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Police Reform


One of the hottest issues being debated in America today is police reform. On one side, some are demanding to defund or even abolish the police, terms that mean different things to different people. On the other side, there are those who want to reform the police.

To gain a better understanding of each side’s perspective, I share with you a summary of Aaron Ross Coleman’s Vox article titled “Police reform, defunding, and abolition, explained.” This is followed by an article by R. Avi Shafran titled “Polishing the Badge,” which I believe he wrote to his Haredi-oriented community to help balance their perspective on the issue.             

Blog #1:

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police, virtually every faction in American politics — from Trump Republicans to Biden Democrats, from Cato libertarians to Heritage Foundation conservatives — says they want to change policing.

On one end of the spectrum stand abolitionists, who want to “delegitimize the police.” These activists demand an entirely new public safety system based on social and economic equity, bolstered by a network of nonviolent emergency responders. They are offering more than a different vision for public safety — they are offering a different vision for the composition, and fundamental assumptions, of society. They have a different view of what causes crime. In the world they imagine, America would spend much more on education, health care, and infrastructure, and nothing on police departments as we currently know them.

On the other end stand reformers, who want to “restore legitimacy to the police.” This group seeks to implement procedural reforms to make officers more accountable and effective. They also, in general, want to spend more on policing. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden proposed a $300 million increase to the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. . . .

The police reform movement stands atop two premises. Good policing is good. Reams of research show it does, in fact, reduce violent crime. But bad policing is bad. It’s bad on its own terms, because it harms the people it brutalizes, and it’s bad because it delegitimizes the police in the eyes of the community they’re meant to serve. Police reformers, then, are trying to do two things at the same time: Make sure there are enough police to keep violent crime low, and make sure those police are both well-trained enough and tightly constrained enough not to abuse their power. . . .

But to the defunders and abolitionists, reform has been tried, and it has been found wanting. This year, the police department in Tucson, Arizona, was noted as “progressive” and “reform-minded” and had “banned chokeholds and shooting at moving vehicles, embracing a range of measures aimed at reducing police violence,” according to the New York Times. Yet local officers still killed Carlos Ingram-Lopez, a Latino man who was reportedly naked and experiencing a mental health crisis when he was killed and withheld the video for months. Likewise, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was celebrated for its progressive mayor, a former civil rights attorney, and their reform-minded police chief, city employees still killed George Floyd. 

Citing reform failures, many activists want to go further. . . .

The case for defunding the police rests on the concept that it is more effective and efficient to shift responsibility away from officers and departments to civil service and care workers specifically trained to handle medical and logistical problems. Many of these advocates still see a role for police officers, albeit a significantly diminished one. They view officers as a last resort, reserved for the most serious crimes, and for true emergencies as opposed to the roles they currently serve as default first responders. In this way, they differ from the abolitionists.

The long-term difference between those who want to defund and those who want to abolish is that the former believe police to be necessary in the case of true violence and extreme emergencies. Abolitionists don’t; they ultimately call for alternative interventions, even for violent crimes.difference between those who want to defund and those who want to abolish is that the former believe police to be necessary in the case of true violence and extreme emergencies. Abolitionists don’t; they ultimately call for alternative interventions, even for violent crimes. 

In addition to all the critiques levied by defunders, abolitionists contend that the police remain an inherently racist institution, with its legacy stretching back to slave patrols, a history of supporting white supremacy groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and contemporary patterns of the racialized brutality on Black, brown, Indigenous, and vulnerable communities.

Abolitionists describe ending the police as an integral part of America’s “third Reconstruction,” where in addition to full citizenship and economic rights, Black people and all people will be free of wanton state violence at the hands of the police. . . . 

Abolitionists envision ending both police and prisons as the next critical chapter in the Black freedom struggle following up on the end of slavery and Jim Crow. They believe that much of the crime that police officers respond to reflects broader conditions, disinvestments, and oppressions present across society, which are then used as justification for the policing and carceral states. Police, in this telling, mask deep societal sins, and only by removing them can we see the real work and transformation needed. . . .

Critics of police abolition remain skeptical about these activists’ ability to create alternative forms of care and emergency response to address violent crime. These traditional policymakers fear reducing the police force will result in spiking neighborhood violence. Since clearance rates and crime reporting in low-income communities of color remain abysmally low, abolition advocates often embrace a new policy framework.

