Let's be clear about what's been happening in the country these last few weeks. Policing is an arm of the state. Police departments and police officers operate under the color of law and as agents of the state, with authority granted by their nation's citizens. That gives their actions special meaning. George Floyd was—literally—killed by his government. Over and over again in America, Black people have been killed, beaten, and otherwise abused by their government through its agents: the police. In the modern era, Rodney King was beaten by his government. Michael Brown was shot and killed by his government. Walter Scott was shot in the back and killed by his government; his government then falsified the shooting scene and lied about what had happened.
This has always been an outrage. But the last several weeks in America have been transformative for how the nation thinks about and responds to police violence. A short time ago—before a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd—it would have been unimaginable that hundreds of thousands of both Black and White protesters would take over cities for weeks, advocating for Black lives and protesting police brutality. It would have been unimaginable that those protests would be supported across the political spectrum, that the city council of a major American city would commit to the outright elimination of its police department, and that "defunding" policing would become a live option in the national political discourse—with commitments from the mayors of New York City and Los Angeles. It would have been unimaginable that over a thousand professional athletes would call for an end to the doctrine of "qualified immunity" that protects police violence, that NASCAR would ban the Confederate flag, and that PepsiCo would retire Aunt Jemima.
As somebody who has spent the last three decades working with the police to reduce violent crime, I believe that all of this is for good. I've been part of developing a violence prevention strategy that has a central role for police in partnership with the community and service providers. It can cut homicides—mostly of young Black men—in half or more. It was the source of the so-called "Boston Miracle" over 20 years ago that reduced young people's murders by almost two-thirds. It's the same body of work that has made Oakland, California, a shining star in violence prevention, with homicide and gun violence down by half over the last eight years. I've worked with police to shut down street drug markets in ways that keep dealers out of jail, and to prevent domestic violence victims from being killed without making them bear the risk of prosecuting their abusers or the burden of going underground to hide. I have worked arm in arm with police officers who are courageous, creative, and committed to their communities. In short, I know how much good the right kind of policing can do. But I also know how much damage the wrong kind of policing does—and I support sweeping changes to mend that damage.
In the protests of these last weeks, the government has beaten citizens, driven vehicles into protesters, and fired pepper rounds at journalists. Yes, in those same protests, police officers have been shot, police stations burned, and businesses looted. But police violence is fundamentally different from private violence. It is in no way to diminish the wrongness of crimes committed by the public to say: we know that people will do these things—kill, rape, and rob. It is because we know that people will do these things that in democracies there is the social contract: a state monopoly on violence and coercion, which speaks through the law and makes that law operative through institutions, including the police. If a protestor punches you in the face, he has committed a crime. The social contract says that it is wrong, and the state has the power to stop it. If a police officer punches you in the face, you have been assaulted by your government. It is simply a statement of the human condition to say: people will forever and always kill each other, no matter how hard we try to prevent it. If we say: our government will forever and always kill us, and beat us, and do us violence under the color of law, no matter how hard we try to prevent it, that is fundamentally different. That is an admission and an acceptance of the failure of the state of our democracy, and the American experiment.
Yet, for all of American history, the government has done exactly that to Black Americans. Slavery was violence. Reinstituting slavery after Reconstruction through the criminal justice system and convict leasing was violence. Lynching was violence. Setting dogs and fire hoses on the civil rights movement was violence. As was the FBI trying to drive Martin Luther King Jr. to suicide was violence, and the city of Philadelphia bombing and burning a city block. Zero-tolerance policing, rampant stop-and-frisk, the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentencing, and mass incarceration were and are the racialized use of the state's coercive power.
Where the government has not done violence to Black people, it has failed to protect them. The homicide rate for Black men ages 18-34 is almost 18 times that of White men the same age. Homicides of Black men and women go unsolved. White men in military garb carrying rifles gather safely at statehouses; Black men going running are hunted down, shot, and killed. Black people fear their government. They have "the talk" with their kids and worry when they go to school and drive their cars. They are unsafe walking, shopping, swimming, sleeping at Yale. They know what asking a White woman to leash her dog can mean. Black police officers, often required to carry their weapons off-duty, fear being killed by their fellow officers.
