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Police killings in America: Will reform be enough?

Examining benefits, pitfalls of police reform as response to US police brutality

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DETROITThis article first appeared in the For Our Future Newsletter, a periodical newsletter that dissects national issues with a local focus and examines solutions. Sign up for it right here, or by using the form at the bottom of this article.


When a person takes on the role of a police officer, they swear to protect and serve their community with respect and integrity.

But what happens when they don’t?

Police officers do have difficult jobs that can be dangerous and, at times, life-threatening -- particularly now, as some U.S. cities experience increases in crime. (In Detroit, overall crime fell in 2020 amid the pandemic, but homicides and non-fatal shootings rose dramatically.)

But as we discuss interactions between law enforcement and the people in their communities, it is important to note that not all civilians who are killed by police officers are behaving violently or involved in a violent situation.

According to research collaborative Mapping Police Violence (MPV), 1,127 civilians were killed by law enforcement in 2020 -- but reportedly more than half of those situations may not have warranted such use of force. Their 2020 police violence report claims that “58% of killings by police in 2020 -- 629 deaths -- were traffic stops, police responses to mental health crises, or situations where the person was not reportedly threatening anyone with a gun.”

And though some cities have seen a recent rise in crime rates, the data shows that police killings are not correlated with the amount of violent crimes taking place in a region.

The graph below shows the average violent crime rate per 1,000 people in America’s 50 largest cities compared to the average annual police killings per 1 million people in those cities from 2013 to 2018. And, as you’ll see, they are not really connected.

And all across the country, minority Americans are being killed by police officers at disproportionate rates compared to white Americans.

MPV’s data shows that in 2020, Black people accounted for 28% of police killings in the U.S., but only represented 13% of the population. In 2018, a study by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that Black men accounted for 40% of unarmed people fatally shot by police officers in the U.S. in 2015, though they only represented about 6% of the nation’s population.

Overall, the researchers say Black people are 3 times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and are 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed in those situations compared to white people. And though police killings have not had a significant spike over the last several years (they have been occurring at similar rates since 2013), they are still happening frequently -- frequently enough that they must be addressed.

Lawmakers and activists alike have called for several different approaches to tackle the issue, and the most common and centrist solution offered has been police reform.

Understanding police reform

Over the last several years, across the U.S., police reform has been reintroduced by local, state and federal governments as a solution in response to unrest over police killings. Police reform specifically became a popular topic across the nation after former police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes while he was handcuffed and laying face down on the pavement.

Police reforms are changes made to law enforcement operations, typically in regards to procedures and training. Recently-suggested reforms typically move to update police training and policies related to use of force and de-escalation tactics, which are meant to teach officers to exhaust all options before resorting to using lethal force, and to decrease the severity of conflicts.

For example, some law enforcement agencies have increased officer training with an emphasis on implicit bias, de-escalation and crisis intervention in response to Floyd’s death. Officers have also started wearing body cameras that document their interactions and behaviors while on the job, though that began several years ago in many regions.

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

These types of reforms are considered “procedural,” and some experts say they only address the issue in part.

“Data has shown that anti-bias training -- where folks learn about implicit bias and how to address it -- can be somewhat impactful,” said Melanca Clark, president and CEO of the Hudson-Webber Foundation in Detroit. “But that training has to be part of a comprehensive approach that includes training, revamped policies and procedures and culture-change to reinforce officer accountability and transparency.”

Police reforms have been encouraged by elected officials and Americans across the country over the last year, as they are the most immediate actions that can be taken to address frequent police killings.

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% decrease in police killings. Other policy implementations showed decreases in police killings from 5% to 22%, 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 to address issues of systemic racism perpetuated by law enforcement.

Why some don’t think police reform is enough

Reforming police can have immediate benefits, but some argue that reform is just a bandage over a much larger issue.

Following the recent police killings of Floyd and other Black Americans within the last year or so, much of the U.S. has been engaged in a racial reckoning, calling for more significant change to address the overarching issue of racism in policing.

