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Part 2: What’s Past is Prologue

Black Lives Matter Protest in DC, 6/1/2020. (Photo Credits: Koshu Kunii on Unsplash)

Although the fight against police brutality has always existed within the United States, they have reached new heights in the present as public outcry over the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others have ignited mass demonstrations against systemic racism in 2020. These protests occurred within all major US cities, and have also gained considerable support from abroad. They arguably constitute the largest civil rights movement in American history when measured by participation. The scale of the uprising against the brutalization of communities of color by police officers and other law enforcement agencies makes it clear that the United States has reached a national reckoning.

Moreover, these demonstrations also seemed to have had a concrete effect on how the American public perceives the police and police violence. Indeed, recent polling now show that most American adults now support sweeping national law enforcement reforms. Moreover, their perception of injustice within the police system is well justified. There is clear evidence of racial bias within the police considering that African Americans are 3 times more likely to be killed despite being 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed. Moreover, there is little accountability in the US law enforcement system, as evidenced by the fact that 99% of police killings do not result in sentences. In addition to the lack of accountability and racial bias, the US police force also seems to simply kill much more people than they need to. US police killings occur at much higher rates than other western countries: the US rate (46.6 per 10 million) put it right between countries such as Iraq and the DRCwhich has been routinely called police states by human rights activists.

As the country grapples with a much-needed public conversation about law enforcement, the use of force, and racial bias, it is necessary to remember that the United States is not the first or the only country to grapple with such problems. Activists and researchers should, and have, already begun to look overseas for potential solutions and strategies. Some ideas from other countries could be adapted for use in the United States, though too often the culture of American exceptionalism has been a barrier to the implementation. However, there is reason to be hopeful now since the United States’ capacity to endure and thrive as a nation could very well depend on having the humility to learn from the best of the rest of the world.

Part of the problem with US policing is that the US law enforcement agencies are very decentralized, which leads to disparities in training, and thus, a difference in policing measures and tactics. Basic training can take as little as 21 weeks. By contrast, the requirements to be a police officer in Germany (1.3 per 10 million) include at least two and a half years of basic training, and in some circumstances, it takes up to four years to become an officer. Iceland, which has had only one fatal police shooting in its history, requires two years of training. Another problem with decentralization is that there is no national oversight, and so individual police departments have tremendous power without anyone to hold them accountable. Contrast this with Japan (0.2 per 10 million) where police departments are coordinated and trained by the National Police Agency. In Iceland, that role is filled by the Ministry of Justice.

A further problem of decentralization is that individual departments often set up non-scientific and often detrimental incentives for their employees such as quotas on how many people to ticket. This sort of revenue-driven policing contributes to further dissonance in priorities between the police and the community that they are supposed to serve as it quite literally incentivizes police members to steal from the communities they are serving. Moreover, these practices are even condoned by legislation. In particular, civil forfeiture laws in the US encourage profit-driven policing since the burden of proof does not rest upon the police in cases where a civil forfeiture is contended. This means that if police suspects that a person’s property as involved in an illegal act, the burden of proof rests upon the person to prove that their property was acquired by lawful means and was never involved in an illegal act. It is perhaps unsurprising that a vast majority of American adults oppose civil forfeiture laws, and it seems past time that legislators amend this perverse incentive to policing.

Aside from having bad laws, the US also seem to have bad interpretations of its existing laws. Take, for example, the legal doctrine of qualified immunity created by the Supreme Court in 1982, protects officers from being held individually responsible for their actions, and hence prevents civilians from suing for damages. To be more specific, the doctrine holds that government officials can only be held liable for violation of an individual’s constitutional rights if a court has previously ruled that similar actions in exact circumstances was illegal. This leads to ragedies where courts are forced to rule that a police officer who shot a 10-year-old child while trying to shoot a nonthreatening family dog was entitled to qualified immunity because no previous court has found it unconstitutional for an officer to fire recklessly into groups of children. It seems clear the Supreme Court’s earlier decision, originally intended to allow officers to better do their work, has backfired along the way and has allowed grievous abuses of power to occur. Again, it should surprise no one that a majority of Americans favor allowing civilians to charge officers for crimes and ending qualified immunity. Ending qualified immunity will not solve all the problems with policing. It will not suddenly allow society to hold all officers accountable, especially since the close relations between prosecutors and police means that officers rarely face criminal charges even for criminal actions. However, it will be a good first step back towards the right direction; recall that the doctrine was only invented less than four decades ago.

In addition to removing bad laws, Americans may also consider the merits of improving legislation. Most other western countries have established firm rules about police conduct, which make deadly violence far less likely. In addition, some also mandate the existence of specialized teams trained to de-escalate situations. For example, the Netherlands (2.6 per 10 Million) employs more than 23,500 “peace officers,” known as BOAs, in addition to its regular police force of 55,000. BOAs receive training to help resolve noncriminal issues and to de-escalate conflict by inquiring about a person’s well-being, and reducing a person’s anxiety, even while asking for identification, issuing fines, and making arrests.

