It was not just a knee pinned to George Floyd’s neck that killed him. Or gunshots that killed Breonna Taylor. Or a choke hold that killed Eric Garner. It was also centuries of systemic racism that have festered in U.S. society and institutions, including our overly punitive, adversarial system of policing. And videos of the recent police-involved killings do not show the broader toll that stop and frisk, arbitrary arrests and other aggressive law-enforcement actions have taken on Black and other minority communities. Nationwide and fundamental police reform is long overdue.
Since the advent of government-led “wars” on crime and drugs in the past decades, policing has taken a decisively violent turn, and police departments often see themselves as adversaries of the very communities they are meant to safeguard, according to policing researcher Peter Kraska of Eastern Kentucky University. In addition to this antagonistic culture, several studies show that police are more likely to stop, arrest and use force against Black and Latinx people than white people. Research by Yale University sociologist Monica Bell documents that individuals subject to such overpolicing do not see police as protecting them, even when they are concerned about violence in their communities. They report unease even after an encounter where officers acted appropriately.
Incremental reforms will not fix this perverse system: Choke holds have been banned in New York City for decades, and the Minneapolis Police Department requires officers to intervene when a fellow officer uses excessive force, but neither rule prevented the death of Garner or Floyd. Nor will technology turn the tide. Body cameras have made the problem of police brutality against minority communities harder to ignore but have not reined it in.
Instead we need to rethink how we conceive of and support public safety so that it encompasses all communities. One way to do this would be to create policies that use social workers to tackle issues that have been dropped at the feet of police who are ill trained to handle them, such as homelessness, mental illness and working with young people to prevent violence. Law-enforcement professionals themselves have highlighted this problem, and some alternative programs point toward solutions.
For example, community-based violence-prevention groups such as Cure Violence have lowered shootings and killings in cities such as Baltimore and Philadelphia where they have operated, according to policing researcher Alex Vitale of Brooklyn College. And programs such as CAHOOTS in Eugene, Ore.—which routes emergency calls about mental illness to social workers instead of the police—and the Denver Alliance for Street Health Response offer models for other cities to explore. Taking responsibility for dealing with these noncrime issues out of the hands of police removes officers from situations beyond their training and reduces the chances of encounters escalating to violence. Fewer than 1 percent of the thousands of calls CAHOOTS responded to in 2019 necessitated police backup, the group reports. In designing these policies, officials must engage communities—particularly those who have suffered most from overpolicing—to understand what issues are most important to them in ensuring safety.
A necessary step will be to address the militarization of policing. The use of SWAT teams and tactics has ballooned well beyond the threatening hostage or active-shooter situations they were intended to confront. Studies by Kraska, the American Civil Liberties Union, and others show SWAT teams are overwhelmingly used for serving search warrants and that communities of color are disproportionately targeted. Returning SWAT to its proper use—and restricting the access of wider police departments to military-style weapons or dogs trained to bite people—would reduce the chances for unnecessary violence and harm.
Accountability is another key element. Federal and local officials need the political will to create truly independent oversight mechanisms. But accountability also depends on police departments making data on killings, use of force, disciplinary records, budget allocations and other areas publicly available. Departments have resisted releasing such information, so Congress needs to pass laws that mandate that they do so.
Major police reform will take perseverance and money. (Some of the financing can come from reducing police budgets.) These approaches are a starting point as we tackle the way dangerous biases, especially racism, have become embedded in police and other powerful institutions. We must work to root them out.