The bill Democrats are proposing and the one Republicans have offered cover much of the same ground — chokeholds, no-knock warrants, police misconduct. The difference is that just about everything in the Republican bill is a suggestion or an incentive, while the Democratic bill imposes actual rules and requirements on police agencies and officers.
In other words, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Republicans want to make it seem like they’re doing something without actually doing very much (hardly a novel notion in Congress). Their position has been that there is no real systemic problem in American policing; instead, there are some “bad apples,” individual cops who are racist or abusive, and once they are identified and removed, everything will be fine.
But the fact that the bills are similar in the areas they address (though not identical; for instance, the Democratic bill limits “qualified immunity” while the Republican bill does not) shows that at a moment like this, Congress gravitates toward the most concrete things it can find. Chokeholds is a good example: Everyone thinks they’re bad, so you either discourage or ban them.
That may not get very far at addressing the underlying problem, but it’s popular. As this AP/NORC poll shows, things such as requiring body cameras, establishing a national use of force standard and requiring officers to report misconduct by their colleagues are overwhelmingly favored, with all enjoying the approval of over 85 percent of the public.
Just for the record, despite the attention being given to “defund the police,” the poll shows only 25 percent of people favoring reducing funding for law enforcement. But this one question doesn’t capture the complexity of that idea, which is generally meant to suggest that if we took responsibility for things such as traffic enforcement and handling mental health crises away from the people with guns, they could spend their time preventing crimes even with fewer of them on the job.
And unsurprisingly, there are some partisan differences, even as Democrats and Republicans are equally supportive of body cams or a use-of-force standard. For instance, 68 percent of Democrats in the poll supported limiting the use of military equipment by police, compared to only 31 percent of Republicans. Maybe it’s because I’m a squishy liberal, but the idea that any small town needs a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected armored personnel vehicle to arrest the local meth dealer is beyond me.
We can stop sending any more surplus military equipment to local police agencies, but like other measures advocated at the federal level, it’s only a start. What we really need is a fundamental reimagining of what policing means, and that’s something that will take years or decades, if we even decide to do it.
You can remove the cop with 17 complaints against him before he kills someone, but what about the rest of the force that has spent years being inculcated with a “warrior” ideology that fills them with fear and encourages them to be as aggressive as possible when dealing with people? What about the centuries of racism that makes even people who want to believe they aren’t biased see black men as dangerous and violent? Unwinding that is going to take a lot more than a bill shunted through Congress in a week or two.
Since policing happens mostly at the local level, that’s where most of the reform will have to happen as well. The good news is that it has already begun.
There are cities across the country that are starting to look at serious reform. New York is disbanding its notorious plainclothes unit. Albuquerque is creating a department of trained professionals to respond to 911 calls relating to homelessness and addiction so the police don’t have to. Multiple cities are diverting some police funding to social services and ending the placement of officers in public schools, which often results in ordinary classroom discipline problems being elevated to criminal proceedings (Daniel Nichanian has gathered these and other reform efforts).
In other words, the extraordinary protests that have taken place all across the country are beginning to produce some actual reform. There’s still a long way to go, but it shows that activism can work. And who knows, maybe Congress will manage to pass a bill or two as well.