Abolish or reform? Proposals to end police violence seek “radical transformation”

"The safest communities do not have the most police — they have the most resources," says Columbia's Alexis Hoag

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published June 17, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Police officers pepper spray a woman next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
Police officers pepper spray a woman next to the Colorado State Capitol as protests against the death of George Floyd continue (Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)

Calls for police reform reached a groundswell after the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, more recently, Rayshard Brooks. But activists are urging lawmakers to go further than ever after data showed that police are still killing just as many people as they did five years — and countless reform efforts — earlier.

The police killing of Floyd in Minneapolis ignited weeks of protests as demonstrators around the country marched in opposition to police brutality, often being met by cops firing tear gas, beating people with batons or engaging in general acts of violence.

Many of the groups that organized the protests have called for defunding police on a national scale, an idea the Minneapolis City Council voted to support earlier this month. But most lawmakers, including Democrats, have balked at the idea, saying that public opinion isn't there.

"I don't think most people believe that police departments should be dismantled," Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., told Salon in a phone interview. "Most people understand that you need a police department. Now the question is, OK, if you need a police department, how many resources should it have, compared to education and health services? How should it be structured so there is accountability? How can it be structured in a way that ordinary encounters don't escalate to lethal force? So what we ought to do is talk about how we structure police departments in society as opposed to an alternative."

Some cities have responded to the protests by vowing to shift resources from police to social services. Others have vowed to stop sending police on non-criminal calls, have banned chokeholds or have required more transparency over police disciplinary records.

These measures are a good starting point, Lynda Garcia, the policing campaign director at The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights, told Salon. But the "really critical local reforms are budget allocation and looking at how much money is going to law enforcement versus community-based programs and education and housing," she said. Those are "all the things that better serve communities and help communities thrive and reduce the criminalization of Black and brown communities."

At the federal level, lawmakers need to create a national use-of-force standard "so that police can only use force when necessary and only after exhausting all reasonable alternatives," said Garcia, who previously served as an attorney at the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Democrats in Congress unveiled a sweeping police reform proposal last week that includes the PEACE Act, a bill co-sponsored by Khanna that would do just that.

"It brings the United States standard on force to be consistent with international human rights law," Khanna said. "Most Western democracies and most European counties have standards of force as something that has to be absolutely necessary, a last resort."

Khanna said that the police shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, for example, could have been prevented "if police couldn't use force unless it was absolutely necessary."

"They would have had to do a lot of other de-escalatory techniques before they would have been allowed to shoot someone who they knew did not have the ability to inflict deadly harm," Khanna said. "It would make it much easier to hold police officers accountable, because it would be a clear standard. If you do not give warnings, if you do not do de-escalatory techniques, if you do not do all of those things to show that force was absolutely necessary, then you would be violating the standard."

Such a change would also have prevented other officers acquitted in numerous shooting cases from arguing that the use of deadly force was reasonable.

"Right now the question is, does an officer think it was reasonable? And it's a subjective impression from the officer," Khanna explained. "This would change that standard. It would say, it doesn't matter what the officer thought was reasonable, the officer could have done other things to avoid force and didn't do that, so they violated the standard."

Along with the PEACE Act, the Democratic proposal would, among other things, make it easier to prosecute bad cops, ban no-knock warrants in drug cases, limit military equipment to police, and require racial bias training. Republican lawmakers, led by Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, are working toward their own proposal, though some have already ruled out key reforms, like a federal chokehold ban or a rollback on qualified immunity.

"The House bill represents a lot of the changes that we advocate for, so we are hopeful that it is a step in the right direction in addressing police violence," Garcia told Salon, acknowledging that the proposal faces an "uphill battle" in the Senate.

But federal reforms must be "done at the same time that we are looking at ways to reduce the use of the criminal legal system and policing as an answer for public safety issues," Garcia said. "I think we are seeing more momentum and support than we have probably ever seen for policing reform."

Still, some experts argue that many of these reforms are not enough.

"I'd like to caution against using the term 'reform.' Reform, mere 'cosmetic' changes, have proven ineffective at bringing an end to police violence against Black and brown bodies," Alexis Hoag, inaugural practitioner-in-residence at the Eric H. Holder Jr. Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia Law School, told Salon. "Instead, we must demand radical transformation of the role police play in this country. The widespread demonstrations have communicated that the militarized, profit-driven police state must end."

Michael McDaniel, a former Pentagon official who has defended police in use-of-force cases as an attorney and has advised governors on security issues, agreed that demilitarizing the police was a key step in tackling police violence. 

"I believe we need to rethink the police, and their roles to 'preserve and protect,'" McDaniel, who now heads the Homeland and National Security Law program at Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School, told Salon. "Crime prevention and apprehension should be their only focus, and how they fulfill that duty must be reconsidered. Their ancillary roles as, inter alia, domestic dispute mediator, mental health counselor and as social worker must be shifted to professionals that are trained and experienced in those roles." 

McDaniel argued that more training, mandatory body cameras and other reforms could be sufficient to tackle the problem.

Chokeholds must be abandoned, he said, because the "distinction between a successful hold and a life-threatening hold is a matter of centimeters and too subtle for most contested arrests." All use-of-force complaints must be "reviewed by a citizen review committee."

"Internal reviews and union reviews are insufficient," McDaniel said. "Records of all use-of-force investigations must be publicly available."