This is what so misses the point when people who don't get it say, "But most Black homicide victims are not killed by police." Most White people are not killed in terrorist attacks; 9/11 and everything like it represents a tiny fraction of the White body count over the last decades. But the United States government completely reoriented national security after 9/11; we're still at war. Most White kids are not killed in mass shootings, but the country is pouring resources into school safety. Terror and mass shootings cut to the core of what it means to live one's life, feel safe and secure, and trust that one's family and loved ones will be safe and secure. And when the mass of White people feels threatened by terror and mass shootings, their country leaps to their defense. Being Black in America has meant knowing that one's family and loved ones are never safe and secure because your country can hurt you and them at any moment. It has meant being subject to state violence and to the state's protection of private violence, in a nation forged out of, structured by, and soaked in racism. Black Americans have always known that. White Americans are apparently starting to get it. What is going on now in the nation is a rejection of that arc of history.
The protest movement represents core American values and deserves broad bipartisan support. It is no threat to our efforts to prevent crime and violence; indeed, it represents an opportunity to make those efforts much more successful. That is because it can support the emergence of a fundamentally better way to produce public safety. The evidence from the scholarly literature suggests that the more legitimate the law and the police are in the eyes of America's communities, the less we will actually have to use them. And while "law and order" has traditionally been a platform for the political right, this goal—using the state's coercive power no more than absolutely necessary—is one that conservatives should find easy to embrace. In a very real way, more legitimacy in the realm of policing means less government.
This Is a Crisis of Legitimacy
Legitimacy is a core element in democracy: the belief of the people in the institutions of government and their power to set rules and gain compliance. When people think of the law and of policing, they think of the power of the courts, jail and prison, of the gun and the badge. In fact, that power is trivial compared to voluntary compliance with the law. Most of the time, people do not need to be threatened by the state in order not to kill, rape, and rob. Most people know that when the law says not to do terrible things, the law is right; when they are tempted, they believe that the law has the standing to say, Don't. Scholars like Tom Tyler point out that even criminals obey the law most of the time: They buy groceries, stop at red lights, and seldom kill the people they're mad at. Policing research shows very clearly that as legitimacy goes up, violence goes down, voluntary compliance with the law goes up, people call 911 when they need help, and the like. When legitimacy goes down—as after incidents of police violence—research shows that Black communities withdraw from the police and violence goes up.
Contrary to what many think "high crime" Black communities are deeply law-abiding. Research shows that residents in the most troubled areas of those communities have a very high regard for the law, want their neighbors to obey the law, want to be safe, and even want to have good relationships with the police. But they don't trust the police, don't think the police respect them, don't think the police share their values, think the police are biased, and don't trust the police to govern themselves.
Scholars have long characterized this as "legal cynicism": belief in the law, but not in its institutions, especially the police. More recently, scholars like Monica Bell have gone beyond this to a profoundly more dire—and in my experience, more accurate—notion of "legal estrangement." Bell reminds us that more than 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission found that "police have come to symbolize White power, White racism, and White repression." Those beliefs are driven by hundreds of years of history and collective memory and experience, present treatment and mistreatment by police, and the vicarious experience of the endless series of police killings. "Much literature has shown that, regardless of how trust is measured or conceived, African Americans, particularly those who are poor or who live in high-poverty or predominantly African American communities, tend to have less trust not only in the police, but also in other governmental institutions, in their neighbors, and even in their intimate partner relationships in comparison to other racial and ethnic groups in the United States," Bell writes. "Most discussions of African American distrust of the police only skirt the edges of a deeper well of estrangement between poor communities of color and the law—and, in turn, society."
This is not about every officer or all officers. Policing is full of—and in my personal experience dominated by—good and frequently amazing people who do often extraordinary work under unimaginable circumstances. I have had former public defenders come into my organization, hating the police. Yet as they get to know the officers we work with, they've taken me aside to say, "This is really weirding me out; I like them." That's not the point. The point is not the tired argument about good officers and bad officers, or "bad apples" or the lack thereof. It is that the institution of policing has been ungovernable. Officers do terrible things, and nothing happens. Departments make terrible choices—Let's "protect" communities by swamping them with officers and stopping everybody who moves—and there's no way to stop them. Disrespect is rampant—in many cities, the single most frequent complaint is officers cursing the public—and nothing happens or changes. The Supreme Court of the United States creates case law that makes it nearly impossible to hold officers accountable for killings and shootings. Cities, pressured by the political clout of police unions, give away the powers that would let chiefs fire officers they know are toxic and make departments reinstate the officers they have managed to get rid of. Police union heads sully the names of Black men killed by their members and get reelected. No institution is perfect; doctors kill patients all the time. But when a doctor kills through gross malpractice, the head of his hospital doesn't throw a press conference to talk about how the dead man had a criminal record and really deserved it.
