No sooner than the video began to circulate in the media did the typical cycle of response begin. The officers have been placed on administrative (paid) leave pending an investigation, elected officials have denounced the behavior of the police while urging calm from the community and simultaneously hedging bets with calls to wait for all of the facts, and lawyers for the victim have initiated widespread calls for answers. In the media, the backdrop of midterm elections and the multiple investigations involving former President Donald Trump have made it difficult for any meaningful coverage of this incident to break through the news cycle. Even as the video is horrific in nature, our collective conscience around another example of toxic policing rests somewhere between exhaustion and desensitized. It’s challenging to find meaning in what occurred, and more unclear on how to place it within any larger context. The reason for all this is Congress’ failure to pass any sort of meaningful police reform legislation. Until that happens, we will be doomed to repeat this cycle in perpetuity.
In addition to the high-profile cases of police violence that we have become familiar with in past years, we have also recently witnessed various forms of other misconduct by law enforcement. In the past few months alone we saw three men in New York exonerated after spending 25 years in prison as a result of a dirty cop, and more recently, four of the officers involved in the Breonna Taylor case indicted on federal civil rights charges after allegedly lying to investigators about knowingly making false statements to secure a search warrant and trying to cover it up. While the courts and juries have begun to lean slightly in the direction of accountability for police, the larger conversation about meaningful policy reform is absent at the national level. Where police reform was once an important agenda item for elected officials during the post–George Floyd election cycle of 2020, it has now been abandoned and replaced by new legislative priorities like inflation reduction, infrastructure, and climate change.
Again, police reform wasn’t always such a low priority. In March 2021, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Police Act. The bill was largely intended to address systemic racism and police brutality within American law enforcement through greater accountability and increased measures intended to address culture change within law enforcement. More specifically it outlaws racial profiling, prohibits the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants, mandates the use of body cameras, and abolishes qualified immunity. The Senate version of the bill died after negotiations between Democrats and Republicans on a bipartisan bill fell apart in September of last year. Since that time, President Joe Biden signed his own executive order on policing with key features that intend to curb use-of-force standards, improve data collection, and provide additional funding to federal law enforcement agencies. While Biden’s executive order is a step in the right direction, it falls short of what is needed and still leaves the public vulnerable. For starters, while the racial disparities in American policing are as untenable as they are undeniable, police reform is not an issue that we should allow to be overly racialized. The victim in Arkansas was white, and the current crisis in policing affects us all. A bigger shortcoming in the president’s executive order is police at the state and local level can effectively ignore any of the provisions governing federal law enforcement and its agencies, resulting in compromised safety for all communities. Even more importantly, we are still without meaningful accountability measures that will enforce any attempts at shifting the culture of America’s law enforcement. During the bipartisan negotiations, Republican opposition to dealing with urgently needed changes to qualified immunity in some sort of a productive way was reportedly a deal-breaker.
Any solution to America’s policing problem will require widespread acceptance that the issue is systemic and not limited to simply a few bad apples. Arguably the biggest obstacle to policy is a resistance to acknowledge that the problems within policing are cultural and systemic. The frank reality is American policing needs a complete overhaul in nearly every respect. In addition to the practical measures of body cameras and chokehold bans, qualified immunity must be abolished to remove the protections that bad actors presently enjoy from real accountability. The only way to reverse the lack of trust in our current system of law enforcement is to increase transparency in policing, and current lessons have taught us that we cannot count on police to do it themselves. Additionally, curtailing police violence will require increased resources to equip cities with alternative means for addressing crises without involving law enforcement. We have seen successful models of this implemented in cities like San Francisco and Oakland. The general sentiment behind this idea is that police presence can often escalate situations and safety risks where a different approach would be more effective. Dispatching a tandem of trained crisis managers to assist someone experiencing an intense mental health or psychological episode, for example, will likely garner a different reaction than squad cars of officers arriving to a scene, sirens blaring and guns drawn. The current debate on policing centers training as an increased priority, and it should. Police in the U.S. receive an average of 21 weeks of training, which is far less than cops in other developed nations. But training without policy is not enough. The only meaningful way to address police reform in America is to double down the focus on culture, and the only way to shift police culture is through policy that creates systemwide accountability.
Even as we have seen an increase in the numbers of police who have been convicted for wrongdoing, the lack of systemwide accountability almost ensures that we will continue to see an unacceptable level of police violence in American society. Leaving this as an issue to individual court cases without policy reform is the wrong approach because it does nothing to close the chasms that allow for so many complaints about police abuses to go unaddressed. Consider that nearly all of the major police brutality cases that have even seen an officer indicted by a grand jury have featured some sort of video. With ocular evidence having become a standard, people who reside in jurisdictions where there is no mandate for body cameras are left to hope that their complaints are investigated and that a jury will accept their personal account with equal weight as they would in a case where they could see the evidence for themselves. That’s not working.
It’s imperative that we understand what’s really at stake in this conversation. The contract between police and society rests at the foundation of American democracy. As we have watched police violate this contract in myriad ways, it has not only compromised notions of safety within communities, but eroded the public trust and confidence in law enforcement as one of the country’s fundamental institutions. If we allow policy on police reform to languish, we invite the continued unraveling of American society, particularly at a point where crime across the country continues to rise. That is not to suggest the areas currently drawing our attention are without merit; rather, it is to point out that this issue cannot be the one left behind.