Has the opportunity for police reform already closed?

Mike Bebernes
·Editor
·7 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The police killing of George Floyd in late May ignited a nationwide protest movement that saw thousands fill the streets in cities across the country. The goals of the Black Lives Matter movement cover many areas of American society, but the most immediate demand is reforming the role of police in communities.

Floyd’s death, along with the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, helped draw public attention to reform measures that activists have been promoting for years. At the height of the protests, it appeared that lawmakers in many places were ready to make substantial changes. New York City and Los Angeles announced they would reduce police budgets. The use of police chokeholds was banned in several states. The House of Representatives passed a sweeping police reform bill. The most substantial move was taken in Minneapolis, where the City Council voted to disband the police entirely.

As time has passed, though, the momentum for reform appears to have waned, and many of those planned changes have stalled. New York lawmakers have been accused of using “funny math” to hide the fact that police funding wasn’t really being cut. The House bill died in the Republican-led Senate. Minneapolis’s plan to dismantle its police force has gotten bogged down in bureaucratic red tape.

The shooting of Jacob Blake on Aug. 23 offered, for many, a stark reminder of how little has changed about policing in the U.S., despite the massive social movement that was ignited just a few months earlier.

Why there’s debate

All the various hurdles and delays that have impeded police reform efforts in recent months may mean the country has missed its chance to truly reimagine the role of police in society. After spiking in June, support for Black Lives Matter has gradually trended downward and public opinion of the police has improved, polls show. The issue has also become increasingly politicized, with Republicans holding up reform bills at the national and local levels.

Reform advocates have also expressed disappointment with Democrats. The party’s presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has proposed some criminal justice reforms, but many activists say they fall well short of the systemic changes needed. A collection of modest reform bills in California failed to pass earlier this week, despite Democratic control of both chambers of the state Legislature. The fact that even small changes are falling short shows that a truly comprehensive reshaping of law enforcement may be next to impossible, pessimists say.

Others see reason for optimism, despite recent challenges. Comprehensive police reform was never going to happen overnight, they argue, and each incremental step counts as progress toward the larger goal. They also believe there has been a fundamental shift in the way the U.S. public views law enforcement. That change in attitudes will put pressure on current and future lawmakers to continue pushing forward on the issue, they say.

Perspectives

Pessimists

Biden’s proposals aren’t enough

“Biden, unfortunately, is not yet on board with the push to revisit the role of policing in America. Nor has he advocated shifting funds from departments to other needs of overpoliced communities, such as hiring more mental health professionals instead of more cops.” — Jamil Smith, Rolling Stone

Any reforms are happening in a haphazard, piecemeal way

“The problem is that what we are seeing is a patchwork response. And when you have a patchwork response, where you see varied responses from different municipalities, it’s very hard for that to do anything more than be a band-aid.” — Sociologist Dana Fisher to USA Today

Public support for reforming the police is slipping away

“For those like myself who have believed in and advocated for police abolition for some time, it was a moment of rich opportunity. And yet … it already seems to be fading, at least in actionable ways.” — Mychal Denzel Smith, Atlantic

Much of the support for Black Lives Matter was performative

“We must come to the conclusion that some of what we saw as a racial awakening was prone to wither. Some of what we saw was people cosplaying consciousness, immersing themselves in the issue of the moment. … America has a sterling track record of dashing Black people’s hopes.” — Charles M. Blow, New York Times

Congress is incapable of coming to a deal on even small reforms

“People are still being abused at the hands of police. Anger over injustice is still building in the streets. And any suggestion that lawmakers in Washington will be able to reach agreement on even the most basic reforms is wishful thinking.” — Editorial, Boston Globe

Powerful police unions stand in the way of true reform

“Police unions, like all unions, were designed to protect their own. But unlike other labor unions, they represent workers with the state-sanctioned power to use deadly force. And they have successfully bargained for more job security than what’s afforded to most workers, security they can often rely on even after committing acts of violence that would likely get anyone else fired or locked up.” — Samantha Michaels, Mother Jones

Optimists

The Blake shooting has thrust police reform back into the national conversation

“The way the media cover events such as George Floyd’s death and the protests that followed, and the way the white public consumes them, creates the impression that they are individual episodes — occurring within a context, to be sure, but ultimately with discrete start and end dates. … Blake’s shooting shows how that view falls short, though it also offers a chance to correct it.” — David A. Graham, Atlantic

The racial awakening that happened this year cannot be reversed

“Now that millions of white people understand the severity of police brutality against Black people, the possibility that they ultimately see the end of policing as a solution is hardly utopian, especially as each passing day seems to bring more visual evidence of the racism and brutality of police across the U.S.” — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker

Reforms can succeed if they remain focused on practical solutions

“We remain hopeful that opportunities for ongoing reform, better training of police officers and curtailing of police abuses ultimately prevail. But it’s imperative that the focus returns to and remains as much as possible on tangible solutions that are within our reach.” — Editorial, Orange County Register

Democrats disagree on specifics but share a common belief that change is needed

“Even as different generations of organizers debate tactics, there remains a sense of community and understanding about the common goals of the movement — and the life-and-death consequences of what it is pushing for.” — Maya King, Politico

Important reforms are occurring in local jurisdictions

“This will be a fight waged at the local level — a war fought in city council chambers, budget offices, and other modest rooms, led by city officials who feel emboldened by the emergence of the largest protest movement in American history. Those fights rarely make national headlines, but their effects can be more important than the bigger ones.” — Andrew J. Hawkins, Verge

Progress is slow, but it’s happening

“Change is both cyclical and incremental and oftentimes nonlinear. Many of the proposed police budgets for 2021, including in Minneapolis, remain largely intact. But words that were rarely spoken in mainstream arenas — ‘defund,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘racism,’ ‘abolish’ — are now being earnestly discussed. … Victories are slow, but they are happening.” — Jenna Wortham, New York Times

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