It is all so familiar that it can take an act of will to see clearly. In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat and was impeached within a year and in prison not long after. By contrast, in Chicago, police officer Jon Burge spent years torturing over 100 Black men and women. He was caught, honored by the police union, sentenced to federal prison, and quickly released to house arrest. He was then released from house arrest. Jackie Wilson, one of the men Burge brutalized into a confession, served 36 years in prison before a judge released him.
If one works closely with police, as I do, it is a given that many chiefs do not really run their departments. Reform chiefs figure they've got maybe three years before they're driven out. They consciously strategize to leave things so that their successors can hope to build on the work they've begun. My community of practice has a proven track record of dramatically reducing violence, a goal you would think the police are interested in. We still spend much of our time trying to figure out how to get departments to just keep doing their work, knowing that often chiefs and mayors can't or won't—and that, except in rare instances, nobody really cares about what the Black community wants.
Imagine that the Securities and Exchange Commission's regulators did their jobs by stopping bankers on the street, pointing them out on the sidewalk, calling them names, and going through their pockets. Imagine if they announced compliance visits by kicking in office doors, and from time to time, got at insider trading by beating investors until they gave up their friends or just gave themselves up. Imagine that EMTs called to accident scenes pulled drivers from their cars and beat them to a pulp. Imagine that they were legally protected in doing all that. Imagine that their own leadership and prominent politicians urged them to do it more. And imagine that forever, people had been trying hard to fix it— from both the outside and the inside—and it just didn't change.
People have been trying. Police commissions: The national Wickersham Commission, appointed by President Hoover in 1929, focused on "the third degree" (confessions obtained through beatings). In the wake of Frank Serpico's revelations, the famous Knapp Commission formed in New York City in the 1970s, which found systematic corruption in the police department. In the early 1990s, I staffed both the St. Clair Commission in Boston, which savaged the Boston Police Department's internal controls and leadership, and the Mollen Commission in New York City, which savaged the NYPD's internal controls and leadership. There have been Department of Justice investigations and consent decrees, voluntary reviews, and agreements through the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. There have been civilian complaint review boards and police commissioners and inspectors general and auditors. After Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, there was the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. And training. Dear God, has there been training.
Nothing has fixed it. George Floyd is dead. I'm implicated in that personally; I directed the DOJ's National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, a marquee Obama administration project that worked in six cities, including Minneapolis. It made a difference, but it did not transform the institution that is the Minneapolis Police Department. A lot of reforms have made a difference, but they have not transformed the institution that is American policing.
People have had it. This is what the protests are about. The institution that is American policing keeps killing Black people, keeps doing terrible things, people keep trying to fix it, and it won't be fixed. Camden, New Jersey, has been getting a lot of attention lately. Camden is a case of a terminal loss of legitimacy. Policing there was a mess: outrageously corrupt, completely ineffective in a city saturated with open-air drug markets and violence, with a useless accountability system and an intransigent union. A coalition of state and local officials and civic figures said, Enough, dissolved the department, and rebuilt from scratch.
But even though it was a radical move, for a lot of advocates, Camden is most definitely not what they have in mind; they're not interested in rebuilding police departments at all. As activist Mariame Kaba wrote in the New York Times, "Yes, we mean literally abolish the police." Any legitimate policing has to create safety, not danger. It has to protect Black lives, not perpetuate and worsen racial harms. It has to conduct itself legally and constitutionally, be committed to and effective in governing its own misbehavior, and be accountable. That's not what people are seeing. People are saying, Enough. This is what has just happened in Minneapolis, where the City Council voted to eliminate the Minneapolis Police Department. "[N]o amount of reforms will prevent lethal violence and abuse by some members of the Police Department against members of our community, especially Black people and people of color," the council said.
