Massive protests in cities across the country in response to the death of George Floyd have once again brought the issue of police brutality into the national spotlight.
Outrage in response to excessive force by law enforcement has sparked some of the most turbulent events in modern American history, including unrest during the “long, hot summer” of 1967 and the Los Angeles riots in the early 1990s. More recently, the 2014 shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. — along with a long list of other deaths — brought national attention to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The specifics of individual instances of police violence vary widely and are often heavily debated; however, the number of police killings has remained consistent, as have calls for reform in police departments and the criminal justice system overall. Between 2013 and 2019, there were around 1,000 people killed by law enforcement each year, or roughly three a day. The current year is on pace to match those numbers, despite weeks of lockdowns in response to the coronavirus. The impact of police violence is felt disproportionately by black people, who are three times as likely to be killed by police than white people.
Law enforcement can, undeniably, be a dangerous profession, and police may be involved in incidents that compel them to use lethal force for their own safety or the safety of others. Limited data from the FBI lists roughly 450 justifiable homicides by police each year.
Why there’s debate
Part of finding solutions to police brutality is identifying the tactics that don’t work. In response to the emergence of Black Lives Matter in 2014, many lawmakers and law enforcement officials made a significant effort to curb police killings. These reforms — which included increased use of body cameras and training on racial bias — don’t appear to have had a measurable impact nationwide. Most police policy is set at the state and local level, but the Obama administration instituted some nationwide rules during this period, including restricting the transfer of military weapons to police departments. President Trump has reversed most of the changes made by his predecessor.
Reform advocates say the most direct path to a decrease in police killings would be for officers who use excessive force to be held accountable and face clear sanctions. Only about 1 percent of fatal incidents result in a criminal charge, even fewer lead to a conviction. Legal experts say laws that give police significant leeway in using force and the political pressure not to be seen as anti-police make it difficult to differentiate between reasonable actions and unjustified killings.
Focusing on individuals isn’t enough and only major structural change will make a difference, reform activists argue. Despite static numbers of police killings nationally, some cities have been able to make significant reductions in recent years. Many of those places have adjusted their use-of-force policies to limit the circumstances in which police are permitted to use violence or require deescalation techniques first.
Others say change will come only when the public’s perception of the role of the police is transformed, especially among white Americans. Recognizing that the mere presence of police inherently means the risk of violence could lead to new forms of emergency response in which, for example, mental health experts or social workers respond to certain incidents instead of law enforcement.
Former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin faces charges of third-degree murder and manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s death. He is scheduled to appear in court later this month. Minnesota’s attorney general said he plans to hold three other officers involved in the incident to “the highest degree of accountability” as well.
Congressman Justin Amash, I-Mich., plans to introduce a bill that would eliminate protections that shield officers and police departments from accountability for improper use of force. Challenges to these protections, known as qualified immunity, have also been presented to the Supreme Court.
Legal and structural hurdles that stand in the way of accountability must be eliminated
“Either U.S. law enforcement are almost always justified in the most extreme use of force, or there are systemic obstacles to holding police officers accountable when they kill one of their constituents.” — Dylan Scott, Vox
Small changes to police policy won’t work
“Reform is not the answer. We’ve been trying it for decades, and as you can see, we’re just not getting anywhere. We need a new paradigm of policing in the United States. It needs to be completely dismantled and reconstructed, not changing a policy here or there.” — Criminal justice advocate Neill Franklin to Intercept
White voters must decide that ending police violence is a priority
“It doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely within the scope of white power in America to rein in its police. ... If a majority of white people decided, today, that racist policing should end, we’d start seeing changes to police forces by the middle of next week.” — Elie Mystal, Nation
Organized public pressure can force change
“Now is the time when people of goodwill — black, brown and white — must come off the sidelines and speak out against the violence. It’s time to get involved in our neighborhoods, governments and police departments. It’s time to mentor, protest, vote, write our council members, county commissioners and congress members, support civil rights groups, volunteer at schools or community centers, among other activities.” — Kevin S. Aldridge, Cincinnati Enquirer
The role of police in society should be greatly reduced
“The solution to ending police violence and cultivating a safer country lies in reducing the power of the police and their contact with the public. ...Municipalities can begin by changing policies or statutes so police officers never respond to certain kinds of emergencies, including ones that involve substance abuse, domestic violence, homelessness or mental health.” — Philip V. McHarris and Thenjiwe McHarris, New York Times
Politicians need to stand up to powerful police unions
“Maybe it’s finally time to consider the role that police unions play in perpetuating police brutality. [New York City] Mayor de Blasio has frequently tangled with his city’s powerful unions, but he’s never challenged their vast political power. And make no mistake, that power is often used to cover up and deflect charges of police misconduct.” — John Fund, National Review
Less permissive union contracts are proven to reduce police violence
“Police union contracts are where the accountability system is set. Most contracts purge misconduct records, restrict misconduct investigations and help officers overturn discipline and get reinstated after being fired for misconduct. … They need to be renegotiated to increase levels of accountability and to reduce police violence.” — Police violence researcher Samuel Sinyangwe
White people must stop seeing police as a shield against marginalized groups
“The key here for all Americans, but especially for white people at the top of the corporate and political ladder, is to take on the job of shifting a morally corrupt mindset that celebrates the police as a buffer — the Thin Blue Line — between the poor and people in the better parts of town. ... That kind of thinking — us against them — leads to excusing police abuse of ‘those people.’” — Juan Williams, Fox News
Confronting racism within law enforcement is a key to ending police violence
“The solutions we keep trotting out fail to address the real fault lines here. … This is not a technology problem, or something that can be ended with some policy tinkering. It is a function of deep structural racism that we as a nation have proved to be incapable of exorcising.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Officers should be empowered to prevent excessive force by their colleagues
“One of the most important preventive steps we can take is to create a culture in which police officers themselves step in to prevent abuse, and are supported when they do.” — Christy E. Lopez, Washington Post
Stopping police violence means reducing inequality
“Black people in the U.S. disproportionately live in neighborhoods that are characterized by pervasive inequality, joblessness, poverty and inadequate public services — conditions in which crime has traditionally thrived. ... Addressing the structural inequalities at the root of urban crime will go a long way to reducing police violence.” — Jennifer Cobbina, The Conversation
A lack of reliable data makes it hard to understand the problem, let alone solve it
“Despite decades of credible allegations of police brutality, and a 25-year-old federal law requiring the government to collect national data on excessive force, the United States still has little or no reliable information to show for it.” — Kenny Jacoby, USA Today
We need nationwide standards for use of force
“We need to take immediate action at the federal level in order to restructure the way we do policing nationally. When it’s left up to local police stations, it is clear that the measures that are being taken are incremental at best, and it’s not solving the problem.” — Police violence researcher Christen Smith to PBS NewsHour
The media narrative on police violence makes it seem worse than it is
“The number of interactions that result in applied use-of-force is minimal. The number of interactions that result in fatal use-of-force is even more infinitesimal. And the ones that raise questions about police brutality or abuse of use-of-force guidelines are but a handful. Sometimes, the media narrative can distort this.” — James A. Gagliano, Washington Examiner
The militarization of law enforcement must be reversed
“Police have also become more militarized. … A whole generation of police officers have been given ‘warrior’ training that teaches them to see every encounter with the public as potentially their last, leading to a hostile attitude towards those policed and the unnecessary killing of people falsely considered a threat.” — Alex S Vitale, Guardian/ Yahoo 360