a choke hold.

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