“Police brutality has garnered national attention as it is the most visible face of a larger criminal justice system that is also brutalizing communities of color,” Clark said. “Filmed video footage has forced our society to confront and reckon with these horrific incidents. But it is important to also know that behind the ‘front door’ that is law enforcement and aggressive policing, is the less-acknowledged reality that the United States holds approximately 4% of the world’s population but nearly 25% of the world’s prison population. Our addiction to incarceration as a way to address social problems must also be confronted, as well as the systemic racism that has allowed these conditions to be ignored for too long.”

When police got their start in early America, people were hired specifically to capture and return slaves (Black and brown people) who escaped. Once slavery was abolished in the mid 1800s, police then enforced Jim Crow, or racial segregation, laws.

Jim Crow laws were dismantled in the 1940s, but Black and brown Americans are still disproportionately arrested, sentenced and physically harmed by police to this day. Black and minority Americans are disproportionately killed by police officers today, as you saw in the data above.

Of course, modern police departments do not operate with the same agenda as they did in the 1800s, but some believe that inherent prejudice against minorities on behalf of law enforcement agencies and individual law enforcers is still a factor in modern-day policing -- whether they are aware of it or not (hence the anti-bias training).

Clark says that our society has been under-educated about the history of policing in the U.S., and how it has contributed to fraught relationships with communities of color, as well as the harms wrought by aggressive policing.

“Until recently, our population simply hasn’t been engaged -- engagement and education are the responsibility of every citizen,” Clark said.

“Because the harms are disproportionately experienced by Black and brown communities, I believe there has been lack of attention and will in addressing mass criminalization,” Clark continued. “To be clear, this issue touches everyone -- one third of the U.S. population has an arrest or criminal record of some type -- but policy conversations are often had against a backdrop of implicit or explicit beliefs that ‘Black people are inherently criminal.’ People default to ‘control’ and ‘fear,’ and that’s a vicious cycle.”

But it’s fair to say that people are not inherently criminal. People of color are not inherently criminal.

So, if we teach police officers to recognize any bias or prejudice they have, and to then behave more ethically -- why are these procedural police reforms deemed insufficient by some?

Sociologist and subject expert Alex Vitale explained this best during an interview with CBC News:

“(Embracing procedural police reforms) 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,” Vitale said. “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.”

Clark also says that some police departments need to reconsider, or be more conscious of, who they are recruiting in order to avoid unnecessary tragedies.

For example, Clark says that law enforcement agencies decide who and how they hire, and outreach that emphasizes SWAT teams and the like tend to attract recruits who have a military or warrior mindset, as opposed to those who see themselves as guardians of the community.

Training police officers to operate as soldiers, to always fear and be prepared for the worst, is not an effective approach to keeping peace and serving communities of civilians. When law enforcement agencies attract recruits as branches of the military would, those who join tend to behave as though they’ve enlisted for war.

Clark says that police departments must reflect on how they recruit and hire new officers, so that they can weed out individuals who desire to soldier into communities; those with a power complex.

“They must identify the Derek Chauvins before they are deployed on the streets,” Clark said.

“Police should not think of themselves as an occupying force,” she added. “They get their power from the people they protect, they are in service to them and should expect to be held accountable by them.”

And many departments are starting to realize this, as they struggle to hire new members following the killing of Floyd.

According to research conducted by Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, the rate of retirements at some U.S. police departments rose 45% compared with the previous year, while hiring reportedly slowed by 5%.

As police departments throughout the country reportedly realign their strategies and tactics to recruit people who have more brains than they have brawn, what other steps can be taken to improve the situation for civilians?

Alternative solutions

Experts like Clark -- who, herself, has extensive experience on this subject, having served as chief of staff for President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and who is supporting police reform through the Community Policing Innovation Initiative -- point to other, more holistic approaches that could not only address police brutality, but also the root causes of crime overall.

In order for communities to thrive, Clark says there should be a “co-production of safety,” or a partnership between law enforcement and community members.

