Police reform: Part 2

July 21st, 2020

Read "Police Reform: Part 1"

A hot night and a frayed relationship 

It was the summer of 1989 and I was a young, white seminarian working as a youth coordinator at the Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas. The youth I worked with were African American and Latinx teenagers growing up in a neighborhood policed by officers who mostly looked like me. “They don’t know us,” the youth said. “They don’t know what it’s like here.” 

One sweltering night I participated in a ride-along with two officers of the Dallas City Police as they patrolled the same streets where I had spent the day gathering players for basketball practice. I felt for the cops in their dark uniforms and bulletproof vests, weighted down with the tools of their trade, including their weapons. While it wasn’t the only lens through which they viewed their work, they clearly saw the streets they were patrolling as hostile territory, filled with dangers. I started to think about the ways police and the communities they serve grow apart from one another. 

That experience in West Dallas has come back to me in recent weeks in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Protesters have been raising fundamental questions about the nature of policing and whether our assumptions about policing need to change. Hashtags like #DefundThePolice reveal that some people are ready for significant reform and even abolition. The relationship between the police and the community seems frayed as never before, though maybe in ways I was already seeing on that hot evening ride-along.

Defund the police? 

Generally speaking, an institution cannot survive without funding. So, when activists began to talk about defunding the police, some naturally heard it as a call for anarchy. Without a police department, how would communities handle public safety? 

After George Floyd died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, a majority of the city’s council members pledged to dismantle the local police department. “It is clear that our existing system of policing and public safety is not keeping our communities safe,” Council President Lisa Bender said, according to a BBC report. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed. Period.” 

As council members talked more, however, it was clear that dismantling or defunding the police did not necessarily mean eliminating law enforcement. Funding could be shifted towards community-based programs that would involve other public workers responding to some calls for help rather than always sending an armed police officer. Comprehensive efforts to root out systemic racism might be part of that overhaul as well. 

While many activists stop short of calling for full abolition, others do argue for abolishing police departments entirely. Molly Glasgow of MPD150, a Minneapolis-based group, said that the many past efforts at police reform have not broken the cycle of mistrust and racism seen in policing. In an article for The Marshall Project, Glasgow said, “When we say dismantle: Yes, we mean divest and defund, but also invest in community programs and initiatives that are actually supporting people’s needs.” 

Camden, New Jersey, is one place where the police department has been eliminated in the past. After eliminating the city police in 2011, a new county police department emerged that established a much better relationship with the community. County executive Louis Cappelli Jr. applauded the change saying, “We get a lot of information from residents now to help us fight crime and help us solve crimes.”

The militarization of policing 

As protests grew in the wake of George Floyd’s death, police were often seen in news footage wearing military-style uniforms. The disparity between the battle dress of the police and the protesters was striking, reminding me again of how the officers I rode with in Dallas experienced the community much differently because of the gear they carried. 

The 1033 program, which began in 1990, along with other federal programs, has allowed for the transfer of billions of dollars of surplus military equipment from the Pentagon to law enforcement agencies. Police forces across the country can now get access to tanks, assault rifles, night-vision goggles, and other material that contribute to the growing militarization of policing. 

Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, told PBS NewsHour that this blurs the line between police and soldiers and that “when you take police officers and you train them like soldiers and arm them and dress them like soldiers, and you tell them they’re fighting a war, whether it’s on crime or terrorism or drugs or Antifa — pick your villain — we shouldn’t be surprised if we see some of the images that we have seen over the past few days, where police officers are treating the people they serve like . . . an enemy combatant, rather than citizens with rights.”

Building community trust 

Balko is a strong advocate for police having a community service mindset. “Cops need to see themselves as part of the communities they serve,” he told PBS. “They need to see themselves as there to — at a protest particularly, to protect the rights of the people who are protesting. And when you dress in camouflage, and you start thinking of yourself . . . as a soldier and the people you’re supposed to be protecting as the enemy, it’s hard to act as a police officer is supposed to act.” 

During my time in West Dallas, our community center partnered to create a youth basketball league with the participation of local police. Officers served as coaches and began to get to know the youth and the other community groups that also sponsored teams. The league began to break down the perceptions of the police and created new ground for trust. 

In 2015 a Justice Department task force on policing recognized the need for these kinds of initiatives writing that, “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.” Faith groups can also be at the forefront of movements that define security in more holistic ways. They can combat the ethos that sees more militarization and use of force as an answer to more systemic problems. Christian visions of beloved community, such as that found in Micah 4:1-4, remind us that no community is secure until all its members are secure.

Policing reforms 

The 2016 report of The Constitution Project’s Committee on Policing Reforms offered a number of recommendations for change. Some of those recommendations are found below: 

1. Any time military equipment is deployed for tactical or training purposes, there should be a record. 

2. Transparency and an understanding of how tactical military equipment is being used are necessary for building trust between law enforcement and communities. 

3. The following items should be prohibited from being transferred to civilian law enforcement: tracked armored vehicles, armed aircraft, firearms of .50 caliber or more, grenade launchers, bayonets and camouflage uniforms. 

4. Local law enforcement agencies should engage in more community outreach, focusing on getting to know the members of the communities they serve and protect. 

5. Recruiting efforts by local law enforcement agencies should emphasize crime prevention, peacekeeping and public safety, rather than the tactical use of firearms and military equipment. 

6. Training should emphasize a ‘guardian’ rather than a ‘warrior’ mindset among peace officers. 

7. States should enact laws that require law enforcement agencies to report data regarding the use of SWAT teams. 

8. States should enact laws requiring collection of data on use of deadly force, excessive force, and other circumstances involving potential constitutional violations. 

9. An independent agency or civilian review board should monitor SWAT deployments, no-knock warrants and use of military equipment by law enforcement.

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