Police Reform Won’t Fix a System That Was Built to Abuse Power

Police Reform Won’t Fix a System That Was Built to Abuse Power

Police Reform Won’t Fix a System That Was Built to Abuse Power

The history of American policing shows that it was designed to eat up resources and subjugate the civilian population.


Less than a week after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) released a statement addressing both his killing and the protests that have ensued. As “defund the police” became a rallying cry, offering a practical step on the pathway toward the demand for abolition, the IACP instead advocated incremental reform. Its statement gives an insider perspective on the past, present, and future of policing:

While difficult to recognize right now, policing has made significant advancements in recent years. Police leaders have acknowledged the misdeeds of the past and have sought out community partners to build a better future.

These efforts have led agencies throughout the nation to increase transparency, revise policies to enhance procedural justice, recruit and hire officers which reflect the community they serve, significantly reduce use of force by officers and focus on eliminating police cultures that prevent officers from holding each other accountable.

Swap out a few buzzwords, and this statement is not so different from what the IACP might have said in the 1950s. At the time, the organization was aligned with the CIA and US national security state, helping autocrats across the globe update their own police forces. Procedural reforms would help police atone for past—always past—misdeeds, both at home and abroad.

Police reform is supposed to help police improve their technical capabilities to ensure order and disarm critics who charge that governments do not care about abuse. It is intended to increase police legitimacy, shoring up public support for the government. But by earning this support at home, police leaders have transformed their agencies into a power unto themselves. Greater police legitimacy means greater ability to shape governing priorities. The result is today’s larger, technologically sophisticated police department, which gobbles up increasing shares of budgets and seem to answer to no one. When police commit an outrage, reformers step in to reject calls for reducing police power. They offer reform as a way to maintain it.

Congressional Democrats have long supported police reformism. Their latest bill, the Justice in Policing Act, does not deviate sharply from business as usual, offering bans on choke holds and a “national police misconduct registry,” among other technical fixes. The bill’s greatest surprise is the absence of new spending to expand policing, though its backers have emphatically noted that it is not a defunding bill. Nevertheless, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden immediately responded by pledging to spend $300 million on policing, an amount too small to have much effect nationally, but large enough to signal that Biden remains committed to law and order.

Elected officials deserve much of the blame for believing that appropriating money for police will fix policing. But officials have been following a script police themselves wrote, as they learned to frame what they wanted as what they desperately needed. The United States arrived at the contemporary situation of unaccountable police power because police reform has been a long-standing project, with global dimensions. And it was through negotiations over this international cooperation project with so-called Third World countries that leaders of the IACP realized the value of speaking to a national audience as police professionals first and foremost.

Let’s say you’re an autocrat in Latin America or Asia during the late 1950s, facing labor unrest or more generalized socioeconomic turmoil. You may already have a military that is reliably strong—if perhaps a little untrustworthy, because top commanders are already eyeing your office. Sending in soldiers to control protests could weaken your own hold on power, especially if they kill protesters. Instead, it would make more sense to use a civilian police force. Unlike the military, the police aren’t rigidly separated from the people, living in barracks. The police go home to sleep at night, in the same neighborhoods as the protesters.

But your police force is outdated. It lacks modern telecommunications technologies. If the police arrest a suspected subversive, they can’t check his credentials against a centralized database. What’s more, your officers are prone to panic and have been known to shoot on sight. When your citizens think of the police, they think of traffic jams, jailbreaks, ill-fitting uniforms, or simply brutality. In order to maintain your grip on power, you need to reform, modernize, and professionalize your police force. It might even mean ceding some of your own power to the police. So, you turn to the IACP for help.

From 1955 through 1962, on behalf of the US government, the IACP coordinated visits of ranking foreign police to the United States. Its small staff worked to make sure that police from Iran, Indonesia, Bolivia, and Thailand could engage in training operations across the country. They visited station houses from New York to Seattle, observing training exercises, studying textbooks and riot manuals, and riding along in squad cars. Many learned a lot about US policing customs. A few fell in love with American women. All learned to detest communism.

At the same time, the IACP played a domestic role. It collected data from chiefs within the United States on the current state of policing. It helped develop what would today be considered “best practices.” And members of the organization published research and spoke at conferences and workshops.

While Third World countries faced rebellious political movements that these police were to put down, so too was the United States convulsing. The civil rights movement was growing, and many African Americans were becoming frustrated at the slow pace of change after Brown v. Board of Education and the Montgomery bus boycott. Police, it turned out, were at the center of the action everywhere.

The reason to bring these foreign police to the United States was to help them learn how to undermine left-wing militancy through adept everyday police techniques, from fingerprinting to stakeouts. But the IACP program was unwieldy, and experts wondered whether visiting officers were learning enough. The Kennedy administration decided to terminate its contract with the IACP and build a government-run training academy in Washington, D.C.

As a nominally international membership organization, the IACP hoped to become the most respected voice in law enforcement at a moment of transformation. If Southern sheriffs were harming the profession’s credibility by countenancing racist brutality, the IACP was seeking a way forward that would not dismantle America’s racial hierarchy—but also would appease liberal officials. It was a difficult needle to thread. A focus on reformism was the solution.