Pause for a moment and notice how easily—if you are like most of us—you just took in what the council said, and kept on reading. No amount of reforms will prevent lethal violence. An arm of your government will kill you, and we—also your government—can not stop it. Kill you. "We acknowledge that the current system is not reformable—that we would like to end the current policing system as we know it," council member Alondra Cano said. This is what has moved "defunding the police" from the advocacy slogan and aspiration that it was less than a month ago to the center of American discourse–and to the new reality of figuring out just what that might mean.
Defunding the Police
Under the very best of circumstances, there will always be an irreducible role for state power in public safety. That's not just facing facts; it's a good thing. It's the core social contract. The availability of that power to communities means that they aren't on their own and don't have to rely only on their own capacities to be safe. It means that they can get help and protection when they need it, that the potentially dangerous and violent know that and restrain themselves, and that the use of private violence need not risk a descent into faction, retaliation, and vendetta.
Not so protecting communities is disastrous. Yale ethnographer Elijah Anderson explains the "code of the streets" that, in the face of bad policing, drives so much community violence: If you disrespect me I have to hurt you, if you hurt my friend I have to retaliate, we don't go to the police for help. "Lack of police accountability has, in fact, been incorporated into the status system: the person who is believed capable of 'taking care of himself' is accorded a certain deference, which translates into a sense of physical and psychological control," he writes. "Thus, the street code emerges where the influence of the police ends and personal responsibility for one's safety is felt to begin." People not protected by the state will do what they need to do to protect themselves: recent research by Michael Sierra-Arévalo found that negative perceptions of police in marginalized communities were linked to higher rates of illegal firearm ownership. Battered women call the police, call the police, call the police, and get no help. A few of them will finally and desperately kill their abuser—and go to prison. In many Black neighborhoods, there is effective impunity for homicide; the clearance rate for Chicago homicides involving Black victims is under 22 percent, less than half that for Whites. Journalist David Bernstein looked at nonfatal shootings in Boston and found that a staggering 96 percent went unsolved. Jill Leovy, in her brilliant book Ghettoside, makes the simple but scorching point that authorities have abandoned Black America to violence. "When violent people are permitted to operate with impunity, they get their way," Leovy tells us. "No amount of 'community' feeling or activism can eclipse this dynamic… That's what the criminal justice system is for."
But it's completely realistic to recognize the "irreducible" role of state power, and advocate and strive for "reduced as far as possible." The state's coercive capacity should be welcome in the eyes of the public, do as little harm as possible, and give communities the protections they want in the ways that they want. It should be informed by the awful racist history of America, and configured so as not to perpetuate those harms. The more it lives up to those standards, the more legitimate that function will be, and the less it will need to be used. Black America is over-policed and under-protected. Young Black men are routinely stopped for merely walking down the street, while in the same neighborhoods, killers go free. In my organization's violence prevention work, we tell police: communities need policing. They just don't need the policing they've been getting.
What that means in the current moment is not at all clear, and won't be in the immediate future. After the council vote in Minneapolis, a group of prominent activists condemned the council for moving so quickly without community consultation and voiced support for police chief Medaria Arradando. "We can say that we need community policing and say that we are going to work with the Minneapolis Police Department," one said. The city can't actually eliminate the department without a charter change requiring voter approval, and has announced a year-long process to rethink public safety in the city. New York and Los Angeles have made commitments to moving money out of their police departments, without much in the way of details. "Defunding" is much more a rallying cry, an aspiration, and a direction than it is an actual road map. Nobody is suggesting that there's a light switch to be thrown today, so there are no police tomorrow. Answers will likely look different based on the needs of different communities. And as with its close cousin, "abolition," many advocates say that there has to be a process over time to get as close to an end to policing as is possible.
That's a goal no one should take issue with. Policing is the application of the state's coercive power to produce public safety. We should want as little application of that power as we can possibly have. Public safety should be produced as much as possible by healthy communities; equity; deliberate progress away from racism and other biases; a strong and inclusive economy; education; opportunity; support for children and families. Bad policing damages the fabric of communities, hurts families, takes parents away from their children, fails to produce the safety in which communities and economies can flourish, and alienates people from what should be their democracy. Nobody wants that.
