Sweeping Police Reform Won’t Happen Overnight
A City of San Francisco police officer walks outside an Apple Inc. store at Union Square in San Francisco, California, U.S. (Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Sweeping Police Reform Won’t Happen Overnight

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- "Without police, there is chaos," Trump said on the same afternoon as he signed an executive order on police reform. As the swell of calls to “defund the police” reverberates across the nation, Bloomberg Opinion columnists are examining a wide range of challenges to reforming law enforcement – from spending and data collection to the much-debated qualified immunity clause.

Blame the Police, But Blame Lawmakers, Too: If we’re serious about reducing police violence, we must realize that this dilemma goes beyond controlling police officers themselves. Ask yourself a crucial question: Who tells the police what to do? “There’s every reason for fury, but we mustn’t miss the larger issue. The death of Floyd naturally brings police behavior front and center. This makes sense because police officers are the visible implements of government power, the sharp end of the spear. They do not, however, make the laws they enforce. We all ride our own hobbyhorses into every controversy, and here’s mine: We have too many laws—well over 3,000 federal crimes and countless more state offenses. As I’ve long argued, if we want less violence from the enforcers, we should give them less to enforce. The fewer the laws, the fewer the interactions between citizen and enforcer; and the fewer the interactions between citizen and enforcer, the fewer the occasions for the interaction to turn violent.” – Stephen L. Carter via Businessweek

Don’t Let the Police Hide Their Bad Behavior: How often do police in the U.S. act badly? How often do they abuse or kill people? Which forces or officers are the worst offenders? We can't provide clear and complete answers to these crucial questions right now. Why? Because the data is missing. “What keeps me up at night, though, are the missing data – and particularly data on crime and police behavior. Omissions are often neither coincidence nor accident. Rather, blind spots arise where violence or abuse of power occurs. Consider the data on sexual assaults and rapes of Hispanics in Houston. Reported incidents declined 43% in the year after Donald Trump’s election. A great success? Probably not: Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo suggested Hispanics did not feel safe reporting crimes in their community because they didn’t trust the policing system, or were afraid of deportation. Crimes reported by non-Hispanics actually increased over the same period.” – Cathy O'Neil

Spending So Much on Police Has Real Downsides: Although many U.S. cities and towns allocate substantial percentages of their general funds to the police force, that spending has little relationship to actual rates of violent crime. “Does this mean that police spending is useless and all cities should defund the cops? No, and much research has shown that increased numbers of police tend to reduce crime on average … But spending on cops shouldn’t be sustained by the political power of police themselves. Powerful police unions, in addition to making it harder to punish cops for misconduct, have the potential ability to hold city governments hostage, threatening to remove citizens’ security unless hiring or pensions are increased. That asymmetry of power between the citizens and the people tasked with protecting them can decouple spending on police from the underlying need.” – Noah Smith

The Riots of the 1960s Led to Rise in Militarization of Police: Anyone wishing to change how police forces operate must reckon with how fears about race aided the transformation of policing in the first place. This shift can be traced back to right after World War II. “Los Angeles’s William Parker was the archetype of the new breed of police chiefs. He had served during the war and became a captain overseeing the military occupation of areas conquered by the Allies. When he returned, he transplanted many of the methods he had learned overseas to his hometown. Parker despised the idea of ‘community policing,’ where officers lived among the people they policed. For Parker, policing was more akin to an occupation. The result of his reforms was a far less corrupt police force than the one he had inherited, but much more militarized department. Unfortunately, it was also overwhelmingly white, which led to an increasingly strained relationship with a city that had become far more diverse by the 1960s. This set Los Angeles up for disaster.” – Stephen Mihm

Read More:
Qualified Immunity Suggests Police Are Above the Law: Noah Feldman
The Fears of Cops Should Face More Scrutiny: Virginia Postrel
Black Lives Matter, Wherever They Are: Sisonke Msimang
When Police Use Too Much Force: Stephen L. Carter

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

Jessica Karl is a social media editor for Bloomberg Opinion. She previously interned for CNN Opinion and Nylon magazine.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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