The Three Traps of Reform


Police Reform Works — For the Police

Decades of reform have built an agile, deadly force that pushes millions of people into the largest carceral system in the world

Naomi Murakawa
Published in
6 min readOct 21, 2020


This article is part of Abolition for the People, a series brought to you by a partnership between Kaepernick Publishing and LEVEL, a Medium publication for and about the lives of Black and Brown men. The series, which comprises 30 essays and conversations over four weeks, points to the crucial conclusion that policing and prisons are not solutions for the issues and people the state deems social problems — and calls for a future that puts justice and the needs of the community first.

“Reform the police” usually means “reward the police.” This is the first trap of reform. As a supposed concession to the first wave of Black Lives Matter protests in 2014 through 2016, the Obama administration gave police a gift basket: $43 million for body cameras. Body cameras have not delivered on early promises to reduce police use of force, but they have expanded police surveillance powers, especially when equipped with facial-recognition software. As police patrolled Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, they captured images of protesters — by using the very technology that elites promised would contain some of the police powers that had sparked the protests just a few years ago.

Even larger rewards for police departments come under the guise of feel-good cop-speak labels like “community policing,” “guardian policing,” or “procedurally just policing.” After mass uprisings against policing in the mid-1960s, the Johnson administration created the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which dispensed $10 billion mostly to local police, often in the name of improving racial fairness and police-community relations.

The more police brutalize and kill, the greater their budgets for training, hiring, and hardware. The Los Angeles Police Department exemplifies this cruel exchange rate. Between January 1964 and July 1965 — the 18 months before the people of Watts rebelled — the LAPD killed 64 people. Despite the fact that 27 of them were shot in the back, the police’s internal affairs department ruled that 62 of the 64 were…



Naomi Murakawa
Writer for

Princeton African American Studies; Abolitionist Papers series editor, Haymarket Books; Author of The First Civil Right