Police reform: How is it achieved? 

The Massachusetts State House is pictured. via Wikimedia Commons

Calls for police reform have erupted across the country in the wake of the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor among many others. Americans are demanding systemic change in the policing system, and protests for police reform have become national news. How exactly is police reform achieved? Here are four approaches.


Defund the police

At almost every rally across the nation following the murders of unarmed African Americans at the hands of officers, a cry to “defund the police” can be heard. However, people often mean different things when they say “defund the police.” 

Some urge to abolish the police completely, advocating that to create a new model of community-led public safety is to start the system from scratch. Many supporters of defunding believe divesting from police can help end cruelty within the criminal justice system. Starting a new system where first responders include mental health professionals, social workers or community members could help end violence and hostility across the nation and lead to more education, jobs and mental health services for members of marginalized communities.

Others advocate to partially defund the police. Many support taking money police use to buy weapons and investing it in social and mental health services.

David Art, professor who teaches the course Political Perspectives on Race, Policing, and the Demonstrations in the U.S., prefers the latter definition. 

“Policing serves a very important function, and I can’t imagine a society without something that resembles policing, particularly in this country while we are awash with guns,” Art said. “Major reforms need to happen, many of which will involve a shift of resources … The answer will be putting resources in different directions.”

Instead, Art proposes reallocation of training resources and increasing funds for mental health resources. Being a police officer is a middle class job that does not require a college degree. Police officers in America only train for about four months, while European officers train for at least a year and attend university. To generate better police officers, Art says there should be a longer training period for police officers. This would provide resources to allow more social welfare programs and more in-depth deescalation training.

“Part of the reason we see all these things in this country has to do with our genuine underfunding of a lot of social services, police being one of them,” Art said. 

To make sure that police forces become more diverse in terms of gender, sexuality and race, Art says defunding the police should mean taking money away from weapons and militarization and reallocating it toward systemic social change.

In Art’s class, guest lecturers come to speak to students about their perspectives on police reform. Political science professor Brian Schaffner, who is currently researching the public opinion of Medford and Somerville residents regarding policing, visited Art’s class to discuss his findings.

“Even in very liberal communities like Somerville and Medford, a pretty large majority of residents are not supportive of defunding the police,” Schaffner said. 

Schaffner found that residents of Medford and Somerville prefer the idea of reallocating funds rather than defunding police completely. 

“From a public opinion perspective, people are more likely to support defunding the police if you tell them that it’s going to go to something they like,” Schaffner said. 

This can include improving mental health services, paying social workers and bettering social welfare programs.


Community policing and civilian review boards

Another way many Americans think of police reform is through community policing. Community policing is the idea that officers should interact more with community members through developing relationships, solving problems with the community and creating partnerships with local businesses and community members. This way, community members will have more of a say in how they are policed and will be familiar with police officers. In this system, police can act proactively by getting community members mental health services or social welfare programs rather than fighting crime in the community reactively. 

Art said community policing is difficult to understand because there is no clear definition of how this would work.

“There’s a lot of talk about it, but it’s not very specific,” Art said. “Ideally, what I think community policing almost means is an outcome. It’s a situation in which there is a high level of trust between society and police.”

One way this level of trust between community and police can be achieved is through the implementation of citizen review boards. Schaffner’s research has found that residents of Medford and Somerville widely support the implementation of these boards made up of average members of the community.

“This board would review police actions, review discretions by the police, and could even be involved in hiring and firing decisions,” Schaffner said.

According to Art, community policing can only become mainstream once other problems within the policing system are already remedied. Funds have to be reallocated, police have to undergo racial bias training, and trust has to be developed between police officers and their communities before a system like this can be implemented. 

Art recommends taking concrete steps like ending no-knock raids and reforming use of force policies before expecting a system of community policing right from the start. 

“I tend to see it as an outcome rather than a model or paradigm,” Art said. “It points to trust, and that’s really what is lacking.”

Until that trust is established, a system of community policing is unlikely to be fully implemented.


Police force disarmament

When the people of Ferguson, Mo., took to the streets in 2014 to protest the killing of Michael Brown, they were met with a police force in riot gear and troops from the Missouri National Guard that looked as if they were going to war. Such striking responses to protests have not stopped since then and have become more pronounced this year since protests erupted in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Police forces from Boston to Los Angeles have had long histories of militarization, believing that such force may be necessary to confront mass mobilizations that could turn violent. Art traces the roots of police militarization to the birth of SWAT teams. 

