In 2014, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll, 43% of Americans thought the Michael Brown killing in Missouri represented police over-enforcement where blacks were concerned. In July of 2020, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, that number stands at 74%.
The time is ripe for a reckoning.
Where reforming the culture of policing in America is concerned, all roads lead to powerful police unions. They oppose the disclosure of disciplinary records, their contracts demand nondisclosure of internal investigations, and they rely on “qualified immunity” to keep bad cops from being sued or fired.
“Qualified immunity” is the judicial doctrine that shields police from civil liability. It makes police officers “judgement-proof,“ so they rarely get to trial. Any reform effort should include transparency, a national registry of police who abuse their power, and legislation to end qualified immunity. A thought exercise: the next time you hear the phrase, “Officer-involved shooting,” think of the unions. That is their focus-grouped verbiage, and you have to admit it sounds better than, “The police shot another citizen.” Let’s hear it for bloodless euphemisms.
Chipping away. On July 12, the New York State Assembly opted for transparency when they repealed “50a,” an egregious law that kept records of police misconduct sealed and shielded from public view. They also banned chokeholds and took police misconduct investigations out of local jurisdictions in favor of the state’s more even-handed Attorney General’s office. This should serve as a national template.
The Ahmash-Pressley Act, now before the House, would kill qualified immunity, increase transparency, and limit the power of unions. A watered down version failed in the Senate because it didn’t address qualified immunity or lack of transparency in internal police investigations. Nor did it ban choke holds or no-knock warrants. Instead, it cynically fell back on the time-honored foot-dragging panacea of more study; a predictable attempt to kick the can down the road. As Martin Luther King, Jr said of Americans’ attention span in 1964, “We’re a ten-day nation.” The Senate hopes he is still right in 2020.
In the last little while, we have stared aghast at the killings of Ahmaud Aubrey, out for a jog, and George Floyd, for passing a poor version of a twenty dollar bill.
Mr. Aubrey was killed by former police officers and investigators—bad enough—but they were aided, abetted, and protected by a network of good ol’ boy cops and prosecutors in south Georgia. In Minneapolis, the official police report of the death of Mr. Floyd failed to even mention the nearly nine minutes that a callous police officer and his soulless compadres watched dispassionately as he pleaded for his life and his mother before dying in the street.
You’d think that financial cost would be motivation enough for reform: we spend untold millions of dollars paying off the families of victims of police brutality. Untold because settlements, like body camera videos, are usually sealed from public view, again, thanks in large part to union contracts. Because of a militaristic response to peaceful protestors, the city of Buffalo, New York is now on the hook for the brutal police assault on a 75 year old man who was left bleeding and unconscious on the sidewalk. The city attempted a covered up, but to no avail since everyone now carries a video-enabled smartphone. The photographic evidence is undeniable and undeniably expensive to cities in both monetary and reputational terms.
Reform has to begin with recruiting. It is no secret that in addition to selfless public servants, law enforcement attracts cruel and power-hungry, often racist, authoritarians. We need to use our best neuroscience, testing, watchfulness, and common sense as we determine who is fit to carry a badge, and who suffers from sociopathic delusions of grandeur and power.
Renowned civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson says, “The police don’t think they did anything wrong over the past 50 or 60 years... and this goes beyond the dynamics of race. We have created a culture where police officers think of themselves as warriors, not guardians.”
Redistribute the work and the funding. Activists should be careful when promoting the “defund the police” meme. It is a simplistic and dangerous description of the work that needs to be done. John Jay College criminologist, Dr. Phillip Ativa Goff, makes a more compelling and practicable argument that too many 911 calls are answered “with a badge and a gun,” instead of an EMT, a mental health professional, or a social worker.
Reform begins with better recruitment—since the job attracts authoritarians who must be screened out—and it ends with transformed cultures where police are not called on to treat mental illness, homelessness and nonviolent domestic abuse. If they work transparently and begin to see themselves as our protectors again, as in bygone eras, we will regain trust.
It will take time.
Jon Sinton is a serial media entrepreneur, consultant and writer who has worked for NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox, and the Wall Street Journal. He has owned and operated radio stations, radio networks, and digital media sites. Mr. Sinton, a Coronado resident, is the Immediate Past Chairman of the Georgia chapter of the nonpartisan, nonprofit government watchdog organization, Common Cause.