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Opinion Minneapolis’s police reform defeat can’t end the push to reimagine public safety in America

A police vehicle in Minneapolis on Nov. 2. (Nicole Neri/Reuters)
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If 2020 saw the summer of our discontent with policing in America, the fall of 2021 has the country cozying back up to the status quo.

After last year’s brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, activists and community leaders called for the city to reimagine policing. Last year, a large share of Minneapolis residents said they wanted reform. But on Tuesday, voters rejected a ballot measure that would have folded the Minneapolis police into a new Department of Public Safety with a broad commitment to public health and welfare.

The failure of the measure is a disappointment. It was easy to hope for the Hollywood ending — to hope that protests, chants and determination would lead to profound change. But in truth, residents were divided, even within the Black community, about the need for a dedicated police department. And one shouldn’t discount the effect of a barrage of rhetoric from the right nationwide seeking to poison any effort to redirect resources from police into communities.

From the early slave patrols to the Texas Rangers, policing in this country has never been about the safety of those who are not White. But as horrific as Floyd’s murder was, the cultural, economic and literal firepower that Americans give to police will not be dismantled so easily.

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Our ideas of police set in early. As children, to play “cops and robbers” means that whoever is the cop gets to point a finger gun at the pretend robbers and yell “Freeze!” and “Hands up!” My generation grew up with “Cops” and “Law & Order” normalizing dramatic and violent arrests as examples of good policing; other generations had their own similar TV shows. Police, like the military, are heroes — first responders to be celebrated even if their responses have needless life-ending consequences.

The Minneapolis vote was seen as a bellwether, but it was always unfair to pin responsibility for generations of change on a young movement and one ballot measure. And given America’s brutal history, it was to be expected that the psychic shock from Floyd’s murder would fade, and along with it much of the political will to do something, anything about the state of American policing.

And don’t forget, Washington itself squandered the power of the moment to enact even the simplest reforms. President Biden, who helped craft the 1994 crime bill, broke a promise to create a national policing oversight commission. Democratic leaders virtue-signaled by posing for ostentatious photo ops while kneeling in kente cloth. But efforts to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act died in September when Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) couldn’t reach a deal.

The Biden administration has promised to continue to work with civil rights groups and community leaders, but there are no indications that Congress will resuscitate police reform anytime soon. Without federal action, the battle for reform will end up atomized into individual cities and states.

The failure of progress at the federal level was a slap in the face to the victims of police brutality and their families and communities. It was also a kneecapping of the protesters who massed in the streets last year, many only to be met with the same police brutalization they were marching against.

In the end, however, to reform policing means more than just laws. It means reforming our imaginations around safety and crime. It means defeating the ridiculous notion that violence can be healed only with state violence.

We journalists can start with reforming how we talk about policing.

There have long been calls for the media to stop unquestioningly treating police narratives as if they are established fact, when case after case has shown that police can and do distort the truth. There have been calls to abolish the idea of a journalistic “crime beat” altogether, since it tends to overblow how much violent crime is occurring and stigmatize communities of color. Adopting those good ideas would be a start.

We can also amplify more stories of communities challenging old models of policing. Like this one that went viral on social media last month: Instead of calling police into schools, a group of fathers in Louisiana offered to patrol campuses to help ease problems with fighting there, and had an enormous, immediate impact. The city of Austin, which like Minneapolis has been undergoing a crime spike, recently rejected a proposal to increase police staffing to two officers on patrol per 1,000 people. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called it an “antiquated police staffing model.

So, yes, the result in Minneapolis was a disappointment, but it’s by no means the end of this story. It’s now more important than ever that people get engaged in local and state efforts to reimagine safety. We must get to a society in which fighting crime isn’t about fighting people but conditions. Reform is up to us.