Sharp, and even seemingly irreconcilable, differences exist in the competing visions of reform, defunding, and abolition. Yet the shortcomings of the American police system — and American public policy more broadly — stretch so wide that it creates a significant zone of overlap. Policing fails to address much of American inequality, dysfunction, and civil disorder. We have asked them to do too much, and we have neglected the investments and institutions that would make their presence less necessary. . . .

More than half of police work addresses non-criminal issues according to an analysis of public records by the New York Times and an observational study in Criminal Justice Review. Likewise, policing scholars like NYU Law’s Barry Friedman argue that “crimefighting actually is a very small part of what police do every day.”

Moreover, officers themselves often question the utility of using police for issues like mental health and homelessness. “I’m not even saying now that the budgets shouldn’t be looked at, and seeing if there’s another way to do that,” Vince Champion of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers said on a recent episode of The Daily. “Look, a lot of officers, we’re social workers. We’re marriage counselors. We’re doctors sometimes. We’re more than actually what we were trained to be. I mean, we try to train for everything that we can, but we just can’t be.” . . .

Blog #2:

Like most everything these polarized-perspectives days, talking about the police seems to demand the taking of sides — either with ‘em or agin ‘em.

But, of course, that’s nonsense. One can, and should, fully acknowledge the importance of law enforcement, the debt of gratitude we owe officers who put their lives on the line and the fact that the majority of them are public servants in the very best sense of the phrase — while simultaneously acknowledging that a systemic problem, at least in some areas, seems to exist in policing today.

The list of police shootings and unnecessarily violent restraints of unarmed people needn’t be reviewed here. In many cases there may have been reason to fear an attack by a suspect, but in many there was not. And the infamous cases of misconduct we’ve witnessed with our eyes over recent years are the product of bystanders’ phone cameras. There were likely many similar unrecorded ones.

And so “police reform,” even for those of us who deeply respect police, should not be an offensive phrase. There are reasonable measures to be considered.

Currently, for instance, military veterans are given preference in police hiring. An assortment of state and federal laws — some dating back to the late 19th century — require law enforcement agencies to choose veterans over candidates with no military backgrounds. One in five police officers is, quite literally, a warrior, returned from Afghanistan, Iraq or some other assignment.

While the intent of front-listing veterans is a laudable one, the mindset of a soldier is not the one that will necessarily produce the best results in an officer of the peace. A reassessment of law enforcement recruiters’ favoring of ex-soldiers, people who are used to dealing with enemies, not citizens, may be in order.

Then there is training. In most countries, joining a police force is no simple affair. In Germany, for example, police recruits are required to spend two and a half to four years in basic training to become an officer. Basic training in the U.S. can take as little as 21 weeks and rarely runs longer than the six months required in New York City.

And the first emphasis in police training in the U.S., understandably, is on procedures and self-defense. Expanded training time would allow for more focus on things like crisis intervention and de-escalation.

An even greater potential reform would be transparency in negotiations between police unions and municipalities. More than 85% of union-bargained police contracts in major cities around the country include language limiting oversight or discipline of officers.

As a result, officers have been rehired even after being fired for fatal shootings. In 2011, an Oakland, California officer won his job back in union-negotiated arbitration after being fired for fatally shooting two unarmed men — one, in the back — in two different incidents mere months apart. In 2014, a similar union-demanded arbitration reinstated a Miami detective who killed an unarmed man in a shooting that a review board called “unjustified.”

And those are the known cases. Disciplinary records of officers are often kept secret. To its credit, New York City recently announced that its log of cases of officers who have been disciplined would be made public. That should be standard practice in all police departments.

Another good idea would be the hiring of more women officers. Just about 13% of officers nationally are women; in New York City, the figure is just shy of 15%. Women (apologies to anyone who imagines that women are no different from men) are less likely to use force or escalate a tense situation.

And, finally, a good amount of police reform would happen on its own if police were simply paid better than they currently are. Some states compensate their police fairly well and offer many benefits. But others don’t, and few occupations entail the degree of danger that policing does. Treating police as the true professionals we expect them to be would make a police career more enticing to more people, and increase the pool of those wanting “to protect and to serve,” who wish to demonstrate, in the words of the New York City Police Department motto, “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect.”