The Big Question: What Should Be Done About Police Violence?

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve today’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been condensed and edited.

Francis Wilkinson: The murder conviction of Derek Chauvin for the death of George Floyd was a rare case of punishment for police violence in the U.S. You’re a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York and author of the book “Cop in the Hood: My Year Policing Baltimore’s Eastern District,” based on your stint working as a Baltimore city police officer. You also write a blog about policing. Are police killings of civilians a problem specifically of police culture, or is this a broader issue of American culture, with police responding to violence with violence?

Peter Moskos, professor, Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration, John Jay College of Criminal Justice: I think it’s a bit of both. I do think we could reduce the number of people that cops shoot — [but] not to zero. There are huge differences regionally, especially east to west. The cities where cops shoot the most people are sort of medium-sized cities out west. I’m thinking of places like Tulsa and Oklahoma City. Riverside, California is always high on the list. Albuquerque. (New York City is as an outlier on the low extreme.) There are other variables — crime, violence, drugs, lack of police backup, that kind of thing. But there is low-hanging fruit.

FW: Low-hanging fruit meaning places where a disproportionate number of police shootings take place?

The Big Question: What Should Be Done About Police Violence?

PM: Yeah. Off the top of my head, if we could reduce shootings in the state of California to the national average, that would cut out like 100 or 200 killings a year. That seems doable, though not super easy. Part of the problem is the departments that are most ripe for improvement — the ones that have worse numbers on things we care about — those places lack the political will to change it. The idea of protesting shootings in cities that already have better-than-average or best practices — that’s how I get frustrated. We’re not going to improve things by improving New York City. I don’t think you could reduce the number in New York any further.

FW: But you can elsewhere.

PM: Given that there are about a thousand killings by police a year, I would say roughly two dozen of those fall under the criminally bad category, and probably another 300 didn’t need to happen. That’s where improvements can be made. But, you know, when there is an active shooter we want cops to shoot the person. That’s not just a legally good shooting, but sometimes morally good. I mean, that’s the unpleasant part.

FW: But you don’t hear outrage when cops shoot a mass shooter. There’s no movement against that.

PM: Well, this Columbus case [a police shooting of a knife-wielding 16-year-old girl in Columbus, Ohio] is not a mass killing, but from the cop perspective, it’s so clear cut. She was about to kill someone. And now people say, well, couldn’t the cops have done something else? The answer is no. I mean, you just let her stab her? That’s where we’re at in the public debate? I mean, there are always many, many variables involved, but right now the narrative is just a laser focus on race and that’s a disservice.

FW: Is it your sense that race is a red herring in this discussion, that there are not a disproportionate number of shootings of Black people?

PM: Well, there’s a disproportionate number, but does that indicate bias? That’s the question I’m raising. In a hypothetical shooting, would the cops have shot if the person were white? Generally, I think the answer is yes; not all the time. I’m happy Derek Chauvin got convicted and I think it was the correct verdict, but I don’t know how much more can be read into that. It wasn’t society on trial. It wasn’t even policing on trial. I mean, the case was so egregious, you had police unions criticizing it.

The problem to some extent is cops are shooting too much. Is that the biggest problem in America right now? I don’t think it is. I think the fact that murder went up probably 30 percent last year is a bigger problem. Without discounting individual tragedies, which matter, and people’s emotions, which matter, it’s a big country. There’s going to be another bad shooting in two weeks.

FW: Well, practically, how do we go from California’s excess of police shootings to New York City’s lower numbers? The New York police are not refraining from killing someone who’s in the act of committing violence. So what's the difference?

PM: Some of it is simply that New York is a less violent place. Police violence is in proportion to community violence at some level. Some of it is the number of cops; New York cops don’t patrol alone. That’s expensive, but it means that you’re never in a one-on-one situation where you might be getting beat up. You always have backup. Cops shoot because they’re afraid they’re going to get killed, they’re afraid someone else is going to get killed or they’re just afraid. So having two-person patrol, which is really inefficient, is one way to lessen that. Is it necessary? I don’t know, but if it prevents one questionable shooting and civil disorder, it probably is worth it. I think New York also has a better applicant pool because of its immigrant base, quite frankly. There are a lot of overqualified people who want to break into America’s working class.

FW: So it’s not training, it’s not culture, it’s a better workforce?

PM: It absolutely is training. That’s where I was going next. These are the un-sexy parts of reform that people don’t seem to want to talk about. And I’m not an expert in use-of-force training, but absolutely it matters. Danger perception. Threat perception. I don’t know what New York is doing right but why don’t we find out and then say, “Here are best practices. Let’s see what’s applicable to your agency.” 

FW: Does this require federal intervention?

PM: It shouldn’t. Realistically, it might. You know, we don’t even have good data on this stuff. We’re using Fatal Encounters data, which is limited. The fact that the federal government isn’t even keeping the data on this, much less trying to set best standards and practices, is a problem.

FW: The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives, would ban choke holds and no-knock warrants, end qualified immunity for police officers and create a national registry of police misconduct. Are those things sensible responses?

PM: I think generally they’re sensible; I also don’t think they will matter that much. It’s symbolic in saying, “OK, the cops are the problem.” Maybe the cops in Minneapolis are the problem, but I suspect you get much worse policing in small Republican towns that no one looks at.

FW: So what’s the bottom line? If you had your druthers about how to address police violence — even if your premise is that it’s not as big a problem as many people think — what would you do?

PM: I would start at the front end and raise hiring standards. Use evidence-based practices and training. All of this would require more money. There is a public narrative, though, that requires political support to push back against. In the old days, cops had to mess up to get in trouble. Now cops are doing the right thing and getting in trouble. This Columbus case is a perfect example. Yes, it’s a tragedy, but this is what we want them to do when someone is getting killed. There are always going to be bad police; all we can do is make it better incrementally. There’s 700,000 cops. If the goal is perfection, we’re doomed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes about U.S. politics and domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously executive editor of the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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