Protests against the recent police killings of unarmed black people have put the policing of communities of color at the top of local and national agendas. What stands before us is the hard work of building political power as well as articulating what change should look like. So far, politicians, police and even many community leaders have trotted out a number of the well-worn proposals that have failed to deliver in the past and offer little hope for the future. Let us consider them.
Police diversity: For years, Philadelphia police have been required to live in the city, resulting in a department that largely mirrors the city’s demographics. But it has been rife with corruption and excessive use of force. As a result, residents of color have seen little relief from the daily indignities of discourtesy and aggressive criminalization. In New York City, there is no evidence that black and Latino police executives have been a force for moderation under either Ray Kelly or William Bratton. Top cops like Phil Banks and Rafael Pineiro oversaw a massive expansion of stop-and-frisk.
Community policing: For cops, the primary tools of problem solving are arrest and coercion. When their job is to criminalize all disorderly behavior, the public views their efforts as intrusive and illegitimate, and the police react with defensiveness and increased assertiveness. Community policing is not possible under these conditions.
Increased Training: Thousands of arrests for low-level drug possession, trespassing, jumping subway turnstiles and other “broken windows” offenses are carried out consistent with police policy. Eric Garner may have been killed by improper arrest procedures, but he was also killed because the police were following orders to arrest people for selling loose cigarettes.
Community control: There are two main problems with community-control strategies. The first is that communities are not well suited for this task. Most people have very little interest or expertise in managing a complex city service. Numerous studies show that community power is typically no match for the entrenched bureaucratic power of the police. Second, 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 leaders tend to be older, more conservative and closely tied to local landlords and businesses.
Body cameras: These tools are only as effective as the accountability mechanisms in place. If local DAs and grand juries are unwilling to act on the evidence, then cameras won’t be a useful tool for accountability, as we have seen in the Garner case and several others.
Police prosecutions: There is a fundamental conflict of interest for DAs who must work closely with police and rely on their political support for re-election. We should take prosecution out of the hands of local DAs and turn it over to a “blue desk” responsible for investigating and prosecuting all cases of police misconduct statewide.
What we really need, though, is to dial back our reliance on the police to resolve neighborhood disorder. For instance, we have overwhelming evidence that the policing of drugs is a corrosive strategy that has done nothing to reduce their negative impact on communities. Drugs are a public health problem, not a policing problem. The same is true of sex work, homelessness and mental illness.
Recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $130 million package geared toward diverting people with mental illness from the criminal justice system and treating those who are already there. Our nation’s jails and prisons have become massive warehouses for the mentally ill, so this is a welcome development. However, it still makes access to services dependent on coming into contact with the police. The tragedy is that police are primarily equipped with the tools of physical coercion, which can be dangerous when dealing with a person in crisis. We should turn instead to civilian crisis intervention teams and develop community-based mental health services that don’t require the involvement of police.
We should also get police out of schools. Studies show that criminalizing students worsens school safety and drives the most needy onto the streets, where they 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 that take home and community conditions into account.
Any real agenda for police reform should not look to make the police friendlier and more professional. Instead, it must reduce their 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 of services that will create safer, more stable neighborhoods and cities.