Police Use of Force is Increasingly a Significant Conflict Driver in the United States: Reform Now or Expect More Violence and Instability
As the United States recently passed the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd by a former police officer, there is still an urgent need to reimagine public safety and transform the nation’s police forces to serve a just and fair system. Unfortunately, while there was momentum to reform the police, crime rates in the United States are rising, and cities are focusing once again on being tough on crime and not on needed reform. It appears the momentum and political will for meaningful police reform is waning.
While the number of fatal shootings of Americans by police remains consistent at about 1,000 per year over the last decade, data show police consistently stop Black Americans and use force against them at a disproportionately higher rate. In 2020, a study found police use of force is among the leading causes of death for young men of color. Recently human rights lawyers released a devastating report finding the systematic killing and maiming of unarmed African Americans by police amounts to crimes against humanity that need investigation and prosecution under international law.
Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, is no exception. A 2020 study of police data showed use of force in Minneapolis is disproportionately used on Black people. Furthermore, neck restraints — the move that killed George Floyd — were used on Black Americans 62% of the time despite being only 19% of the Minneapolis population. This violence has severe social costs and economic costs impacting taxpayers; in five years, the Minneapolis Police Department spent $13 million on lawsuits and settlements.
There were already considerable challenges to meaningful police reform due to the myriad standards of practice employed by the nearly 18,000 local and state police departments nationwide. But cities pushing reforms are backtracking as homicides increased by 33%. In the wake of these statistics, cities like Los Angeles and New York City are reversing the trend of cuts to the police forces, and some are even proposing funding increases. Yet, even in Minneapolis, elected officials are back peddling from their proposed bold reforms instead of discussing significant increases in the police force.
At the federal level, the Biden administration’s budget proposes $1.3 billion for police reform and community-oriented policing practices, representing an increase of almost $380 million from the previous Trump administration budget. This funding increase is a welcome development. However, Congress and President Biden must also ensure reform efforts are grounded in research and evidence. Government resources should ensure that the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), DOJ’s research and evaluation agency, gets adequate funding for extensive research into best practices. Confidence in police forces is at a historic low; for the first time in 27 years, a recent survey found most adults do not trust the police. In addition, there is a lack of data on police departments. Data is critical to studying the impact of policing on communities and developing evidence-based programs for community-based education to rebuild trust.
Congress must also adopt robust reforms, including passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. This Act would prohibit the use of chokeholds, lower legal standards to pursue criminal and civil penalties for police misconduct, and ban no-knock warrants in drug-related cases. The plan would also create a national registry to track police misconduct and establish a framework to prohibit racial profiling at the federal, state, and local levels. Research shows state and local police policies that establish basic protections on the use of force have lower police-involved shooting/killing rates. But even this bill does not go far enough, and it only applies to police forces that receive federal funding.
The good news is the new Administration is reversing the former Administration’s trend of a hands-off approach by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and sending them in to investigate regressive police forces. The DOJ recently opened an investigation into whether the Minneapolis police routinely use excessive force. In 2014, the Obama administration initiated a consent decree in Newark defining specific reforms needed; local leadership in Newark took the reforms even further. As a result, Newark Police officers did not fire a single shot during the calendar year 2020, and the city didn’t pay any police brutality-related cases.
Even if the federal government fails to act, municipalities have options for police reforms at the local level and do not need to wait for the federal government. In 2012, the city of Camden, N.J. disbanded its 141-year-old police force and formed a new community policing department. Communities have the power to decide their public safety programs. AfP members like Police2Peace are working with police forces and communities to build a national coherence for police culture change focused on rebuilding public trust and confidence. Other organizations like Equal Justice Initiative, The Minnesota Freedom Fund, and the Center for Policing Equity are also working on criminal justice reform. While this work is vital, it is not sufficient.
Dismantling structural racism and reforming the police forces requires political will and momentum. Americans must not lose the momentum of demanding police reforms and understand police forces can reduce crime and develop meaningful policing reforms simultaneously. Failure to reform police forces in Minneapolis and nationally will result in more police-involved killings and police brutality, resulting in greater instability nationwide and further eroding our democracy.