In many places, she says that police departments may just have one liaison meant to assist the team with navigating community issues, but it should be the responsibility of all members of the force to be cognizant of and proactive about how they operate on a daily basis, and how their interactions affect those they serve.

And while many believe police have a lot of work to do internally, it’s important to note that police officers do not necessarily stop crime from happening -- they typically respond after it already has. Therefore, it is safe to say that police officers are not the sole factor to consider when determining how to address crime problems and improve community conditions.

While legislators are attempting to cultivate change through police reform policies, Clark says that reforms must go beyond what happens within a law enforcement agency, and should prioritize something that would reach the root of the problem: changing the way funds are invested.

“People call police when they need them, but if you’re thinking about fundamental community well-being, what’s needed are investments in the community,” Clark said. “Mostly what people are talking about is making different investment decisions, focusing investment into employment, education.”

Over the last several decades, Clark says that here in Michigan, prison spending has increased by 250%, but state investments in education have decreased by half over the same period.

This is where the controversial “defund the police” conversation comes into play.

Most proponents of the “defund the police” movement are calling to divest from police departments and instead spend that money on community resources that address the root causes of crime -- essentially reimagining what it takes to keep communities safe at a fundamental level.

Generally, the idea is to reinvest funds into marginalized communities that have been heavily divested from to provide services that can help those community members thrive rather than be criminalized. Researchers and advocates have suggested reinvesting the funds into areas like housing, education, mental health, homelessness, domestic violence and similar services and programs to help provide community members with access to opportunities that can help them thrive and/or lift them out of poverty.

Advocates say divesting from police departments wouldn’t cause them to cease to exist entirely or immediately. Instead, the plan suggests incremental change that would eventually phase out traditional policing systems -- and the need for them -- as communities learn to function in a more equitable way by addressing the root causes of crime and poverty through a reimagined system.

Some do advocate for an entirely new public safety system, though that goes hand-in-hand with investing in community resources and programs.

More on that: Policing alternative: What a community-led public safety system might look like

Clark’s organization, the Hudson-Webber Foundation, is already doing this work -- investing in localized initiatives to help communities prosper. For example, Clark says the organization recently approved a project that gives people involved in gun violence a path out by providing them with support like cognitive behavior therapy and skills training. The foundation is also supporting a mental health co-response partnership program to reduce arrests and emergency room utilization by providing community-based services to those struggling with substance abuse or mental health disorders.

“These are the types of investments that lead to enduring safety outcomes and community well-being, as opposed to contribution to a cycle of incarceration that has generational impacts,” Clark said.

Clark says the conversations about what communities require to thrive should not start with police. Instead, many say it is the lawmakers who must be more proactive about funding solutions.

Still, there are steps every individual can take to help make a difference.

How can you help?

A great place to start: Conduct your own research; invest your time into learning about issues like systemic racism in the U.S. and its role in modern society, over-policing in communities, mass incarceration of Black and brown people and more.

Next, be critical about who you elect to office -- make sure their plans align with your goals for your community. When an election isn’t approaching, be sure to make your community’s wants and needs known to your elected officials. It’s important to be active and engaged in the political process.

If you have the means, you can donate to organizations and funds that are already working to improve the quality of life for the people in their communities. Local nonprofits are facilitating programs in your communities to help them thrive, and funds like the Bail Project through the Detroit Justice Center help provide bail to people in need and “restore the presumption of innocence,” especially among people of color who are disproportionately affected.

Many of these organizations also benefit from the help of volunteers, so you might consider donating your time, instead.

And, possibly the easiest action you can take: Listen. Listen to the thoughts and experiences of Black and brown Americans. Listen to their problems, their fears, their hopes without judgement, without prejudice. Listen to police officers who want to improve the system so we can best learn how to move forward together.

We are all human beings deserving of respect, and we must work together to create a society that is more equitable, safe and civil. We must be engaged, we must be willing.

Imagine what change we could yield if we all chose to care above anything else.


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