We Don’t Just Need Nicer Cops. We Need Fewer Cops.

We Don’t Just Need Nicer Cops. We Need Fewer Cops.

We Don’t Just Need Nicer Cops. We Need Fewer Cops.

Here’s what we actually know about proposed police reforms.


Protests against the recent police killings of unarmed black men and boys—Eric Garner and Akai Gurley in New York, Michael Brown in Ferguson, John Crawford and 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio—have put the policing of communities of color on the top of the local and national agenda. Signs are even emerging of a new level of social movement activity around racial justice and the criminal justice system that may outlast the current wave of anger and heartbreak.

What stands before us, therefore, is the hard work of both building political power and articulating what that change might look like. So far politicians, police and even many community leaders have trotted out many of the well-worn proposals that have failed to deliver in the past and offer little hope for the future.

Police Diversity

While the racial imbalance between the police and the policed in Ferguson was no doubt a contributing factor in the breakdown of community trust in the police, increasing police diversity is unlikely to improve things much on its own. Increasingly, large urban police departments are becoming much more diverse and reflective of the communities being policed. For years, Philadelphia police have had to live in the city, resulting in a department that largely mirrors the city’s demographics. That department, however, has been rife with corruption, mismanagement and excessive use of force. As a result, residents of color have seen little relief from the daily indignities of discourtesy and aggressive criminalization. Even the NYPD has significantly enhanced its diversity in recent years in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and language skills, but few are likely to claim that this has led to a dividend of courtesy or respect.

Recent uproars over the diversity of NYPD leadership in recent months are a further red herring. There is no evidence that black and Latino police executives have been a force for moderation under either Commissioners Kelly or Bratton. Top cops like Phil Banks and Rafael Pineiro oversaw a massive expansion of stop-and-frisk under Kelly and fully embraced the over-policing of communities of color as the primary strategy for crime reduction.

Community Policing

Everyone likes the idea of a neighborhood police officer who knows and respects the community and can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. Unfortunately, this is a mythic understanding of the history and nature of urban policing. What distinguishes the police from other city agencies is the legal authorization to use force. Their primary tools of problem solving are arrest and coercion.

While we need police to follow the law and be restrained in their use of force, we cannot expect them to be significantly more friendly given their current role in society. The reality is that when given the task of enforcing a war on drugs, stamping out quality-of-life violations and engaging in “broken windows” policing, their interactions with the public in high crime and disorder areas is going to be at best gruff and distant and at worst hostile and abusive. When their basic job is to criminalize all disorderly behavior, the public will resist them and view their efforts as intrusive and illegitimate, and the police will react to this resistance with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.

Enhanced Training

Training of police officers is notoriously inadequate and at times laughable. Officers are subjected to paramilitary drilling and discipline, lectured on paperwork and legal procedure, taught how to drive and shoot a gun, and then let loose on the public, where their colleagues quickly tell them to forget everything they learned in the academy. So, yes, training improvements are needed, but their effect on communities of color are unlikely to be significantly beneficial.

While inadequate training and supervision may have played a role in some recent high-profile incidents, the fact remains that the massive criminalization of communities of color is being carried out using “proper procedures.” The tens of thousands of arrests for low-level drug possession, trespassing, jumping subway turnstiles and dozens of other “broken window” offenses are generally carried out consistent with police policy, if not strict legal standards. Eric Garner may have been killed by improper arrest procedures and use of force, but he was also killed because the police were following orders to arrest people for selling loose cigarettes.

Community Control of the Police

Even more radical strategies like calling for community control of the police have serious drawbacks. There are two main problems. The first is that communities are not well suited for this task. Most people have very little interest or expertise in undertaking the role of managing a complex city service. In addition, no matter what it might say on paper, community power is typically no match for the entrenched bureaucratic power of the police. Numerous studies show that even when the community is supposed to be given a role in directing police services, the police quickly come to control the community process. Second, even if communities were to develop the power to direct the police, we might not like the results. Given the highly segregated nature of American cities, enclaves of racialized policing could be expected to emerge, as white communities attempt to wall themselves off from the perceived threats of outsiders. Even in communities of color, local community leaders are not always operating with the best interests of the entire community in mind. Those that tend to populate community institutions tend to be older, more conservative and closely tied to local landlords and businesses. These players are unlikely to be the source of dramatic changes in police policy.