Violence is a critical issue in thinking about any realistic path to reinventing public safety. In the national conversation about mass incarceration, there has long been a happy fiction that prisons are full of nonviolent drug offenders, and that simply stopping the drug war will solve the prison problem. In fact, half of the prisoners are there for violent crimes. We cannot solve the prison system without taking violence seriously. Similarly, we cannot deal realistically with policing without being serious about violence. This is crucial. Homicide and gun violence are visited with massive disproportion on America's Black communities. They have been abandoned to it forever; it is unconscionable and cannot continue.
But most policing is not about violence and serious crime, or even about crime at all. Police work is overwhelmingly about people who are in distress, in conflict, angry, confused, lost, and in need of help. This has always been true. In a 1980 study in New York, when the city was one of the most dangerous in the country, patrol officers in one precinct got almost 60,000 calls for service, fewer than a third of which were for any sort of crime at all. Only about half of those calls that appeared to involve crime could have been about felonies, with officers making fewer than a thousand felony arrests.
But in recent decades, political decisions have removed social support from where they are needed, and put police in their place. Police did not close mental institutions and refuse to replace them with anything else, or defund school counselors and after-school programs, or shut down community centers and summer job programs. They are not making the decisions that make opioid treatment so scarce in a national epidemic. But they get the call when the dual-diagnosis homeless man decompensates, they are stationed in the high school to enforce the idiotic zero-tolerance laws the state legislature passed, they respond when neighbors call on the group of noisy kids at one o'clock in the morning, and they inject the Naloxone when the addict overdoses for the third time in a week. "Police aren't first responders," a friend of mine says. "They're just the last ones standing." Police hate this—they didn't sign up for it and aren't good at it. What's more, they know that they lack the resources for it. Moving money to where it's needed makes all kinds of sense. And a small number of alternative first-responder programs already do replace police with community support and service teams to handle non-criminal emergencies such as overdoses and crises among the homeless. Eugene, Oregon's Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) organization handles almost twenty percent of the city's calls at the cost of only a few percent of the police department's budget.
Violence remains. The perennial favorite alternative to policing and prisons is taking money away from the back end that is the criminal justice system to make investments in addressing "root causes:" in family support, education, programs for young people, health care, economic development. We absolutely should do that, as a fundamental matter of equity and justice, but the hard truth is that as a solution to policing, it's not nearly the panacea people want. At best, those changes are slow: Make things better for kids entering school today, and the impact on, say, violence won't be felt for a decade or more, when those kids enter their high-risk years. Preventive programming around—for example— gangs has been tried for generations; evaluations show nearly complete failure. Economic well-being is no insulator against serious misbehavior: rich people beat their wives, rape their dates, and abuse their kids (and sell and do more drugs than poor people: drugs cost money). And there's evidence that economic uplift does not reduce crime in communities where there remains a threshold level of belief in the illegitimacy of the police. Scholars David Kirk and Andrew Papachristos found that homicide got worse in certain Chicago neighborhoods even as fundamental economic conditions improved. "We assert that when the law is perceived to be unavailable—for example, when calling the police is not a viable option to remedy one's problems—individuals may instead resolve their grievances by their own means, which may include violence," they wrote.
Happily, more targeted violence-prevention investments clearly work. Sociologist Patrick Sharkey has shown that community-based anti-violence nonprofits reduce, over time, both violence and property crime. Community violence is overwhelmingly driven by very small numbers of people at astronomical risk of both victimization and offending. Street outreach "credible messenger" interventions focused on those people often show impact (though they have sometimes proved to make things worse, which might be fixable through careful implementation). Programs that identify and then surround this small number of people with intensive, customized support, like the "Advance Peace" initiative that originated in Richmond, California, can make a big difference. In New York City, the Mayor's Office to Prevent Gun Violence supports a web of community-based organizations that conduct community safety planning, promote nonviolence, intervene in the street cycles of retaliation, and "beef" that drive violence, and provide trauma-informed care. It's almost certainly a big part of the reason that New York is now the safest big city in the country, and continues to get safer even as police stops, arrests, and the number of people the city sends to jail and prison have plummeted.