The IACP’s director at the time was Quinn Tamm, the organization’s director and editor of its monthly magazine The Police Chief. He was ultimately responsible for the contract to help train police from overseas. When national security officials wanted to end the IACP contract, internalize training expenses, and build a new government-run international police academy, Tamm worried that the broken contract would make the IACP look inept. Could the IACP fulfill the mandate of leading the world’s law enforcement field, setting the benchmarks for reform?

Tamm discovered a new voice, however, in this arcane bureaucratic fight over how best to marshal police resources to fight communism. When Tamm angrily denounced the withdrawal of the contract, he spoke as a representative of police as a whole. He claimed this foreign policy decision disrespected American police chiefs. (That no chief had voted for him as leader was irrelevant.) He now realized that he could make an argument to Washington bureaucrats over spending and dare them to refuse.

If politicians were serious about law and order, then they better pony up the money for the cash-strapped chiefs Tamm represented. Referring to themselves as professionals meant that their expertise was not to be questioned. And if elected officials didn’t want to listen to a respected professional like Tamm, then a retrograde racist chief like Birmingham’s Bull Connor was always waiting in the wings.

By the end of the summer of 1964, after uprisings in Harlem, Rochester, and Philadelphia, among other cities, Lyndon Johnson’s aides began to think about a federal program to help police. As I show in my book, Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, one relevant bureaucratic model turned out to be the overseas police assistance program: deliver money and expertise from Washington to frontline police. The United States was doing it in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Early in 1965, Congress approved the Law Enforcement Assistance Act, a measure that would begin to do it from sea to shining sea.

IACP leaders played a key role in mobilizing a fractious constituency, chiefs unsure that it was in their best interest to support federal anti-crime legislation. Particularly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, which outlawed public segregation, police were wary. They often believed that federal intervention meant they would be told how to do their jobs. Desegregation felt like federal overreach to many. Police asked: Would the federal dollars come with strings attached, with outside oversight? Tamm helped convince the chiefs that it would not. Instead, the money would help police innovate. Still, many IACP members “wanted more men and equipment—not studies and innovative programs.”

But the promise of any new money was difficult for chiefs to resist. Many police departments across the United States were as technologically backward as the Third World departments the National Security Council had decided to aid. Alongside Tamm, IACP members testified before Congress, often using the type of tough-on-crime rhetoric that would then be adopted by elected officials themselves. When a far more massive federal anti-crime bill came up for debate, the IACP threw its support behind it.

Congress passed the 1968 Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act after four years of civil unrest, often caused by police abuse. It created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which over the next 13 years spent $8 billion—$25.9 billion today—on upgrading police forces, as well as expanding and modernizing other aspects of the penal system. Police had learned that if they spoke with a unified voice, taking up the mantle of reform, they could get what they wanted—respect, money, and power.

The Johnson administration went out of its way to allay fears that a federal anti-crime bill would interfere with policing at the local level. All it was intended to do was professionalize, often meaning adoption of the latest technologies. For many observers, the esoteric design of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, reflecting the imperative to avoid federal interference, made it ineffective. But the type of gentle reassurance Johnson offered in the 1960s, telling the IACP that no federal authority would tell them what to do on the streets, eventually became unnecessary.

When the next Democratic president to sign major anti-crime legislation, Bill Clinton, addressed the IACP, he wore a jacket that read “America’s Chief” on it. Johnson would have been mortified. But police chiefs across the United States knew how to interpret the message. Clinton may have been the chief, but they were now in command.

The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, written by then-Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, gave chiefs what the 1968 omnibus bill did not: money to hire 100,000 new officers. The expansion of police power was sealed, and the new Department of Justice office to oversee this growth framed its work in the rhetoric of reform and technical expertise. Three years after the 1994 bill passed, Congress authorized a new program as part of the defense spending bill. It took its innocent-sounding moniker from the place in the legislation where it was hidden, section 1033. This program actually replicated and formalized something invigorated with the 1968 bill and tested by the overseas police assistance program: the transfer of military hardware into police hands. Police today are endowed with massive budgetary resources and armed with sophisticated weaponry.

This brings us back to where we began: with the question of how to quell a rebellion. If US police professionals helped autocrats decades ago, today they have become the autocrats. Police have behaved during these protests as if their prerogative trumps the Constitution. Whether by attacking or arresting journalists, detaining delivery workers during curfews, or simply brutalizing innumerable protesters with tear gas, batons, and rubber bullets, police indicated throughout the current protests that they would not be constrained.

In response to demands to abolish police, the profession is offering the familiar acknowledgment of a need for reform. But the long history of police reform as a response to political insurgency may be coming to a close before our eyes. Police have held municipal budgets hostage for decades now, under the premise that without their professional expertise there would be anarchy. After the past two weeks of police terror, once they take off their body armor and put the chemical munitions back in storage, will anyone believe them when they say “Trust us”? It is time to stop believing that police reform is the answer. Reformism is what got us here.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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