Examining police reform: Does it work?

Officials are encouraging police reform following national unrest over the the killing of George Floyd -- but some question if it is the right approach

Protesters and clergyman demonstrate against police brutality and racism on June 7 in Hollywood, Florida. The recent death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 ignited a global protest movement about racism and equality. (Johnny Louis/Getty Images)

DETROIT – Police reform has recently become a national topic of conversation amid the country’s protests against the killing of Black Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

Police reform is not a new topic of conversation, however; police reform dates back to the mid 1800s and was continuously encouraged all throughout the 20th century.

In more recent years, police reformations have often been introduced as a solution after a person of color is unjustly killed by a police officer -- which, in the U.S., happens more frequently than some may believe.

Demonstrators around the country, and even the world, have been protesting against police brutality and racism for two weeks following Floyd’s death on May 25. In response, city and state governments -- such as in Minnesota, California and even here in Michigan -- have proposed new police reforms to help prevent similar tragedies from occurring in the future.

But will these reforms effectively address the issues of systemic racism and police brutality in the U.S.? That question is being widely debated among Americans today.

While it’s true that police reform is a near-immediate action that can be taken to promote positive change within police departments, that change doesn’t necessarily address the root of the problem.

History of law enforcement

It’s important to first understand how the country’s law enforcement system originated.

Policing began in the south in early America when people were hired to capture and return slaves that escaped. Once slavery was abolished police then enforced Jim Crow, or racial segregation, laws.

Since law enforcement’s beginning, Black Americans have been and still are disproportionately arrested, sentenced and killed by police.

Black Americans are reportedly incarcerated at more than five times the rate of White Americans, and are three times more likely to be killed by police than White people. According to a 2018 study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Black men accounted for 40 percent of unarmed people fatally shot by police officers in the U.S. in 2015 -- even though they only represented about six percent of the population.

“Too often people look at the contemporary issue, the issue that is going on right now but not understanding that all that is happening is seeped in 400 years of legacy of injustice,” Michigan State University professor of criminal justice Jennifer Cobbina told USA Today. “These past grievances, past harms by law enforcement, need to be addressed before even attempting to move forward.”

What does police reform look like?

Police reform has been reintroduced throughout the country in recent years, particularly following unrest over killings of Black Americans by police officers, including in the well known case of Michael Brown and now George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

During his time in office, former U.S. President Barack Obama led a Task Force on 21st Century Policing in response to unrest over Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. The task force recommended a number of reformations in 2015, among them updating police training and policies related to use of force and de-escalation.

That is essentially how police reform has looked in the U.S. over the last few years: Some police departments have increased officer training with an emphasis on implicit bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention and officers have started wearing body cameras that document the their interactions while on the job.

Subject expert and sociologist Alex Vitale describes these actions as “procedural justice reforms,” which focuses on the way laws are enforced and says they are different from “substantive justice reforms," which focuses on the outcome and impact of policing.

According to Vitale, deciding which type of police reform is used determines how successful it will be at addressing the issues of police brutality and racism.

Police reform happening now

In response to the national outrage over Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths, police departments around the country have committed to police reform.

On Monday Democrats proposed the Justice in Policing Act 2020 that would limit legal protections for police, create a national database of excessive-force incidents and ban police choke holds. It’s unclear if Republicans will support the legislation, which is among the most ambitious law enforcement reforms sought by Congress in years, AP reports.

Over the weekend California Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the state’s police-training program to stop teaching officers a neck hold that blocks blood flowing to the brain. The Michigan Senate passed a new bill last week to require increased police training on implicit bias, de-escalation techniques and more.

MORE: Michigan Gov. Whitmer backs police changes after deaths of Floyd, others

Minnesota agreed to ban police chokeholds and neck restraints on Saturday as part of an agreement with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights. The agreement would also require authorization from the police chief or a deputy chief to use crowd control weapons such as tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades.

Campaign Zero, an organization that identifies policy solutions in an effort to end police brutality in the U.S., is calling for immediate police reform amid the national unrest. In a movement that has gone viral, the organization’s “#8CantWait” campaign demands police departments immediately ban chokeholds and require de-escalation, warning before shooting, comprehensive reporting and more.