It's not the first time lawmakers have tried to tackle police reform in recent years. Protesters marched after a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, repeatedly shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in August 2014. Protesters marched in Chicago after a white police officer shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times that October, and other cops on the scene lied about it. Protesters marched after 25-year-old Freddie Gray died from injuries he sustained in the back of a Baltimore police van in April 2015. Protests raged after an officer in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, fatally shot Philando Castile, a school worker who told officers he had a legally registered gun, in July 2016, only days before police in Louisiana fatally shot Alton Sterling, who was killed while selling CDs outside a convenience store. There was widespread outrage after the police killings of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Jamar Clark, Walter Scott, Samuel DuBose and Stephon Clark.  

All those protests were met with vows to prosecute the police officers and enact meaningful reforms. But most of the officers involved in the shootings were acquitted. And the number of police shootings since the killings of McDonald and Brown has remained steady, even ticking up last year, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. Police shot 994 people in 2015. They shot 1,004 people in 2019. Black people were three times more likely than whites to be shot.

That number doesn't even include victims like Floyd, who had former officer Derek Chauvin's knee jammed into his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds after he allegedly used a counterfeit $20 bill, or Eric Garner, who was killed by a police chokehold in Staten Island, New York, for selling loose cigarettes outside a convenience store.

"Due to the stain of enslavement, this country continues to equate Black and brown people with dangerousness and criminality," said Hoag, who previously served as senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "Therefore, it is not enough for police departments to ban certain neck restraints or institute fellow officer 'duty to intervene' policies. As they operate today, police officers can use lethal force if they reasonably believe their life is in danger. Thus, officers who encounter Black people, like George Floyd or Rayshard Brooks or Tamir Rice or Botham Jean, immediately perceive danger and use lethal force, rarely pausing to consider whether a de-escalation method may be more appropriate. Police do not extend presumptions of innocence to Black people. Further, our legal system is currently designed to shield law enforcement officers from accountability for using excessive force against individuals."

Two key reforms that could greatly reduce these incidents are ending qualified immunity, "which basically allows officers to evade responsibility when they have engaged in an unconstitutional act," Garcia said, and creating national databases to track police misconduct.

"One of the issues we see often is that when an officer is terminated they can very easily hop over to the next town and get a job there," Garcia said. "So it's critically important for transparency and accountability for cities to know who their police departments are hiring."

Overall, the number of shootings of unarmed people has dropped, according to the Post. In 2015, police killed 94 unarmed people, 38 of whom were Black. In 2019, police fatally shot 55 unarmed people, including 14 that were black.

"It makes me frustrated because there will be a tendency to think nothing has changed, when I know so many instances of police chiefs that have told me that six months ago we would have shot that guy, and we didn't because of the training that they've received," Chuck Wexler, head of the Police Executive Research Forum, which works with law enforcement officials, told The Washington Post.

But these reforms have been nowhere near enough, says Hoag.

"Past 'reform' efforts often involved requiring body-worn cameras, short-lived anti-bias training, and instituting civilian review boards," she said. "These proved ineffective because they failed to address a glaring foundational problem: the presumption of dangerousness that police assign to Black and brown bodies. For example, the NYPD banned the use of neck restraints in 1993, but officers used a chokehold — a type of neck restraint — on Eric Garner 20 years later. Police observed a Black man and perceived their lives were in danger. Banning a restraint tactic could not save Mr. Garner's life then, but overhauling how police view Black people may save someone like Mr. Garner in the future."

"Previously, there was a refusal to recognize the concept of white privilege," said McDaniel. "George Floyd, by calling out for his mother, in the moments before his death, caused white Americans to confront the humanity of the victim, to reject the implicit labeling of black males confronted by law enforcement as criminals." 

Rather than "reform" police, Hoag said, "local communities, states and the federal government must engage in a full-scale reckoning and reconciliation of the nation's legacy of slavery."

"Transforming police requires deep, public and uncomfortable work," she said. "However, the widespread demonstrations have shown us that this work is necessary. For Black lives to matter now, this country must confront the many centuries when Black lives did not."

This moment is not like previous protests against police violence, Khanna said.

"Now you have suburban white women in Ohio protesting, you have Republicans and Democrats understanding that black men and women are discriminated against by police departments," he said. "It has touched a nerve much like the civil rights movement. … I think this moment has shown that police violence against African Americans is a wrong and many Americans have had their eyes opened to that wrong."

With the backing of countless protesters around the country, "immediate change" must come from both the federal and local governments, Hoag said. "There are over 18,000 police departments, the vast majority of which are under municipal and county control."

But local reformers face another barrier to reform: police unions.

"Union contracts are a huge impediment to discipline," said Garcia. "It's OK for them to negotiate better salaries and working conditions but we have seen police union contacts where it's nearly impossible to hold police accountable. They negotiate for provisions that call for the destruction of disciplinary records or a 'cooling off' period where police can't be interviewed for days after they're involved in a shooting. … Communities deserve a seat at the table when [contracts] are being negotiated."

Another overlooked aspect is the growing number of local ordinances ostensibly aimed at improving the quality of life in a.  given community or jurisdiction. Such ordinances create "opportunities for police to interact or stop folks," said Garcia. "This is the contact that can often lead to use of force or deadly force. There should really be a push to review these and repeal as many of these as possible."

At the end of the day, policing is as much an economic issue as it is a safety one.

"The billions of dollars some cities — such as New York — spend on policing should be rerouted to existing community-based organizations that are better equipped to provide safety measures, such as mental health care, robust after-school programming for children, safe and affordable housing for residents and living-wage jobs," said Hoag, who supports calls to defund the police. "We ask our police to do things they are ill-suited to do. The safest communities in this country do not have the most police — they have the most resources."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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