Having given a list of reforms that could potentially reduce the rate of police killings, it is now time to give the disheartening news that although the previously mentioned approaches have been instituted in some parts of the US, they have not made a significant dent in the shocking rate of police killings nation-wide. Moreover, it also seems that legislative change such as ending qualified immunity and civil forfeiture can have an immediate impact on the rate of police violence. It is clear then that there is some other cause that needs to be addressed – something uniquely American that seems to be contributing to the shocking rate of police killings: the abundance of guns. Derek Thompson of The Atlantic recently described a vicious cycle: “Where guns are abundant, civilians are more likely to kill civilians and cops, and cops are, in turn, more likely to kill civilians.” In Thompson’s view, “the morbid exceptionalism” of police violence in the United States can be sufficiently addressed only through legislation that reduces the availability of guns. Thompson’s argument is valid, and almost obvious.

However, there is also reason to believe that guns aren’t the only problem here in the US. Another major issue is that the police in the United States simply appear to be immune to reform. For example, the Atlanta police officer who was charged with murder after the killing in June of Rayshard Brooks outside a Wendy’s restaurant had actually recently been trained in de-escalation techniques. Furthermore, the same could be said of hundreds of other officers in the United States whose reform-based training should have led to different outcomes in situations that ended in police killings. This frustration has led many within the BLM Movement to shift from police reform to the defunding of police departments, or even abolishing them altogether.

Now, this position is not popular even in liberal cities as many think it is simply too radical. Yet, looking at history, how radical of an idea is it really? It can be argued that there is no reason for people to be so skeptical of the concept, since from a global perspective, It is not unprecedented for police departments to be abolished after protracted periods of political unrest and mistrust in government. In 1990, Estonia, a country that today has extremely low levels of crime, abolished the militsiya, its Soviet-era police force, and established a more peaceful security force, not unlike the unarmed peace officers in the Netherlands. The Estonian police underwent another significant transformation in 2004, as part of the country’s process of integration into the European Union, that reduced the number of police officers in Estonia by 75 percent.

Likewise, Georgia abolished its police force following its 2004 revolution. Georgia’s newly elected president, Mikheil Saakashvili, created a dramatically smaller force, with support from the U.S. embassy, the European Union, and the British Council. This has helped reestablish the legitimacy of the government and quell corruption in the country. In total, the government fired some 16,000 police officers because of enduring problems with corruption. Despite significant resistance from the police unions, Saakashvili’s new government abolished them, along with the Ministry of State Security, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the traffic police, all of which had become infamous for extorting the public.

The recent decision by the Minneapolis City Council to take steps toward dismantling the city’s police force may seem extraordinary to many Americans, but for nearly a decade, activists have argued for the redistribution of police funding towards healthcare, housing, and education. Those who seek to abolish or dramatically cut funding for police forces often hark back to large-scale social programs such as those developed under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, noting that such programs did in fact work to create social mobility for many Americans and helped keep them safe. The problem was that the programs were not extended to all citizens equally, particularly Black Americans. Moreover, defunding strategies, in moderation, may also work well with other legislative changes. For example, if qualified immunity was ended, then it would be expected that there would be a rise in the number of lawsuits against the police. Taxpayers should not be forced to bear the cost of these lawsuits and a moderate degree of defunding would financially incentivize police departments to take responsibility.

We have now discussed some of the better methods from around the world to improve policing; however, the reader may have noticed that most reform measures requires centralization of policing and exercises of federal power. This implies that there is may be an ideological roadblock preventing meaning reform to occur; traditionally, Americans have been skeptical of big government and supporters of the right of state and local governments have questioned the value of centralization in almost all aspects of politics. This perspective follows the intellectual heritage of the American Founding Fathers who feared a tyrannical government and hence created a federal presidential system of government that stands in contrast to the more unitary and parliamentary systems of government in Europe.

However, the American people’s perspective on government seem to be changing. Perhaps due to incredibly high rates of dissatisfaction with government inaction, Americans are becoming less and less skeptical of the idea of big government. Indeed, whereas in 2015 most Americans were still in favor of small government, data today suggests that most would now welcome a big one. Moreover, the onset of big government may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially if that government is democratically accountable and helps protect the right of individuals. In this sense, an exercise of federal power over local police should not be seen as some sort of federal overreach, but should be seen as the populace holding otherwise undemocratic or unjust institutions accountable.

Summarizing what we have discussed so far: we see that policing in the United States has been grossly unjust to not only people of color, but indeed to all the victims of police killings and police brutality. Strategies in policing from other countries show that a centralized national standard and oversight is critical to forming a more peaceful police force. In addition, we have also argued against the practice of civil forfeiture and the doctrine of qualified immunity, though we also believe that attempts at reform will be insufficient without also drastically reducing the number of guns in circulation in the United States. Moreover, it was shown that the more radical reform technique of defunding the police has actually worked quite well historically in countries that now have a very low rate of police brutality and are relatively secure and peaceful. It follows that in the present, defunding the police should be viewed as a real possibility and useful tool for encouraging reform, instead of some radical idea. However, we also see that the centralization required for many of the mentioned reforms to materialize goes against some of the central tenants to American political thought.

We end this section by suggesting that the use of federal power curb police violence is compatible with American funding ideals. More than 200 years ago, in 1776, Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense that “Common sense will tell us, that power which hath endeavored to subdue us, is of all others, the most improper to defend us. A government of our own is our natural right.” Police departments are by nature undemocratic and authoritarian power structures, and many of the incentives employed in these departments have caused fractures between officers and the communities that they are supposed to serve. The countless tragedies of fatal shootings present evidence that they are a power that has “endeavored to subdue” people. Now is time that a democratically elected “government of our own” passes sweeping legislation of police reform.



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