Body Cameras

This is a reform that has some potential. But body cameras are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place. If local DAs and grand juries are unwilling to act on the evidence, then the courts won’t be an effective tool for accountability, as we have seen in the Garner case and several others. It is possible that cameras will lead to more civil litigation and more internal disciplinary procedures, causing the city to pay out large damages to the Garner family and that one or more of the officers involved may be disciplined or even fired over their actions. Civil judgments can put pressure on departments for change and can even result in settlement agreements that mandate specific changes, as in the stop-and-frisk case. Firings and significant discipline can also alter officer behavior. Finally, the accountability mechanism of last resort is the public. The combination of critical media coverage and protest action can have the effect of shifting public opinion sufficiently or creating a governing crisis that political leaders have to address. This is what happened around stop-and-frisk when the stopping of hundreds of thousands of young men of color was transformed from a policing issue into a civil rights issue.

Police Prosecutions

It is unlikely that criminal prosecution will ever be a significant driver of police reform. There is a fundamental conflict of interest for DAs who must work closely with police and typically rely on their political support for re-election. Also, the legal standards for police use of force are incredibly permissive and give heavy weight to officer perceptions of danger at the time of the incident. We can take steps to strengthen this process. We could take prosecutions out of the hands of local DAs and turn it over to a statewide “Blue Desk.” This office would be responsible for investigating and prosecuting all cases of police misconduct statewide and would ideally develop the expertise and independence necessary for these difficult cases.

Changing the Police Role

What we really need, though, is a major rethink of the police role. A part of the story of over-policing is hundreds of years old and is about slave patrols, Black Codes, and Jim Crow. Another part of the story, however, is more recent. It’s about the war on drugs, the war on crime and “quality of life” and “broken windows” policing. We need to push back on this dramatic expansion of police power and its role in the development of mass incarceration that has radically transformed poor communities of color in profoundly negative ways and is at the heart of the “new Jim Crow.”

For too long, residents in these communities have faced a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, they have suffered the consequences of high crime and disorder. It is their children who are shot and robbed. But they have also had to bear the brunt of aggressive, invasive and humiliating policing that has criminalized huge swaths of the community. There must be an alternative to this.

We have to take steps to dial back our reliance on the police as the primary tool of resolving neighborhood crime and disorder problems. For instance, we have overwhelming evidence that the policing of drugs is a corrosive and counterproductive strategy that has done nothing to reduce the negative impact of drugs on communities. Drugs are a public health problem, not a policing problem. The same approach should be taken for sex work.

Recently Mayor de Blasio announced a new $130 million package to divert people with mental illness from the criminal justice system and to better treat those who are already there. Our nation’s jails and prisons have become massive warehouses for the mentally ill, and this is a welcome development. However, it still rests on a foundation of police intervention. Access to services is still predicated on coming into contact with the police. The tragedy is that police are poorly trained and equipped for this role. They are primarily equipped with the tools of arrest and physical coercion, which can be incredibly counterproductive when dealing with a person in crisis. Instead, we should rely on civilian crisis intervention teams. We also need to develop community-based mental health services that don’t require criminal justice involvement to access. Similar arguments can be made for dealing with homeless people.

Even more serious crime, such as violence committed by youths, may be more receptive to community-based efforts that do not rely on the punitive and coercive power of the police. Across the country community-based organizations in high-crime areas are working with young people to stop the violence using a variety of public health and community empowerment strategies. The overall effectiveness of these strategies is still being evaluated, but we know that they do not come with the many negative collateral consequences of mass criminalization.

Along the same lines, we need to get police out of schools. Numerous studies have shown that criminalizing school children worsens safety in the schools and drives the most needy students onto the streets, where they often become involved in more serious criminality. Enlightened school leaders with adequate resources have shown that they can increase school safety through creative restorative justice programs that involve students in disciplinary procedures and attempt to take home and community conditions into consideration in resolving problems.

Any real agenda for police reform must look not to make the police friendlier and more professional. Instead, it must work to reduce the police role and replace it with empowered communities working to solve their own problems. We don’t need community control of the police. We need community control over services that will create safer and more stable neighborhoods and cities.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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