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
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 justifiable homicides. During the Watts rebellion, the LAPD and the National Guard killed another 23 Angelenos, most of whom were Black. Many thought the obvious: The LAPD must be reformed, professionalized, and better equipped and trained to “fight crime” without provoking protests that cost millions in property damage. As federal, state, and county budgets pumped millions into policing, LAPD chief Thomas Reddin was triumphant. It was “The Year of the Cop,” he said in 1967, adding, “Everything you want, you get. And I say I want more, and I should be getting it.”
This history suggests that police, like banks, are too big to fail. When market crashes or mass protests stop business as usual, elites deliver a bailout — for the authors of the devastation, not the people they left broke and broken.
Stopping someone for walking in a “high-crime area”? Perfectly legal. Searching a car for drugs because the Black driver paused too long at a stop sign? Perfectly reasonable. As police commonly joke about racial profiling, “It never happens — and it works.”
The protests of 2020 have popularized key abolitionist demands to defund police and abolish the prison industrial complex. But federal elites have instead doubled down on rewarding police, particularly through the Community Oriented Policing Services (the COPS office), a 1994 Clinton administration creation that has already given $14 billion to local police. In June 2020 — as total unemployment reached 18 million people, one in five families was food insecure, and Black, Latino, and Indigenous mortality rates for coronavirus were as much as double those of whites — federal lawmakers prioritized hiring more than 3,000 more cops through the COPS office. If elected, Joe Biden promises to give another $300 million to community-oriented policing.
Policing is intrinsically predatory and violent. Police push millions of people into the carceral state, where racial disparity and other inequities rise through each circle of hell. Black people comprise 13% of the U.S. population but roughly 30% of the arrested, 35% of the imprisoned, 42% of those on death row, and 56% of those serving life sentences. Nearly half of people murdered by police have disabilities, and sexual violence is a routine but invisible form of police brutality used especially against LGBTQ youth, sex workers, undocumented women, and Black women and women of color.
In this unchecked violence, we see reform’s appeal but also its second trap: Because police look lawless, reformers hope that new laws will rein in their power. But the premise is wrong. Policing is not law’s absence; it is law’s essence in a system of racial capitalism. In this system, laws affirmatively protect the police’s right to racially profile, to lie, and to kill.
Racism is not a contaminant that seeps into policing as if lawmakers left some loophole that dutiful reformers could close. Police saturate working-class, Black, and Brown neighborhoods with explicit legal permission. Courts validate endless police stops. Stopping someone for walking in a “high-crime area”? Perfectly legal. Searching a car for drugs because the Black driver paused too long at a stop sign? Perfectly reasonable. As police commonly joke about racial profiling, “It never happens — and it works.”
Reformers try to enhance people’s procedural rights as if arming individuals with legal protections might slow the churn of criminalization. But consider the crowning glory of the procedural rights revolution, the 1966 Miranda v. Arizona Supreme Court decision requiring cops to recite the speech that contains some version of “You have the right to remain silent.” Outraged conservatives griped about liberal courts handcuffing the cops. But police simply learned a new protocol. After Miranda rights are read during an arrest, most people waive their rights, and police secure incriminating statements in more than half of all interrogations — rates comparable to those pre-Miranda. Police routinely use lies, intimidation, and confinement in interrogation, but simply saying the magic words became proof of professionalism. In short, Miranda offers good protection — for police, not the people they interrogate.
Reformers try to regulate police use of force. But rules are also instructions. In the 1985 Tennessee v. Garner decision, for example, the Supreme Court held that Memphis police wrongfully killed Edward Garner, a Black child in the eighth grade. It was wrong to shoot the child in the back, the Court found; such violence was justifiable only if an officer feared deadly injury to bystanders or themselves. In effect, a ruling on the illegality of killing gave police something more: instructions on how to kill legally. Police learned the script, “I feared for my life.” If cops forget their lines, then internal investigators help them remember. After Chicago police killed a child — identified in a Department of Justice report only as an “unarmed teenager” — the police internal investigator steered the cop toward exoneration with this question: “You were in fear for your life, so you fired how many times?”
“We believe in a world where there are zero police murders because there are zero police, not because police are better trained or better regulated,” writes the organization known as 8toAbolition. This brings us to the third trap of reform: Because reformers refuse abolition, they can only tinker with the techniques of police violence.
Chokehold bans, for example, prohibit a technique of killing but not the fact of killing. The bans are nonetheless hailed as victories, and New York City just celebrated its recent chokehold prohibition. But the New York Police Department prohibited chokeholds once before, in November 1993. It was hailed as a victory then, too. From 2006 to 2013, nearly 2,000 New Yorkers came forward with chokehold complaints. Just weeks after cops killed Eric Garner in 2014, the NYPD used the chokehold on Rosann Miller, a Black woman who was seven months’ pregnant, after they confronted her for barbequing in front of her house. The departmental ban was in full effect.
What trajectory of progress is this, to ban the chokehold — again — but allow police to kill with flashlights, vans, stun guns, handguns, and chokeholds by another name? An analogy can be made to death penalty reformers who replaced the noose with the electric chair and then replaced the electric chair with chemical cocktails. Reformers witnessed the horror of electrocutions that set heads aflame, and so they came up with a better way.
But better for whom? The technique of execution does not comfort the dead. It comforts the executioners — and all their supporters.
Reform is the perpetual bailout, the lifeline tossed to police every time people demand a better world, not better punishment.
We pursue reform on the premise that the system is broken. But as Mariame Kaba tells us, “The system isn’t broken but highly functioning just as the powers that be intended.” I agree and will add this: Police reform does not fail. It works — for the police.