Reform is insufficient. It’s time to democratize public safety.
Tim Wise · 8 min read
IfAmerica is to live, policing as we know it must die. It is that simple. If we aspire for it to become a multicultural, multiracial, and pluralistic democracy, America simply cannot go on this way much longer. Too many bodies are buried in the soil, too much blood has been spilled, and too many families have been shattered.
Those bodies and lives and families have been sacrificed in the name of law and order. But when the law becomes lawless, there is no order, and so here we are. We are watching it all collapse in real time, in HD, on the nightly news, on Twitter, on TikTok, as police respond to nonviolent protest with brutality. They gleefully shoot rubber bullets at journalists, mace children, and shove the elderly, anyone who dares criticize them for murdering black folks.
The back of the national camel has met its last straw.
That things are breaking down is no surprise. It is only surprising it has taken this long. The United States was conceived from the contradictory impulses of liberty and slavery, freedom, and oppression. It was forged from the fires of a fundamental incongruity: On the one hand, the inalienable rights of man, and on the other, the alienable lives of those deemed lesser than human.
Beset by its split personality from the beginning, America has demonstrated the impracticality of trying to walk the thin line between tyranny and liberty, of seeking to have it both ways. This doesn’t work. Once you establish a country around the precept some are to be free and others not, that some are to be protected and others subordinated, neither time nor pretty words will undo what has been done.
Law enforcement has always been the root of the problem. It is the fulcrum of white supremacy and has been so from the beginning. Remember, the Constitution says it right there in Article IV, Section 2:
No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due…
Shorter version: If an enslaved person runs away to a free state and we catch them, their ass is going back.
And who, one wonders, would be given the task of “delivering up” said runaways? It would be, of course, the 18th century’s equivalent of cops, whether recognized as members of an official law enforcement body or simply white men deputized by dint of their skin to act as such. Slave patrols had been operating since long before the nation was founded. Indeed, many white men over a certain age were required to participate in them. In this way, not only was the oppression of black people baked into the nation from the start, so too was the collaboration of white people.
It was part of the recipe. It was the yeast without which the bread would not have risen. It was the roux around which all other ingredients would blend. And how does one undo the gumbo once it has been simmering for hundreds of years? Or more to the point, how does one unwind a culture of policing fostered over centuries?
Not with simpleminded reforms, and not with more training, that’s for sure. Training suggests law enforcement’s violence and misconduct result from some kind of failure in the system. But policing has been about violence from the beginning, at least so far as black folks have experienced it. It was never Officer Friendly who came to get your cat out of the tree or gave little Johnny a ride-around with the siren going just for fun.
Policing has been about violence from the beginning, at least so far as black folks have experienced it.
For black people, police served to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, and later, Jim Crow segregation. Sheriffs and their deputies would arrest black men, on suspicion of some fabricated wrongdoing, only to release them into the hands of a white mob that would hang them, burn them, and mutilate their bodies. Lynchings were a local spectacle and could only happen with the active collaboration of police.
How could training have made a difference? Perhaps we could sit down with the murderers and have a heartfelt discussion about their implicit bias? Please. And body cams? Those would merely have allowed us to witness the carnage in higher pixelation. Training assumes a system failure is the problem, but where is the failure?
When Jim Clark and his goons brutalized marchers on the bridge in Selma, they were doing their job, and that’s the problem. So too Bull Connor. These men weren’t failing under the terms set by the system under which they operated. Everything they did flowed from the system itself.
When cops enforced the war on drugs, they too were doing their job. It was not a system breakdown. It was the system operating as designed. Thinking that one can train one’s way out of oppression — when oppression is the point — makes no sense. It’s like standing at the end of a conveyor belt in a sausage factory waiting for it to give you chicken nuggets and becoming frustrated at its unwillingness to do so. It’s a sausage factory. Sausage is what it does. Expect sausage.
Ultimately we must envision a society without policing, at least in so far as we currently conceive of it. The purpose of such a body must be reconceptualized and rebuilt with the explicit participation of the communities it is meant to serve. Not just their participation — their control.
