Black Lives Matter activists finally have an answer to critics demanding specific policy proposals.
This has been a central question posed to the movement, which aims to eliminate racial disparities in the criminal justice system, since it rose to national prominence following the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. A lot of groups — from supporters to media to Hillary Clinton — have challenged the movement to define its policy agenda.
"You're going to have to come together as a movement and say, 'Here's what we want done about it,'" Clinton said in a meeting with Black Lives Matter activists last week. "Because you can get lip service from as many as white people as you can pack into Yankee stadium and a million more like it, who are going to say, 'Oh, we get it, we get it. We're going to be nicer.' That's not enough — at least in my book. That's not how I see politics."
But now activists have an answer to Clinton's call with the launch of Campaign Zero. The website details several proposals to limit police use of force, particularly shootings against black people who are disproportionately likely to die at the hands of police. The proposals aren't particularly surprising for anyone who's closely followed the Black Lives Matter movement, but it's the most comprehensive set of ideas ever released by advocates.
What is Campaign Zero?
Campaign Zero, launched by We the Protesters, has a single — but ambitious — goal: reduce all police violence in the US to zero. To do this, the campaign laid out several policy proposals that it says were "informed by the demands of protesters nationwide, the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, recommendations from research organizations, and comprehensive data on the causes and impact of police violence." (Note that the policies weren't put forward by the official Black Lives Matter group, which doesn't necessarily represent all activists who have adopted the "Black Lives Matter" cause.)
The campaign broke down its policy ideas to 10 categories:
- End broken windows policing. This refers to a style of policing that goes after minor crimes and activities, based on the notion that letting minor crimes go unaddressed can foster and lead to even worse crimes in a community. In practice, this tactic has disproportionately impacted minority Americans — in New York City, the vast majority of stops in 2012 were of black or Hispanic people. Campaign Zero proposes ending this type of policing by decriminalizing or deprioritizing public alcohol consumption, marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, trespassing, loitering, disturbing the peace, and spitting, as well as ending racial profiling and establishing mental health response teams that are better equipped to deal with mental health crises (which can result in, for example, disorderly conduct) than police.
- Community oversight. When a police officer engages in misconduct, the most likely organization to investigate the situation is the police department the officer comes from — creating an obvious conflict of interest. Campaign Zero proposes adding more community oversight over police by making it easier for citizens to file complaints and establishing civilian-run commissions that will help set policy at police departments and make recommendations for discipline following a civilian complaint.
- Limit use of force. Police officers are currently allowed to use deadly force when they merely perceive — albeit reasonably, according to courts — a deadly threat, even if a threat isn't actually present. And police departments aren't required to report uses of force to the federal government. Campaign Zero proposes authorizing deadly force only when there is an imminent threat to the officer's life or the life of another person, and the use of force is strictly unavoidable to protect life. It also proposes changing police policies, including reporting and use of force standards.
- Independently investigate and prosecute. Following a police shooting, investigations are typically headed by the police department and the local prosecutor's office, which has close ties to the police department — both of which create conflicts of interest. Campaign Zero wants governments to establish independent prosecutors at the state level for cases in which police seriously injure or kill someone, which would now require an investigation. The campaign also suggests reducing the standard of proof for federal civil rights investigations of police officers.
- Community representation. In some communities, the racial demographics of the police force are wildly different from the community they represent. Ferguson, for example, is about two-thirds black, but only three of 53 commissioned police officers were black at the time of the Brown shooting. Campaign Zero says police departments should develop and publicly release plans to achieve representative proportion of women and people of color through outreach, recruitment, and changes to policies.
- Body cameras and filming the police. Most police departments still don't fully equip officers with body cameras, and many don't have dashboard cameras for their cars. But recording devices have played a crucial role in holding police accountable — in Cincinnati, for instance, a body camera filmed a campus police officer's shooting of Samuel DuBose, leading the local prosecutor to conclude that the shooting was "asinine," "senseless," and "unwarranted" before he pressed charges. Campaign Zero suggests equipping all police officers with body cameras, as well as banning cops from taking people's cellphones or other recording devices without the person's consent or a warrant.
- Training. Many police departments only require training on an annual or one-time basis, and the training tends to focus on use of force, not on deescalation or racial bias. Campaign Zero suggests requiring officers to go undergo training on a quarterly basis, with greater focus on addressing subconscious racial biases and other prejudices against, for example, LGBTQ people.
- End for-profit policing. In some jurisdictions, police are used by local governments as a revenue generator. One of the most damning findings from the Justice Department report on Ferguson is that the police department and courts issued fines and fees to help fill local budget gaps. Campaign Zero tries to eliminate these perverse incentives by ending police department quotas for tickets and arrests, limiting fines and fees on low-income people, and stopping police from taking money or property from innocent people, as they currently do through "civil forfeiture" laws.
