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What It’s Going to Take to Fix Policing

The former director of President Obama’s community oriented policing strategies office warns that incremental reforms will not be enough.

Published: September 16, 2020
riot cops
Scott Olson

The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and recent police involve­ment in many addi­tional deaths, shoot­ings, and viol­ent incid­ents have reignited demands for trans­form­a­tional change to law enforce­ment prac­tices that too often result in vast racial dispar­it­ies in our justice system. Not only are Black Amer­ic­ans greatly overrep­res­en­ted in the crim­inal justice system, they are three times more likely to be killed by police officers than white Amer­ic­ans, and nearly twice as likely to be killed by police than Latino Amer­ic­ans.

This moment of crisis requires trans­form­a­tional change. Former police chief and Justice Depart­ment offi­cial Ronald Davis recently parti­cip­ated in a discus­sion, moder­ated by Brendan Cox, director of poli­cing strategies for the LEAD National Support Bureau, regard­ing calls for “defund­ing the police,” what community-driven poli­cing looks like, and how real­loc­a­tion of govern­ment funds can improve community-led public safety strategies.

Davis was director of the Justice Depart­ment’s Office of Community Oriented Poli­cing Services from 2013 to 2017, and he was exec­ut­ive director of Pres­id­ent Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Poli­cing. He is also a found­ing member of Law Enforce­ment Lead­ers to Reduce Crime & Incar­cer­a­tion (a project of the Bren­nan Center), which held the online discus­sion.

His remarks, edited for length and clar­ity, are presen­ted here in an inter­view format.

Millions are taking to the streets to demand change. Can we reform our current poli­cing strategies, or does poli­cing as we know it need to be dismantled?

After 30 years in local law enforce­ment trying to reform it, I would have to frankly say no, we cannot reform our current system. Reform over the past few years has mostly been tinker­ing around the edges — a policy change here, a trend change there. But it didn’t go far enough. Our current system of poli­cing not only has the impact of racial dispar­it­ies, but it’s still very much impacted by struc­tural racism.

We’re going to have to dismantle this thing all the way to the ground and rebuild it. The chal­lenge, however, is that we have to do it while we are still flying the plane — because we do not have the abil­ity to just stop police services and rebuild.

Ron Davis Matt Rourke/AP
Former police chief and Justice Depart­ment offi­cial Ronald Davis

When I hear people say they want to abol­ish the police, I under­stand it as a call to abol­ish the exist­ing system that has failed us. And when people call for police defund­ing, I think people are really talk­ing about is reima­gin­ing public safety — with the idea that we invest in social services. Prop­erly fund­ing social services is going to not just reduce crime, but also holist­ic­ally promote public safety.

I think, moving forward, we should not continue the debate about words that can be taken out of context, but we need to under­stand what the community is saying: Quit tinker­ing around the edges, quit play­ing with policy changes, and do the uproot­ing changes that are neces­sary to remove the struc­tural racism. When you have struc­tural racism and insti­tu­tional defi­cien­cies, the systems are so bad that even good cops have bad outcomes and bad cops are able to hide in the system and oper­ate with impun­ity. And people focus on this “bad apple” argu­ment. But it is not a “bad apple” issue. The whole barrel is rotten, and it is caus­ing even the good apples to rot.

That being said, I do believe whole­heartedly that the over­whelm­ing major­ity of cops are good men and women trying to do a tough job. But within a flawed system, we are send­ing them out to do things they are not trained to do and to imple­ment prac­tices that we know are going to have a racial dispar­ity. And then we are all going to have terrible outcomes.

How should police depart­ments oper­ate differ­ently?

Most depart­ments still oper­ate like we did in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. We are using the same programs. We are fight­ing crime the same way, and it is result­ing in dispar­ate outcomes.

When we talk about decon­struct­ing draconian police prac­tices, people bring up community poli­cing and community involve­ment. But I disagree with that. Community poli­cing should mean it is community led, not community involved, and many in the defund­ing move­ment are seek­ing that: community-led public safety.

The concept of defund­ing must be about the real­loc­a­tion of services to where they are most needed. It should not be a punit­ive meas­ure to punish the police by taking funds. If communit­ies are consid­er­ing reori­ent­ing fund­ing and do not approach it in a stra­tegic way, even if they were to take $100 million from the police depart­ment’s budget and give to community services, it may take years for that system to absorb those funds, provide services, and get the kind of return on the invest­ment neces­sary to reduce the law enforce­ment foot­print.

A community-led public safety strategy should center around those who work most closely with the social issues that lead to crim­inal justice system involve­ment — poverty, unequal access to health care, and the like, as well as those community groups that help prevent crime, such as those work­ing on focused viol­ence deterrence. But many grass­roots organ­iz­a­tions may not have suffi­cient capa­city imme­di­ately, even if we start real­loc­at­ing. We are going to have to make invest­ments in communit­ies beyond just real­loc­a­tion of funds to support the work these groups are doing on the street every day. When real­loc­at­ing resources, we also need to be care­ful to invest in programs that work and that we are not creat­ing new major nonprofits that under­mine the efforts of people who have already been work­ing deep in the community for years.

After a career in law enforce­ment, what is your view on defund­ing the police?

We have to be care­ful and make decisions accord­ing to a stra­tegic plan on how to achieve real­loc­a­tion, or targeted defund­ing, in a manner that does not comprom­ise public safety. If we do this wrong and leave gaps and crime or viol­ence goes up, not only will we not have real­loc­ated the way we should, but we also will start refund­ing the police, and at higher rates, because fear will drive our actions.

Approx­im­ately 85 percent of police fund­ing is for person­nel — and if you just arbit­rar­ily make big budget cuts in one swipe, many people will be laid off. But as a chief, I did not want the layoff process because, bottom line is, last one in is the first one out. Which means you just got rid of my diversity, my youth, and I am left with the rest of the depart­ment, who may be much more resist­ant to change.

How can communit­ies actu­ally promote the change they seek?

We can never forget that this is still a polit­ical process. That the decision-making process regard­ing fund­ing is about convin­cing the elec­ted offi­cials of what to do.

Most legis­la­tion, good or bad, is usually done when the legis­lat­ors believe that there is a threat or some­thing coun­ter­pro­duct­ive to the community. If we are going to reima­gine public safety, we need to engage all stake­hold­ers, includ­ing legis­lat­ors, so that when you design the plan, there are meas­ures that every­one has to do. There are meas­ures the police need to do. There are meas­ures that the prosec­utors have to do, the county, the health system. And there are meas­ures that the legis­lature can do. It may be to write new laws that close gaps that should not exist, or repeal laws that have inad­vert­ently or inten­tion­ally under­mined police account­ab­il­ity.

The change must be collab­or­at­ive. Everything has to be connec­ted because when soci­ety reima­gines public safety, it cannot do that in isol­a­tion because the system is going to fight back.

You say the system will fight back. Is there hope for change?

After 35 years in law enforce­ment as an officer, chief, and work­ing for the federal govern­ment, I am more optim­istic today than I have been in the past. The amount of change people want is not going away. This is not a moment — this is a move­ment. But I would say this, though — as we proceed forward, we should think about the Nelson Mandela phrase, “only the truth can put the past to rest.”

Everything has to start with people sitting down and acknow­ledging the truth — the truth of our history, the truth of the harm our systems have done, and the truth to under­stand why we need to make the changes that have to be done. Then we need to be bold, cour­ageous, and compet­ent. And this is going to be a work in progress. It is not going to be perfect, but we still need to do it anyway, because our communit­ies demand it.