Police culture, as it exists, must be destroyed.
This means no more decommissioned tanks from the nation’s armed services, no more military hardware — which suggests to officers that when they go into a neighborhood, they are going to battle against a foreign enemy. No more camo. You don’t need desert camouflage in Ferguson or Baltimore or Minneapolis. There are no sand dunes with which you need to blend in. Police wear gear to feel like soldiers, and for no other reason. Enough.
The warrior mindset — which many departments openly encourage and even send officers to trainings to learn better — must be stamped out. So too must be the inward protectionism which encourages officers to place loyalty to the blue brotherhood (and sisterhood) above all else.
You’ll hear it often said by cops that “my number one job is to get home to my family each night.” No, it’s not. And any cop who thinks that’s their job should be fired on the spot. Their job is to protect and serve. It’s in the oath they took.
Ultimately we need a society built on the idea that communities are in the best position to protect themselves and to serve themselves, and that we — the collective — will provide them with the resources needed to do so. This means that rather than policing as we know it, we must move to conflict resolution models that are community-driven and bottom-up rather than top-down. Gang interrupters, drawn from the community, many of them formerly incarcerated, can prove far more effective at crime control than outsiders and enforcers, especially if we provide them with the resources we currently piss away on cops.
And I know, many will say that without aggressive policing, crime will spiral out of control. But it’s not true. Crime has fallen even in those cities that have moved away from broken windows enforcement and stop and frisk. It could fall even further were we to move to the next levels of de-escalation.
What is often missed is how criminal offense itself is a direct outgrowth not only of economic deprivation — which requires a much broader set of solutions — but also a sense of hopelessness and lack of control over one’s life. Lacking power, lacking perceived agency, folks will act out and hurt others.
De-policing cannot occur overnight, but we must begin the transition.
Some, feeling disrespected daily by the larger society, sadly, will manifest the same disrespect against others, including others in their own communities. But ask please, who taught them their lives and the lives of their neighbors didn’t matter? Where did they learn that lesson? Not on the corner. They learned it in our schools, our media, and from every instruction offered by our national history. Perhaps if we reconstituted the notion of public safety, beginning with the idea that the people themselves should have control, that sense of autonomy would translate into respect for self and others.
Such a sea change will take time. De-policing cannot occur overnight but we must begin the transition. So here’s an idea. It’s the kind of thing that activist groups like the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and others have discussed for years, and it’s time we took it seriously.
First, anyone looking to serve as an officer in a community of color — regardless of that aspiring officer’s race — should submit to a probationary period of, say, four months. During that time, they would be on the payroll, but they would not have powers of arrest. They would have no gun. Their job would be to get to know the communities and neighborhoods where they seek to serve — walking the blocks, talking to folks on their front porches, their stoops, in their barbershops, their cafés, their bodegas, their houses of worship. They would be talking, yes, but more crucially listening to the voices of those who live there. Finding out what they want and need from law enforcement. Assessing their hopes and fears.
After aspiring officers had gotten to know the people of the community — having met their families and shown them pictures of their own, and connected along the lines of a common humanity — the community would get to vote. The community would get to say yes or no to every aspirant. Having had the time to assess the humility, the character, and the commitment of each one who seeks to become a cop, the people would decide.
In all likelihood, those who weren’t cut out for this new and democratized culture wouldn’t make it four days, let alone four months. They wouldn’t even submit to the process in the first place. They would self-select out of policing as a career, at least in so far as they would be working in such communities. Good.
And those that stuck with it? Those who worked for months as community organizers, whose first job is always to listen? They would likely get the thumbs up. Either way, the control would be in the hands of the people.
This cannot be the endgame, of course. We need to rethink the entire concept of policing and move toward other forms of protecting public safety. But in the meantime, promoting self-determination would go a long way toward signaling that we were prepared to let the old ways die, to allow the scaffolding of police culture as we know it to crash and burn so that the nation doesn’t have to.
It would signal that we love the idea of America and still believe in it. Far more indeed than those who would defend the existing order.