- Demilitarization. The Ferguson protests captured nationwide attention after police deployed militarized equipment — sniper rifles, riot gear, camouflage, armored trucks, and chemical agents such as tear gas — against largely peaceful demonstrators. But police have this type of gear in large part because the federal government subsidizes it or gives it away to local and state police. Campaign Zero proposes ending the 1033 program that provides militarized equipment to police, as well as limiting when local and state police can purchase and use this type of equipment.
- Fair police contracts. Police unions have negotiated strong contracts for their officers over the past few decades, sometimes imposing big hurdles to investigations — such as the 48-hour rule, which prevents investigators from talking to an officer involved in a shooting until 48 hours pass. Campaign Zero aims to eliminate these types of barriers while requiring police departments keep officers' disciplinary history accessible to the public and ensuring officers don't get paid while they're being investigated for seriously injuring or killing a civilian.
In addition to these specific proposals, Campaign Zero also outlines different federal, state, and local plans that put these ideas into law. The campaign also put out a fact sheet on where different 2016 presidential candidates stand on their proposals, which should help supporters hold candidates accountable.
What do Campaign Zero's policy proposals hope to address?
The proposals are specifically aimed at eliminating police violence, particularly against minority communities that are disproportionately impacted by policing. The campaign points to police in other developed countries — such as Germany and Japan — that manage to go through a full year without killing more than a dozen people (although these countries also have fewer guns, which means much less gun violence overall). And it cites some of the many troubling statistics in the US.
According to the Washington Post's database, police have shot and killed 624 people so far in 2015. Nearly 22 percent of those shot and killed didn't have a deadly weapon, nearly 10 percent were completely unarmed, and more than 26 percent exhibited signs of mental illness.
Historically, these types of police killings have been racially skewed, as an analysis of the available (but incomplete) FBI data by Vox's Dara Lind found: Black people accounted for 31 percent of police shooting victims in 2012, even though they made up just 13 percent of the US population.
Black teens were 21 times as likely as white teens to be shot and killed by police between 2010 and 2012, according to a ProPublica analysis of the FBI data. ProPublica reported: "One way of appreciating that stark disparity, ProPublica's analysis shows, is to calculate how many more whites over those three years would have had to have been killed for them to have been at equal risk. The number is jarring — 185, more than one per week."
Subconscious racial biases, known as implicit biases, may explain the disparities. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
When police do use force, they're given wide legal latitude to do so — since they only have to reasonably perceive a threat, even if a threat isn't actually present. The two Supreme Court decisions — Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor — that established this standard give officers a lot of legal room to use force without fear of punishment, in the hopes that cops won't hesitate when they need to make split-second decisions to protect themselves and bystanders. Police officers say the loose standard is essential to their safety, although critics argue that these loose legal standards give law enforcement a license to kill innocent or unarmed people.
Campaign Zero's policy proposals aim to address all of these problems. Stronger standards for use of force will limit when cops can shoot and otherwise hurt people. Implicit bias training could help officers overcome their subconscious prejudices. Body cameras will help hold cops accountable when they use force. And so on. It's a comprehensive set of proposals for a very broad set of problems.
Can Campaign Zero's ideas work?
The policies could certainly reduce police use of force. But it's unlikely — for reasons unrelated to policing policies — that they can eliminate all police violence, as the campaign hopes to do.
The policy proposals are fairly reasonable. As much as this is a wish list for the Black Lives Matter movement, it's also a list of proposals that I have personally heard and seen from criminal justice experts over the past year — including the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Nothing in the list stuck out as particularly surprising, shocking, or unfeasible to me — although police advocates will certainly argue that some of the ideas, such as a higher legal standard for allowing use of force, could endanger officers' lives.
Still, the goal to eliminate police violence altogether is unrealistic. There are always going to be situations in which police need to use deadly force. That's especially true in America, which is more violent — in part because it has way more guns — than its developed peers.
For example, a recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that police are much more likely to be killed in states with more firearms.
Applying this to the international level, it seems likely America will always have more police killed on duty than other developed countries. According to UN data compiled by Simon Rogers for the Guardian, the US had 88.8 guns per 100 people in 2007. That's almost one gun per person in the US, and nearly double the second-closest country, Yemen, which has 54.8 guns per 100 people.
For US police officers, this means they not only will encounter more guns and deadly violence, but they can expect to encounter more guns and deadly violence, making them more likely to anticipate and perceive a threat and use deadly force as a result.
But even if eliminating all police violence is unrealistic, it's certainly a laudable goal that most people can get behind. And now, with these clear proposals, advocates will be able to go back to presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton and ask what exactly they're going to do about this issue — without facing questions that may paint the movement as bumbling or unclear.