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9 ideas to solve the broken institution of policing

For instance, demilitarize the police force.

Community members attend a public memorial for Daunte Wright.
Daunte Wright’s family and community members at a memorial for him in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 22.
Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

From 16-year-old Ma’khia Bryant in Columbus to 13-year-old Adam Toledo in Chicago to 20-year-old Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, it is clear that the systemic problems with policing are widespread.

And the problems don’t just include shootings. Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd not with his gun but with his knee — and reportedly had seriously injured one other Black person using similar tactics previously.

There is a racial aspect to this misconduct. Black men are 2.5 times more likely than white men to be killed by police. And Black people who are fatally shot by police are twice as likely to be unarmed than white people.

And there is an accountability issue as well. When Chauvin’s conviction was announced on broadcast television, people cheered and chanted in part because the verdict was hard to believe. Only seven police officers have been convicted of murder for their involvement in fatal shootings since 2005. No convictions came in the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, or Trayvon Martin.

If nothing is changed about the way policing is done, there will continue to be deaths, continue to be serious injuries, continue to be racial bias. And few officers will face the accountability of a court.

Following the Chauvin verdict, President Joe Biden called for changing policing by “acknowledging and confronting, head-on, systemic racism and the racial disparities that exist in policing and in our criminal justice system more broadly.”

Below are nine ideas — some promoted by activists and community leaders, some backed by lawmakers, and some with the support of a wide range of people — to do just that.

1) Employ more oversight

Some police oversight already exists at the federal level; the Department of Justice has the ability to investigate departments that show “pattern or practice” of misconduct.

This is happening now. On Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland announced a Justice Department probe into the Minneapolis Police Department that will investigate whether the department routinely breaks the law or violates the Constitution in its work. But as Vox’s Ian Millhiser has explained, such investigations are rare, and they’re not always well-funded. And they fall out of favor under certain presidents — the Trump administration was very much against them.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, House Democrats’ marquee police reform proposal, attempts to, as Vox’s Sean Collins reports, expand “the Justice Department’s investigative powers, increasing the department’s ability to pursue misconduct cases.”

There are lots of other oversight ideas — including a proposal for oversight legislation modeled on the Voting Rights Act — but the Justice in Policing Act is notable because it has already passed the House of Representatives, twice. It is backed by Biden but is currently stalled in the Senate, where it needs “yes” votes from 10 Republicans to become law. As Vox’s Li Zhou has reported, that’s highly unlikely (though there are some signs a bipartisan compromise bill could be forthcoming).

But even if the federal government was given more oversight powers, it still has a relatively poor understanding of how state and local departments operate — investigations like the one recently launched in Minneapolis are the product of publicly available information as much as they are government intelligence. To fix oversight also means fixing data collection.

2) Improve data collection

The federal government has no idea how many allegations of misconduct are levied against the nation’s 18,000 police departments each year. It does not keep track of police killings, and it has no way of knowing how much is spent by law enforcement agencies on civil settlements made to victims of police wrongdoing or their families.

That makes understanding the scope of the problem — and weighing potential remedies — difficult.

But there are a number of proposals to change that, as well as bipartisan agreements.

Both the Justice in Policing Act and the JUSTICE Act, the policing bill the GOP unveiled in 2020, could fundamentally change the way information on police misconduct is collected and stored on a federal level.

If passed, the Justice in Policing Act would set up a national database on incidents of police misconduct, to prevent officers fired for misconduct from being hired in one locality after being fired for cause elsewhere. Both the Justice in Policing and JUSTICE acts would mandate that all use-of-force reports be submitted into a national database. And another proposal, co-sponsored by Virginia Democrats Rep. Don Beyer and Sen. Tim Kaine, would mandate the tracking of civil settlements.

There are a few challenges with these proposals. For one, there are questions about how accurate the data would be. Philip Matthew Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University and former police officer, previously told Vox that officers often lie in their reports.

