In the past weeks, our nation has been brimming with grief and anger over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Sean Reed. The public, already mourning more than 100,000 deaths from COVID-19, exploded in protests all across the country against the killing of Floyd and a long history of police brutality.
One of the most important demands from the protests has been the arrest of all four former Minneapolis Police Department officers involved in Floyd’s death. While that was a vital first step, it’s important to look toward long-term reforms that can be made to police departments across America.
Several proposed changes, such as implicit bias and de-escalation training for officers, increased transparency and accountability and practicing community policing will help. Additionally, the past week of protests and police violence has shown that a serious demilitarization of American police forces is vital to ensure public safety.
Between 1997 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense provided approximately $4.3 billion in military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. This has now resulted in police outfitted with shields and body armor and firing tear gas and rubber bullets into crowds of unarmed protesters. Even the presence of police in riot gear escalates a situation and puts everybody on edge.
Contrary to what law enforcement agencies may think, a study published in 2018 by the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science showed that local police militarization, specifically the use of SWAT teams, didn’t decrease police deaths or reduce crime. Instead, the study found that militarization disproportionately targets black communities and lowers the public’s trust and confidence in local law enforcement agencies.
The police do not need to operate as a local military. Incidents of domestic violence, substance abuse, homelessness and petty crime do not need to be treated with immediate aggression. Many of those situations could be better solved if social workers answered the call rather than a police force armed to the teeth.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s law of the instrument, everything looks like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer. In the same way, everything looks like a threat when you take on the role of a soldier.
Another important way to prevent police brutality is to pursue community policing, where the individuals hired to police an area are from that area, which allows them to have greater insight on the needs and characteristics of the streets they patrol.
In cities such as Indianapolis, where black and Hispanic residents make up approximately 28% and 10% of the population respectively, the police force remains overwhelmingly white. While local police departments argue against residency requirements due to their effect on hiring ability and officers’ desire to live where they work, these requirements can help to build a law enforcement that better reflects the communities they are called upon to serve and protect.
The Campaign Zero Project, dedicated to decreasing police violence through various policies, has identified eight important measures that should be taken by police departments: banning chokeholds and strangleholds, requiring de-escalation, requiring warning before shooting, exhausting all options before shooting, requiring a use of force continuum, comprehensive reporting of shootings, requiring a duty to intervene and not shooting at moving vehicles.
Among these policies, Indianapolis only requires a warning before shooting. Police departments such as Philadelphia that adopted the measures proposed by the Campaign Zero Project were approximately 15% less likely to shoot civilians with each measure taken than departments that did not. Additionally, the Campaign Zero study found that these measures also decrease the number of assaults and deaths among the police themselves.
Keeping police accountable for violent actions is difficult, due to the significant relationship police departments have with district attorneys and the fellowship that police have within their ranks. The “blue wall of silence” keeps bad cops from facing consequences for their actions and perpetuates distrust between departments and the communities they police.
Being a police officer is a difficult and, at times, dangerous job that requires officers to have trust in each other. But when that loyalty becomes a willingness to ignore police brutality, the public’s trust is eroded and “good cops” who overlook their peers' violence become complicit.
The past week has made glaringly clear that serious police reform is desperately needed for the wellbeing of black communities. If we are not willing to push for improving transparency and accountability, demilitarization and better training, no lasting change will happen and justice will elude our grasp.
Everett Kalman (he/him) is a rising senior studying law and public policy and is the vice president of external affairs for Culture of Care at IU. He plans on practicing immigration law in the future.