Democrats in Congress tried to make a start on Monday, and the legislation they unveiled shows both a dramatic new willingness to take specific steps to confront the problem and the limits of how much Washington can do.
The bill they offer, called the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, includes the following provisions:
- Changing rules on “qualified immunity,” which can make it almost impossible to sue police for misconduct.
- Banning chokeholds and other practices that can lead to physical harm or death.
- Ending “no-knock” warrants in drug cases.
- Requiring police departments to report data on use of force and creating a national database to track police misconduct.
- Creating a national standard saying force should be used by officers only when “necessary to prevent death or serious bodily injury.”
- Limit the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.
When you step back, these kinds of very specific measures can seem small and inadequate, and the legislators didn’t pretend otherwise.
“The real way to achieve safe and healthy communities is to invest in those communities,” Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) said at Monday’s news conference, adding that while reforming police procedures is important, “ours is a bill that addresses a very specific matter under a larger umbrella of all that must be addressed.”
I spoke Monday to Barry Friedman, a professor at the New York University School of Law and the faculty director of the Policing Project, which works with local departments to improve policing.
“It is good to pursue these particular things,” he told me, “but that has to be the beginning of a conversation” that takes place at the federal, state, and local level.
While the federal government can take some concrete steps, what’s really needed is a fundamental reimagining of what public safety is about and how police fit into creating it. Friedman argued for creating a new force that could broadly be called “first responders,” who are given more extensive training to handle the kinds of problems we now put on police officers who aren’t prepared to handle them.
“We call upon the police to do far more than they’re capable of doing,” Friedman said, “and because police are trained in the force of law, that’s what we get,” whether they’re addressing homelessness, mental illness or even traffic enforcement.
When you start to question why the police are asked to enter so many situations that don’t actually require someone with a gun, the system begins to seem spectacularly ill-designed. “We send cops to take reports at traffic accidents,” Friedman noted. “Why are we sending armed people? Any time you send force of law, you’re asking for trouble.”
So Friedman argues that we need systems of accountability that start not after someone has been killed by the police and the officer gets punished (or not), but at the front end and all the way through: Creating new rules that will minimize mistreatment, providing training in how to make sure those rules are followed, and carefully auditing compliance with those rules.
“You would never say to the schools, ‘Do a good job educating people, and we’ll check in later,' " Friedman said. “But that’s what we do with police.”
Even if you view the approach of Democrats in Congress as worthwhile but just a small part of the overall challenge, they won’t get their bill passed through the Republican-run Senate, let alone signed by a president who clearly believes that what’s needed is to bash in some more skulls.
Meanwhile, most Republicans are sticking to the “bad apples” explanation for police brutality, which says that there are few if any systemic problems, and whenever someone is mistreated (or even murdered) by a police officer, it’s only because that one deficient individual somehow acquired a badge.
“I do not think you can paint with a broad brush and say there’s systemic racism in the criminal justice system in America,” says Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.). “I don’t think that the law enforcement system is systemically racist,” agrees Attorney General William P. Barr.
Just as important is the culture of policing, which is not only run through with racism but has also been intensely militarized, in the equipment given to police departments and in their training as well. Thousands of officers have been trained in a philosophy that conditions them to live in a constant state of fear and see the citizenry as enemies in a war, one in which they have to be prepared at any moment to kill lest they lose their own lives.
Which is why it’s easy to look at the magnitude of the challenge and despair. “It is a moment in which being despondent is appropriate,” Friedman told me, but he insisted that a different set of policies can move us toward a different future. “If we’re willing to do something, we don’t have to be despondent.”