If there was ever a moment when it seemed certain that the old American way of policing was dead, it came in early June with the drone footage of a river of tens of thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters flowing down Hollywood Boulevard in liberal Los Angeles. The marchers kept coming and coming — singin’ songs and a-carryin’ signs, like a mashup of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (penned about 1966 protests a block away, on Sunset) with the endless headlights in “Field of Dreams.”
You had to think that if California, with its progressive traditions and its solid bloc of Democratic public officials, couldn’t show the rest of the world what it looks like to “defund the police” — the growing demand of marchers from Hollywood all the way to Philadelphia in those first days after the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd — then nobody could.
Yet today, when it comes to sweeping cop reforms, it increasingly feels — just 11 short weeks after Floyd died with a cop’s knee on his neck — like maybe nobody can.
Indeed, nowhere has proved a bigger bust than California, where a package of significant but not radical statewide reforms — far short of protesters’ demands to steeply reduce if not abolish traditional police forces in favor of social services and unarmed interventions — has mostly failed in a just-ended legislative session in Sacramento.
In less than three months, the Black Lives Matter protests grew smaller and the voice of the entrenched regime of police union lobbyists grew louder, filling the void. The centerpiece bill — certifying police officers, so bad-apple cops can’t easily move from jurisdiction to jurisdiction — never came up for a vote, and other reform measures were killed or watered down. A retired attorney who’d long worked on policing issues for the ACLU told The New York Times’ Miriam Pawel: “The culture has not even begun to change.”
Even in Minneapolis, ground zero for the Floyd protests, a call for a rapid, radical rethinking of big-city policing has been dramatically slowed down. A push that would have allowed voters to decide in November on replacing the police department in Minnesota’s largest city with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention with a “holistic, public health-oriented approach” to public safety was halted for now by a local commission. In other cities, early calls for like-minded plans — pitched under the broad and sometimes confusing banner of “defund the police” — have struggled for oxygen in a summer of rising murder rates, especially as COVID-19 has sparked municipal budget crises.
Christy Lopez, a Georgetown University law professor who co-leads the school’s Program on Innovative Policing and is a national reform expert, told me in an email interview that “there has been a noticeably wide gulf between demands and legislator rhetoric, and the proposals actually put on the table, let alone passed.” Lopez cited a perfect storm of factors: lawmakers distracted by other issues such as the coronavirus, the longstanding power of police unions and a learning curve for activists to promote the benefits of dramatic reforms. “Movement advocates and activists have to work harder at this,” she said, “because race and class bias make it less likely that lawmakers will trust that they know what they are talking about.”
What’s so frustrating is that while the momentum for rapid reform stalls, the police killings of Black and brown Americans under murky circumstances hasn’t stopped. In Los Angeles, just a traffic jam or two away from where so many had marched in June, sheriff’s deputies killed a Black man during a traffic stop … on a bicycle. And in Rochester, New York, protests mounted with release of police bodycams showing police placing a hood over and allegedly suffocating another Black man, Daniel Prude, after his family had called for help during a mental health breakdown back in March.
Both Prude’s death and the LA killing of the cyclist Dijon Kizzee seem to bolster the argument of those seeking to both dramatically change the role of police departments and reduce their funding in favor of social programs and new ways of intervention — where people suffering nervous breakdowns or routine traffic stops aren’t the province of armed cops who, despite their supposed training, have escalated too many situations into violence.
Even before George Floyd’s killing, advocates for dramatic police reform largely shared a common agenda of ideas that included not only reducing the role of uniformed cops in responding to mental health calls but also more independent oversight of police conduct, increased funding for social services in high-crime neighborhoods and more restrictions on use-of-force tactics such as chokeholds.
And after the post-Floyd protests, which drew large, diverse crowds and took place in all 50 states, there were scattered but significant victories in some of these areas. In July, the liberal college city of Berkeley, California, voted for a plan for traffic enforcement by unarmed civilians (as well as mental health and homeless services) that would reduce police spending by 50%.
But in most jurisdictions, less dramatic reforms are struggling before elected officials who’ve often received campaign aid from police unions that oppose even modest changes. In California, Pawel noted, a study revealed law enforcement unions and associations donated $5.5 million to state lawmakers from 2011 to 2018. For every Berkeley, there are several stories like New York City, another supposed liberal stronghold, where lawmakers are now working to modify a ban on chokeholds after police union objections.
But even where commonsense reforms like chokehold bans take root, incremental change — as opposed to a completely different mindset around public safety — won’t address the basic problem of policing in America. That would be a permanent culture of structural racism and inherent bias — reinforced by reactionary police unions — that’s much stronger than a few days of added sensitivity training or hiring a few more Black officers.
Dr. Howard Henderson, the founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University, told me that dramatic reforms are so hard because “we’re forgetting that the police union culture and the systemic structures around policing have created their own environment that’s immune to traditional policy approaches. It’s essentially immune to democracy and even political ideology.” That’s certainly true in places like New York City, where supposed leftist mayor Bill de Blasio has defended a brutal police response to protests.
Here in Philadelphia, the future of significant police reform is very much in the balance, with several proposals — such as a strengthened police oversight commission — on the November ballot and other moves, such as chokehold ban, still pending before City Council. The council also plans hearings on the controversial police use of tear gas during the June protests, but advocates for the more dramatic idea of drastically reducing the police budget in favor of neighborhood-based violence intervention programs are waiting until 2021.
“We need a complete altering of the mindset around public safety,” councilmember-at-large Helen Gym, a leader of the charge on police reform, told me — echoing Texas Southern’s Henderson that sweeping change will require both listening to citizens in the most affected communities but also educating the wider public that traditional policing isn’t set in stone. And that will take some time. “You can’t be short term,” Gym added. “This is deeply set in our culture, through our history and institutions. So the changing needs to be equally purposeful.”
Dramatic but necessary police reform probably won’t only require public education but also electing more public officials who aren’t beholden to police unions and their campaign contributions. It also takes several bold cities like Berkeley or Minneapolis charging forward with their plans to end policing as we know it, so places like Philadelphia will have a better roadmap as to what works and what doesn’t. I’m hopeful about this, but I can’t help but wonder: How many more Daniel Prude moments must America endure until we get there?
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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