And another issue is that the government has long struggled to get basic information from police departments; the FBI has had difficulty collecting use-of-force data, for instance. It remains to be seen what tangible steps could compel them to be more transparent.

3) Address racial bias

Our racial biases are inherent. And the pressure cooker that is contemporary policing only exacerbates them, Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale, told Ezra Klein for Vox last September:

If you’re multitasking, if you’re cognitively depleted, if your adrenaline is off, if you’re in a new situation, if you’re being negatively stereotyped because of your membership within a visible group that matters to you — all of those things are really robust predictors [of discriminatory behavior]. You can manipulate them in a laboratory and you will get people to discriminate against Black folks and not white folks across a whole host of different dimensions.

But also all of those things are literally the job description for law enforcement. So it is not surprising that we see some pretty significant racial disparities on the other side. It’s exactly what we would predict. In fact, most social psychologists would consider that to be cheating. You just added all the things you knew were going to produce bias and you put them all together.

Except it’s not an experiment — it’s with people’s lives.

Goff’s assertions are backed up by data. Black Americans are twice as likely as white Americans to be shot by police relative to their share of the population.

Government officials at the federal, state, and local levels have long been aware of this problem, and some began enacting implicit bias training after the police killing of Michael Brown in 2014. Now, a majority do, and the Justice in Policing Act would make it mandatory for federal officers to participate in such trainings.

The problem with these trainings, however, is that it’s not clear that they work.

As Vox’s Julia Belluz has reported:

In a fascinating roundup of the evidence on diversity programs published in the Harvard Business Review, [Harvard sociologist Frank] Dobbin and co-author Alexandra Kalev looked at 30 years of data as well as data from more than 800 US firms and interviews with hundreds of managers and executives. Here’s a quick summary of their findings on anti-bias trainings:

“It turns out that while people are easily taught to respond correctly to a questionnaire about bias, they soon forget the right answers. The positive effects of diversity training rarely last beyond a day or two, and a number of studies suggest that it can activate bias or spark a backlash. Nonetheless, nearly half of midsize companies use it, as do nearly all the Fortune 500.”

And in NYPD surveys conducted in 2020 before and after bias training seminars, police officers expressed awareness of the nature of implicit bias and a desire to manage, rather than change, their own. But that purported increase in self-awareness didn’t manifest itself in any tangible changes to the racial or ethnic breakdown of the people officers arrested or interacted with in the aftermath.

4) End qualified immunity

Qualified immunity emerged at the forefront of the collective consciousness last year after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor — broadly, it protects individual officers from legal liability.

For a successful lawsuit, an officer must knowingly be breaking a law that previously resulted in the sanctioning of another officer. In other words, the police have the broad legal authority to do anything they want — so long as a court hasn't explicitly told an officer not to.

As Vox’s Ian Millhiser explains, qualified immunity isn’t a law; it’s an idea that was created by the Supreme Court. But there are efforts for the doctrine to be overturned with legislation.

Democrats have made ending qualified immunity a feature in their efforts to enact police reform, including in the Justice in Policing Act. Republicans have called doing so a nonstarter, though Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) is reportedly working on a proposal that would continue to shield individual officers from lawsuits while exposing departments to more legal risk. But while qualified immunity has proved a sticking point in national negotiations, Colorado, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and Connecticut have either ended or restricted the practice in their state legal systems. Overall, 25 states have — or are considering — such measures.

5) Change use-of-force policies

The Justice in Policing Act would also ban police officers from using chokeholds and issuing no-knock warrants in drug cases. These measures are direct responses to practices that have already resulted in the loss of Black lives: George Floyd and Eric Garner were killed after their breathing had been restricted by police; Breonna Taylor was killed as police executed a no-knock warrant in her home last year.

State governments are also acting to restrict the use of force by police. On Wednesday, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) signed an executive order compelling the State Patrol, State Capitol Police, and other agencies to prohibit chokeholds unless as a last resort.

