Break It Down, Build It Back Up Again

These protests are about way more than simply tweaking police policy.

Senate Republicans just announced their answer to House Democrats’ Justice In Policing Act unveiled last week. Led by Republican Senator Tim Scott, the Just and Unifying Solutions to Invigorate Communities Everywhere (JUSTICE) Act advocates for making some necessary reforms to policing across the country, though on its face registers as a rather tepid reading of the current moment. Nancy Pelosi was quick to criticize the proposal sayingThe Senate proposal of studies and reporting without transparency and accountability is inadequate…The Senate’s so-called Justice Act is not action.

Mitch McConnell was quick to respond saying, “Our Democratic friends, if they want to make a law, and not just try to make a point, I hope they will join us in getting on the bill and trying to move forward in the way the Senate does move forward when it’s trying to actually get an outcome, rather than just sparring back and forth.” All of this comes on the heels of Trump signing an executive order that called for a variety of small reforms and new requirements for police departments across the country.

While most regulation and oversight of police departments occurs at the local level, there is still much more the federal government can be doing to address the widespread, systemic concerns of activists across the country. These tweaks that have been proposed by both Republicans and Democrats are not nearly enough. If there is one thing that has been made painfully clear in 2020, the federal government has a severe deficit of imagination. It’s time to think bigger.

I’ve written here and here on the need for a radical recalibration of what policing looks like in society. These ideas are not my own, but are ones I think have a lot of merit. The gist is twofold: we are over-policing poor communities across the country and we need a hard reset on police staffing.

A legacy of broken windows and inherent bias.

Broken windows theory of policing — a popular idea of policing that first cropped up in the early 80s — posits that a police department’s focus should be on ruthless enforcement of minor crimes in order to prevent the occurence of major ones. The creators of the theory put it plainly, “Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken…one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

The idea is that disorder inherently breeds more disorder. Like when dealing with rot, it advocates for rooting “disorder” out before it spreads and gets worse. While this theory in the abstract has some merit, it runs up against a long history of systemic racism with regards to policing in this country. Simply put, policing has always required quick thinking requiring the human brain to take the path of least resistance. Combine this with a history of stereotyping, scapegoating, and demonizing people who don’t look like you, and out comes a racist cop. This racism tends to warp not only what the definition of disorder is but also who might be the cause of it in the first place.

In practice, broken windows theory operated in part as the philosophical basis for putting thousands of mostly black men and women in jail for nonviolent, small time drug offenses. It provided the foundation for Michael Bloomberg’s infamous stop-and-frisk policy and Clinton’s omnibus crime bill. It gave rise to racial profiling at airports and border checkpoints, and even today, it provides the basis for how police function.

This has led to extreme over-policing that not only does more harm than the crimes police say they are trying to stop, a strong argument could be made that it actually perpetuates crime in those areas. Police have been the harbingers of broken families for a long time, locking up mothers and fathers and children for decades. There is ample evidence that broken homes are strong precursors to crime, thus the cycle continues.

New ideas and systems and resources need to be utilized to treat this, because police have proven themselves woefully ineffective.That’s what the people in Washington and the elite pundit class don’t seem to get. It’s not about tweaking how the police operate. The problem is with the police themselves. It’s long past time to develop alternatives and put them to the test.

Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter, said it best, “We can put those dollars towards social workers responding to mental health crisis, to doctors responding to drug and alcohol crisis, to caseworkers responding to homelessness. We can give everybody a good life, if we discontinue our obsession with giving the police everything.

Rooting out a code of silence and unaccountability.

If it were up to me, every police department in this country would fire every officer on their books, effective immediately. Now, I know that’s not practical, but a dangerous brotherhood permeates policing, one of silence and unaccountability, one that disincentivizes intervening and rewards violence. In order to fix that, we need to tear it down brick by brick.

This is mission critical, and it starts with radically changing the requirements for what it takes to become a police officer. Currently, in some areas of the country it requires less training to become a cop than a barber. In every state, it requires far less training to become a cop, than a doctor or lawyer. How does that make sense?

Police departments across the country need to seriously consider expanding their requirements for becoming a police officer as well as scrutinizing what information police officers are actually taught. I’m talking about requiring a master’s degree, mandating certifications of some kind, regular diversity training, regular deescalation training, serious accountability standards, regular psychological testing, robust vetting to root out bias, etc.

Ultimately, an in-depth standard and licensing process needs to be developed and then we must hold every working police officer in the country to it, from rookie on up to veteran. If they pass, phenomenal. If they don’t, we thank them for their service and enforce an early retirement.

There is no silver bullet.

I pledge to keep hammering this home until it’s fully understood. Policing in America is not only broken, but broken at every step of the process. Taking it in for an oil change is not what’s going to fix it. There’s no one tweak that will be the magic answer.

It’s going to take work, a top-to-bottom assessment of what’s gone wrong and what is needed to fix it. In my opinion, allowing qualified unarmed experts — like social workers or doctors — to take the place of police in most low-level, regular encounters and significantly boosting the requirements for becoming a police officer in this country are good places to start.

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