Though Minneapolis is the epicenter of the nation’s unrest over Floyd’s killing, the city’s police department actually implemented numerous reforms within the last few years. According to Vitale the department “implemented trainings on implicit bias, mindfulness, de-escalation, and crisis intervention; diversified the department’s leadership; created tighter use-of-force standards; adopted body cameras; initiated a series of police-community dialogues; and enhanced early-warning systems to identify problem officers.”

For the Minneapolis Police Department to be in its position today after implementing significant police reform in recent years begs the question:

Does police reform work?

The Use of Force Project released findings that showed police departments that implemented certain police reform policies were less likely to kill people than departments that did not implement them. Based on their analysis, police departments that require comprehensive reporting and that officers exhaust all other means before shooting showed a 25 percent decrease in police killings. Other policy implementations showed decreases in police killings from 5 percent to 22 percent depending on the policy.

While there is evidence that police reform can reduce police killings, critics of police reform argue that these actions are not drastic enough and do not address issues of systemic racism perpetuated by law enforcement.

Research collected by Mapping Police Violence (pictured in the chart below) shows that police killings of Black Americans has decreased after a spike in 2015, but the number of killings in 2019 is not far off from the number of killings in 2013.

In an interview with CBC News, sociologist Vitale identifies potential flaws with the approach to police reform.

“The kinds of reforms that they (Minneapolis Police Department) embraced just aren’t capable of fixing the problem,” Vitale said. "They attempted a whole set of what we often refer to as procedural justice reforms ... things like implicit bias training. That imagines that the problems of race and policing are located in the completely unconscious and unintentional discretionary decision-making of any individual officer, and this belies two problems: One is that we have a problem of explicit racism in American policing, and while all officers aren’t racist, there are clear tendencies toward this problem. More importantly, we have a problem of structural racism in American policing -- and that is the decision by elected officials to turn the problems of Black communities into policing problems.

“When there’s no mental health services, we turn that over to the police; mass homelessness, turn that over to police; problems with young people, we criminalize them. So unless we address those structural decisions, tinkering the attitudes of individual officers just isn’t going to make a difference,” Vitale added.

The fact that disproportionate police brutality toward and killings of Black Americans persists despite police reform, coupled with law enforcement’s racist origins, lends critics to believe that inclusive change cannot occur within an inherently-racist system. Amid the current national outcry against police brutality and racism, activists are advocating for a public safety alternative to traditional policing.

Alternative to police reform

Some advocates are calling to “defund the police” instead of promoting police reform following Floyd’s death. Defunding the police would free up funds to invest in community-led health and safety initiatives that limit the need for police involvement.

With the community-led public safety system, funds would be diverted from police departments and distributed among community services and programs meant to address the root causes of crime, such as housing, education, counseling services and more.

The alternative system would also eliminate the need for police to respond to emergency situations. Instead, trained professional emergency response teams -- not police officers -- would respond to emergencies including those related to substance abuse, homelessness, domestic violence and mental health. The ultimate goal is to have one phone number to call (instead of 9-1-1) in which specialized professionals can respond to situations they’re specifically trained to address and resolve. Advocates for this alternative believe that specialized response teams would be more equipped to handle the various issues a community faces better than police officers, who are not trained as extensively in the same fields.

“Defunding” advocates argue that procedural police reform does not adequately address systemic racism in the U.S. and therefore won’t effect enough change to make a difference for marginalized communities. The alternative is meant to provide agency to community members to work together to identify and address community needs in order to improve their individual and collective lives.

Amid discussions of public safety alternatives and the Minneapolis Police Department disbanding, Detroit police Chief James Craig said Monday that he believes reform is inevitable but dismantling doesn’t necessarily make sense.

“If you’re here to make a statement like you feel the department should be dismantled, what are you going to replace it with?” Craig said. “What is the plan?”

Craig said he is open to changing his department by investing in mental health support for officers and getting the officers and citizens who have had major run-ins together for discussions.

RELATED: Former Detroit police chief says Minneapolis Police Department ‘has some serious problems’

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.