This is a singularly propitious moment for reforming and restructuring policing in America — if ideologues on the left and right can be set aside.
The catalyst is the video of a white police officer in Minneapolis with his knee on a defenseless African American, George Floyd, for almost nine minutes before he no longer could breathe. This has generated outrage, massive protests all over the country, and an unprecedented chorus of calls for change.
The need is for better police officers, reasonable rules of engagement, more accountability and a focus on law enforcement, in some cases with a smaller force.
Standing in the way are the zealots.
On one side, the Trump administration, right-wing think tanks that cherry-pick crime data, and some police unions who charge that the tear gas and clubbing of demonstrators were precipitated by militant protestors. Yet from Washington's Lafayette Park, which was cleared for a Trump photo-op, to New York City, to Buffalo, journalists covering these stories dispute those accounts.
Any policing problems are exaggerated, the right further claims: there are only a few “bad apples,” and no “systemic” racial bias.
David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who has written four books on the subject and consulted with police departments and community groups, told me “the problem is the bad apple barrel that does not weed out the bad apples and throw them away before they taint the whole barrel.”
“When these problems of deaths and injuries of people in police custody or at police hands recurs and recurs and are disproportionately focused on people of color,” he says. “That's a good definition of systemic.”
The incidents are pervasive and the alleged offenses of most victims so small. George Floyd was alleged to be passing a $20 counterfeit bill; in New York, Eric Garner was choked to death by a policeman after selling contraband cigarettes; in Charleston, S.C., a year later Walter Scott was shot in the back by a cop after being stopped for a broken brake light.
Anyone who thinks these are isolated incidents ask an African American lawyer, doctor or business executive if she worries about the safety of her teenage kids if they encounter cops.
The Floyd murder unleashed pent-up anger, with critics demanding de-funding of police departments, some calling for termination. Sadly, this has given a few politicians an opening to charge — falsely — that Joe BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE wants to disband police departments and for right-wing pundits to charge that liberals want to unleash armed black militants on an unprotected society.
This obscures the substantive reforms that should be discussed.
After the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband the police force, Janeé Harteau, a former police chief there, called instead for “reinventing” policing and creating accountability. She said some “brothers in blue” operate on an unwritten code of silence, and offending officers are often backed by “unions that continue to support, frankly, those that tarnish the badge.”
Minneapolis isn't the worst police department, but Harteau was specifically referencing Bob Kroll, head of that police union. A loud Trump supporter, Kroll has previously been suspended for using a homophobic slur and was named in a racial discrimination suit for allegedly making racist statements and other acts. He and the union have resisted reform efforts of multiple mayoral administrations.
A contrast is 1,169 miles away in Camden, N.J. This city of less than 75,000 overhauled its entire department seven years ago. Then it accentuated community relations, adopting strict use of force rules and no tolerance for brutality. The crime rate in this impoverished and overwhelmingly minority community has plummeted.
That community and small businesses and shops are much better protected. They wouldn't be if instead of better cops they had no cops.
It's what David Harris calls de-prioritizing police forces. Funds can be cut if social services that police perform are turned over to other agencies. For police, there have to be strict rules of engagement, outlawing deadly tactics like those used against Eric Garner and George Floyd, and dramatically improved training.
Above all, Harris says, there must be accountability, review boards and — hardest of all — a change in laws that make it so difficult to convict dirty cops. Congress and a few states are starting to address this; tellingly, 1,400 professional athletes, including quarterback Tom Brady, have called on lawmakers to end qualified immunity for police.
This is an old issue. Racial disturbances going back a century or more were sparked by police incidents; these were chronicled in the 1968 Kerner Commission on civil unrest.
Yes, there has been some progress — but little has been done.
This is the moment for change.
A good context is the observation of Chuck Wexler, of the Police Executive Research forum and a reform advocate: “If you need a police officer, and you’re in crisis, there is absolutely nothing better than a good cop and absolutely nothing worse than a bad cop.”
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.