And a new Minnesota statute governing the use of deadly force for police went into effect on March 1. At least 41 states now have laws regarding the use of deadly force.

6) Demilitarize the police

Police militarization is deeply controversial, raising questions about whether officers are properly trained on the military equipment available to them and whether local officers having this access exacerbates tensions during peaceful protests.

The solution often proposed to this problem is to end the federal initiatives known as programs 1033 and 1102, which allow police departments to purchase federal military equipment, and states to use federal sources to purchase anti-drug trafficking equipment, respectively.

For the first 20 years of 1033, its implications were little known by the public. That all changed after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, as Vox’s German Lopez explains:

The criticisms blew up during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, over the police shooting of Michael Brown. Police often deployed military-grade equipment — such as tear gas, rubber bullets, sound cannons, and mine-resistant armored trucks — against largely peaceful protesters, sometimes agitating the situation and causing demonstrations to unnecessarily escalate into tense and even violent conflicts.

Similar criticisms were often raised during 2020’s protests — particularly after peaceful protesters were tear-gassed in front of the White House.

The Justice in Policing Act would end 1033, prohibiting the distribution of “controlled” military equipment from the Department of Justice's hands into police departments. Activists have called for the militarization programs to end as well: The BREATHE Act — a police reform proposal created by activists at the Movement for Black Lives — would target both 1033 and 1102.

7) Defund the police

Police aren’t supposed to be mental health professionals. They’re rarely trained in counseling or conflict mediation. They’re always armed. Throughout the country, there’s a growing consensus that money ought to be taken away from police departments and reinvested toward targeted community needs. This is known as defunding the police.

It also means taking responsibilities away from the police and giving them to more specialized workers, like mental health professionals and crisis counselors.

As Vox’s Sean Collins writes:

Money taken from police departments would be used in part to build up cities’ capacity for crisis care, but also to hire public servants better suited to many of the tasks that consume police officers’ time, from dealing with traffic problems to assisting with substance dependency issues. While giving departments more money hasn’t increased the clearance rate, by redistributing officer duties, more crimes could perhaps be solved.

While the BREATHE Act would demilitarize the police, it is more broadly a defunding proposal. If adopted by lawmakers, the bill would close down most federal law enforcement agencies and use the money saved by doing so to fund other services — including economic programs, mental health services, and new educational initiatives.

But while that proposal is — at least at the moment — aspirational, a number of cities have already started along the path of defunding. Austin, Texas, just cut its police budget by $150 million, a third of the budget; that money will go to social welfare programs that expand city access to food and health care. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Salt Lake City are among the places where city councils voted to cut police budgets in some capacity.

8) Abolish the police

Abolishing the police might sound like a radical solution. But its proponents think communities can work together to regulate themselves without “anti-Black, white supremacist institutions,” like the American criminal justice system and policing — which got its start with slave patrols — according to Jenn Jackson, a political scientist at Syracuse University.

Under an abolishment framework, rather than using the police, problems would be handled through community care networks and justice systems rooted in decarceration and rehabilitation.

Isaac Bryan, director of public policy at UCLA’s Ralph J. Bunche Center, explained it for Vox:

We are talking about both reallocating funds and imagining a future beyond the institutions of policing that we currently have. Our current model of policing and accountability is rooted in punishment and was constructed as a mechanism to maintain slavery, segregation, and the protection of property rights. All of policing’s historic and contemporary functions have been harmful to communities of color and especially the Black community.

In a lot of ways, abolition is the logical conclusion of efforts to defund police — the gradual shifting of resources away from police departments that have brought violence upon people of color and have generally been incapable of adjusting to meet people’s diverse and changing needs.

