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How Our Police Reform Moment Could Turn into a Lasting National Movement

The protesters don’t just want incremental change. They want to reimagine policing.

June 8, 2020
The Washington Post/Getty

We should know in the next few months whether the dramatic police reform moment in which we now live is going to turn into a lasting movement that brings systemic change to countless communities across the country. But we can see already in the massive, nationwide protests that have taken place in the two weeks since George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis that something truly different is happening on our streets, something well beyond what we saw six years ago during the protests that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

We see the change not just in the size of the peaceful demonstrations across the country but in the location of the protests. People aren’t just marching in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, they aren’t just marching in urban neighborhoods, they are marching in the farmlands of Nebraska and the small towns in the Jim Crow South. They are marching in places with long histories of racism and police violence and in places where relatively enlightened leadership has taken root. 

It’s not just people of color who are marching against police brutality, it’s white people, too. The sheer size of the protests, and the faces of the protesters, tells us that the push for meaningful change to the way the police do business includes many who stayed off the sidewalks in 2014 in Missouri and many of the other demonstrations against police misconduct that have taken place between now and then.

We see the change in what the protesters are seeking and what they say they expect. Not just piecemeal reform among police departments. Not just changes to qualified immunity rules to hold police more accountable for misconduct or tweaks to use-of-force standards that would preclude the police chokeholds and knee restraints responsible for so many lost lives. But wholesale changes that would transform policing in America: the “abolition” of police departments as we know them and the “defunding” or dismantling of police forces so they can be reimagined as avatars of public safety rather than as oppressors.

We see the change, too, in the evolving, maturing way Americans see police unions and the role they have traditionally played in stymieing substantial police reform. Moments like this are clarifying for many reasons, and nothing has been made more clear over the past two weeks than the fact that the “good apples/bad apples” trope about policing in America must finally be laid to rest. There are police officers who engage in brutality and other forms of misconduct, some of it deadly. And there are police officers who stand by and allow this brutality to take place without doing something about it. All of these cops discredit their uniforms.

Indeed, what has been so striking during the police protests is the apparent inability of police officers to refrain from engaging in obvious cases of brutality even when they know the cameras are filming their every act. Nothing proves the point of the protests more than these episodes, hundreds of which have been captured on video. Surely this helps explain why the protest movement expanded exponentially last week after the Trump administration orchestrated the violent removal of peaceful protesters in the park across the street from the White House so Trump could have a photo-op at a church.

We may never know how many protesters took to the streets last week not because George Floyd was killed, or because they had some profound frustration with qualified immunity rules, but because they saw new instances of police misconduct on the streets of their own home towns. Take Buffalo, for example. It is possible, even likely, that residents who had been on the fence about police reform were infuriated seeing the police push down an elderly man and then refuse to render aid to him as he lay bleeding on the ground from a head wound. This is not what policing should be. It’s not even what the police want us to believe it is.

One of the most important things the protest movement could do today is to force elected officials to break the hold police unions have on public policy. It will not be easy. As one elected official in Minneapolis put it recently, the policing lobby acts as a sort of “protection racket,” and there still are countless Americans who believe the propaganda police union officials lay on their plates every time police tactics are meaningfully challenged. Adding to the challenge is the sad fact that other unions, so often at the vanguard of social change, have given aid and comfort to police unions during this extraordinary time.

There are calls in Congress to pass legislation to reform policing, and it would be great if that occurs. I am not holding my breath. There are calls for the Supreme Court to finally limit the scope of qualified immunity, which protects officers from being held accountable when they abuse people. Again, I’ll believe it when I see it. But there are now state and local calls to reform policing, and those stand a much better chance of success. Even if these changes are made, however, even if reforms come to certain communities, there will still be wide swaths of the country that still will labor under the yoke of police departments whose officers engage in brutality and then get away with it.

The moment is here and now, and the movement depends on the ability of protesters and their allies in public office to build on the momentum of the past two weeks. That means buttressing the impression so deeply felt since George Floyd was killed that the agendas of police unions are antithetical to transparency and accountability and racial justice in policing. It means explaining that “defunding” corrupt, ineffective police departments doesn’t mean a lawless society where criminals run amok in our neighborhoods. It doesn’t mean streets without cops. It means changing in fundamental ways how Americans view the police. 

That’s a very difficult job. A month ago I would have called it impossible. Two weeks ago I would have called it impossible. But seeing nurses taking a knee in Boston to support the protesters, and seeing white protesters come out in support of their Black neighbors in rural America, seeing Sen. Mitt Romney marching over the weekend for Black Lives Matter in Washington, and seeing the homemade signs made by young protesters in cities across the country, all make me think that nothing is impossible as an American Spring of protest heads toward another summer of discontent.

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.