“Many of these [police] departments began to acquire more of this technology and at the same time were incentivised to use it really with … in the guise of SWAT teams,” he said. 

Over time, Art said, SWAT teams began to respond less frequently to the situations they were intended for, namely hostage and shooter situations, while beginning to serve drug warrants more often. 

Public opinion in the Medford and Somerville areas mainly supports the demilitarization of police, according to Schaffner.

“There’s also a lot of support for de-weaponizing the police,” Schaffner said. “A lot of residents think police officers should only have limited weaponry, including maybe not having hand guns.”

Police forces’ underlying perceptions of themselves, as Art notes, are a factor that should not go ignored.

“People who point to militarization say it’s not only the technology, it’s also the culture,” Art said. “It’s the sense of performing a warrior duty.”

Evan Horowitz, director of the Center for State Policy Analysis (CSPA) at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, echoed this sentiment.

“It’s tied into a notion of how police departments see themselves, as embattled, and potentially needing this equipment to fend off the most heinous criminals and crimes,” he said.

The CSPA released a report in July on the two bills passed in the Massachusetts House and Senate and key differences between them. Horowitz explained the bills’ different approaches to purchases of military equipment by local police. 

“One of the bills, I believe it is the Senate bill, limits the purchase of [military equipment], or would require greater authorization to allow local police departments to purchase military grade equipment,” Horowitz said. “The house bill, as I recall, is silent on the issue.” 

The one consolidated bill has made it out of its committee and is ready for review by the House and Senate. 

Demilitarization of police is one area of reform that, in theory, can expect bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. U.S. Senators from Rand Paul to Ed Markey support similar measures to disarm police of military-grade equipment, and legislation has been introduced to ban the use of weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets by federal law enforcement and incentivize state and local police forces to do the same.


Racial bias training

Providing officers with racial bias training would be a seemingly simple measure to alleviate racial bias in policing. Such an approach has garnered widespread support from mayors all over the country and even former President Barack Obama. Training, supporters say, will help make police officers aware of their own implicit bias and better able to check themselves in the line of duty.

Art says, however, that police departments have been doing these trainings for years. 

“A lot of police departments in the wake of Ferguson did that on their own … they brought in and had members of the community talk about the history of racial injustice and systematic racism,” he noted. “You can find examples of a lot of police departments that did that on their own, almost as a matter of course.”

But since Ferguson, police violence has not stopped, and some research suggests that training to reduce police bias does not have significant effects. 

One thing that may help improve racial bias training, according to Horowitz, is collecting more information on what training works and what doesn’t. 

“There is lots of training for police officers, and some of it is dedicated to reducing complaints and improving performance, but there has not been a systemic effort to connect what we know about who is doing the training with what we know about who is getting complaints or having interactions,” Horowitz said. “We could do that with the right data.”


On the horizon

The CSPA’s report was released in July, much closer to the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that permeated the popular consciousness this year. Some of this fervor has since subsided, especially among lawmakers, giving an advantage to those opposed to reform.

“There was this sense of urgency that was tied to the protests and looked like it was going to propel this bill forward,” Horowitz said. “But, obviously, some of the energy around that has faded, and that has given time for groups that oppose this bill to better organize, so I think that will complicate efforts to push this over the finish line.”

However, the bill likely remains a high priority for lawmakers on Beacon Hill, and hope remains that it will come out of conference committee before the current legislative session ends. 

At the federal level, efforts at police reform have stalled time and time again. Democrats have put forth a number of small bills on the matter, none of which have shown any signs of moving or really present any chance of being passed into law. Senate Republicans, however, posited their own bill, which failed to pass the Senate back in June and effectively killed any discussion of the issue since then. In the meantime, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 in June, but the bill has not yet come up for a vote in the Senate.

For now, action can only be realistically expected at the state level, which means many states will inevitably do little or nothing.

However, Art said the most important development this year has been the increased scrutiny that the public has given police forces around the country. 

“It’s been interesting … and quite satisfying to see that referendums in various states have picked up and have changed outcomes in [policing] policy,” he said. “Because for 30 or 40 years, police had kind of not been under a major lens whatsoever and had been running things as … institutions tend to do in ways that suit them and their interests.”

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