Some of the most effective approaches to violence prevention depend on a fundamentally different role in policing. The focused-deterrence interventions I've been part of developing bring together law enforcement, community actors, and service providers to stop violence among that small number of people at highest risk in ways that can be dramatically effective, which greatly reduces the need for actual enforcement, and that build legitimacy. The LAPD's Community Safety Partnership places very small numbers of officers in what used to be dangerous public housing to work with the community to prevent violence without making arrests. Violence has plummeted and—is a key marker of legitimacy—the rare remaining homicide is cleared almost immediately through community support. The PIVOT initiative, piloted in Cincinnati, uses the investigative skills of police to unpack community violence problems, then moves that assessment to other city agencies to facilitate non-police interventions. All of these approaches stand in opposition to the kinds of profligate, undifferentiated policing that vilifies Black communities, saturates them with enforcement, facilitates bias and disproportion, fills the prison pipeline, and creates the endless police contacts that can go so terribly wrong.
In all of this—wherever policing goes, wherever it ends up, and however it gets there—measurable accountability is key. Police use of force, particularly lethal violence, should be tracked nationally and locally, and move steadily down. Police misbehavior should be defined, tracked, and moved steadily down. Complaints against police should be reported out and acted upon. Abusive officers should lose their jobs. Legitimacy should be systematically tracked: If McDonald's can manage itself by assessing customer attitudes, so can the police.
We are where we are because policing has been ungovernable. One of the most encouraging signs of the last few weeks has been a tectonic shift in the impunity and protections that have kept it that way. The officers who killed George Floyd were fired within days. The speed was possible because of changes in departmental policy, put in place after the 2015 police shooting of Jamar Clark, that mandated respect for life and a duty to intervene. All four of the officers involved in Floyd's killing have been criminally charged, as has the officer who shot Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta. In New York state, the legislature has criminalized chokeholds, formally empowered the state attorney general to investigate police killings of unarmed civilians, and ended measures that had prevented the release of police disciplinary records. New Jersey's attorney general has ordered departments to publish annual lists of officers fired, demoted, or disciplined for misconduct. California's attorney general is proposing steps to decertify officers guilty of misconduct so they can't work anywhere in the state. Attention is turning to the measures that, for example, routinely allow unaccountable arbitrators to make departments take back officers they've fired for misconduct.
Most of these sorts of reforms can only happen through the political process, and it's clear the ground is shifting. In New York, Republican legislators, traditionally in lockstep with police unions, voted with Democrats to move the reform legislation. Police unions have been bulwarks against reform, but the president of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, Bill McCarthy, just called on Minneapolis union chief Bob Kroll to resign. "Unions exist to protect workers who have been wronged, not to keep violent people in police ranks," McCarthy said. Three California police unions have issued a plan for police reform to "root [racist officers] out of the law enforcement profession." Major police organizations have taken unprecedented stands against police violence. And for police who have organized and been able to stand against accountability, the defunding movement holds what should be an unmistakable lesson. The Minneapolis City Council's move to eliminate the department says: You thought you had a monopoly. You're wrong. You won't change? We can get rid of you, and we will. Other cities' instant moves to take money out of police budgets are a lesser version of the same thing, and a warning shot. Wherever their hearts and minds may be, officers with an eye on their own best interests should be paying attention.
The national cry is absolutely right: You cannot treat us like this. We will not stand for it. There is a recent parallel. Over the last decade or so, from an initial position of deep polarization, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that another core feature of modern criminal justice—mass incarceration—is fundamentally wrong. Doing criminal justice in a way that incarcerates vast numbers of people, with massive racial disproportion, and causes incalculable damage to individuals, families, and communities has come to be seen as morally wrong, deeply harmful, and contrary to what America should stand for as a nation. Understanding that has not led directly to know what to do to fix it. Still, it has reset the frame around prison and incarceration and moved the country in fundamentally different directions. Conservatives in red states have been at the heart of many of these changes. The same thing is now happening—and should be happening—around policing.
The powers and structures of the nation have always been used to do harm to Black people. The police have always been at the leading edge of doing that harm. It cannot continue. There is an enormous amount of work to do. What is clear is that the nation is in a different place than it was just a moment ago. That is a very, very good thing.