If it is difficult to imagine full-scale abolition actually taking place, that’s because officers’ role as solution-makers has been codified into our collective social ethos, Rachel Herzing, executive director of the Center for Political Education, told Vox:

There’s a cat in a tree: cop. There’s a murder down the street: cop. And these things are not equivalent. The idea that we can live without that is very, very hard for people to understand, not because it’s complicated, but because there are so many constraints placed on our ability to even think beyond that. Those constraints include training we get as kids, such as, “Don’t talk to strangers,” but, “Look for a cop.” Or we bring Officer Friendly into elementary schools. Or every piece of media that you film needs to have some kind of cop attached to it in some way. Or the normalization of cops at the mall or in your school. We’re up against a lot to shift that. And it’s possible to shift that, but I do think that it’s one of the things that makes thinking about abolitionist politics challenging.

Abolitionists argue that trust is a key factor behind their position. They believe reforms like those in the Justice in Policing Act mean very little if we can’t trust officers to be transparent or to uphold them.

9) Initiate broad systemic reforms

Some activists argue that focusing on policing itself isn’t enough to solve the concerted difficulties people of color, and particularly Black people, often face within the criminal justice system. Instead, they argue that the root causes of racial bias in the system ought to be enforced.

The BREATHE Act, for instance, calls for solving the problems of policing by — among other things — creating a baby bonds program to help close the racial wealth gap. Such a program would, in theory, create more opportunity for Americans of color, and in so doing, reduce perceptions that Black Americans are more likely to commit crimes while, at the same time, reducing the need for the disenfranchised to consider crime as an avenue for economic sustainability. This proposal and others call for taking a similar approach to areas like education and housing.

There are also calls to rethink the way the criminal justice system works — for example, curtailing prosecutorial discretion.

As Vox’s German Lopez puts it, prosecutors “are enormously powerful in the US criminal justice system, in large part because they are given so much discretion to prosecute however they see fit.” In choosing the kinds of charges they bring, prosecutors have a choice of triggering mandatory minimum sentences, for instance, or striking plea deals. On a macro level, they’re the ones who set the precedents for how people get charged in big cities:

John Pfaff, a criminal justice expert at Fordham University, has found evidence that prosecutors have been the key drivers of mass incarceration in the past couple of decades. Analyzing data from state judiciaries, he compared the number of crimes, arrests, and prosecutions from 1994 to 2008. He found that reported violent and property crime fell, and arrests for almost all crimes also fell. But one thing went up: the number of felony cases filed in court.

Prosecutors were filing more charges even as crime and arrests dropped, throwing more people into the prison system. Prosecutors were driving mass incarceration.

Recently, activists and philanthropists have become more aware of the outsize role prosecutors often play in the criminal process. They’ve begun pouring money into district attorney races against “tough on crime” candidates, fighting to elect those with a more nuanced understanding of the interplay between race, crime, and policing.

But to truly achieve progress, some argue that reforms ought to be even more structural, and that they need to be aimed at the very heart of our democracy: voting.

The deck is stacked against Democratic voters, and people of color in particular, in making electoral change. As Roge Karma wrote for Vox, the Electoral College and Senate are skewed in ways that give Republicans fundamental advantages every November. Given GOP opposition to sweeping police reform, this makes it difficult to make changes to policing on both the national and local levels.

Red states with tiny populations but inflated electoral influence mean that Republicans can expect to win an astounding 65 percent of elections in which they “narrowly lose the popular vote,” according to researchers at the University of Texas. The Senate is even more skewed. In 2018, Democrats won 54 percent of the vote across the Senate map and still lost two seats.

Karma explained:

The Electoral College’s Republican tilt is driven, in part, by racial bias. Analyzing the results of the 2016 presidential election, statisticians Andrew Gelman and Pierre-Antoine Kremp found that “per voter, whites have 16 percent more power than blacks once the Electoral College is taken into consideration, 28 percent more power than Latinos, and 57 percent more power than those who fall into the other category.”

These structural fixes might be the most difficult of all. But some activists argue that change needs to be structural, and not piecemeal, to be effective.