Why I'm cynical about police reform
Activists don't want better policing, they want no policing
When I joined a police department, I joined a big city department that was under a lot of scrutiny — including a federal consent decree. In the academy, some of the recruits headed for different police departments flipped me shit. You want to work for that police department? Don’t you know people will be yelling at you? That you’ll be on camera all the time? That politicians will throw you under the bus?
I knew all that, and I didn’t care. I found the negativity annoying. I was going to do my job the right way. I was going to be polite when people were rude. I wasn’t worried about being on camera because the camera would only show that I was doing things properly. The consent decree might make life difficult, but if we all worked at it, we could have the best police department in the country and make everyone safer. Our collective efforts would be rewarded.
At times, I was frustrated by the things many self-appointed police critics in the media and academia said. Don’t they know about human reaction times? Do they know about Graham v. Connor? Do they know what reasonable suspicion is? Why do they keep comparing the racial breakdown of our stop data to the racial makeup of the population when they must know crime isn’t evenly distributed throughout the city?
I thought this was really just a problem of education. I thought once people really got to know us, once we did enough community policing and shared enough data and body camera video, once the police monitor finished his evaluation — then they’d get it. I believed we’d all find some reasonable common ground, learn from mistakes, and settle on a system of policing that worked better for everyone.
I don’t think I believe that anymore.
To be clear: I think if I was to pick a random registered Democrat off the street and ask him: “Do you want to defund police or make them better?” I think he would say he wants the latter. But when it comes to the intellectual vanguard of the police “reform” movement — the activists, academics, journalists, lawyers, the people who unironically use the word “Latinx” — I no longer believe most of them are good-faith operators. They’ve pretended for years that they want to make policing better and communities safer. But what they actually want is fewer cops and less policing, and they don’t care if they send the murder rate skyrocketing in the process.
Why do I think that? Why am I cynical? Let’s look at what police “reformers” have been saying.
Clue #1: Saying the quiet part out loud
You’ve probably heard of a police “reform” campaign called “#8CantWait.” 8 Cant Wait grew out of Campaign Zero, which in turn is connected to Black Lives Matter. (I’ve never been able to figure out who is the “official” BLM and who isn’t.)
8 Cant Wait has had a lot of success getting state governments and local police departments to adopt their proposals—even in conservative states like Florida. This is probably because the stuff they’re asking for upfront doesn’t sound super crazy. Require a use of force continuum? Most police departments already have that. Don’t shoot without giving a warning? That issue was settled in 1985. Some policy ideas that 8 Can’t Wait pushes need tweaks and some require new training, but if you’re a police chief or FOP president, you think: I can work with this.
So by the time the Floyd riots started in June 2020, many police departments had already adopted these reforms. Those which hadn’t rushed to adopt them. A big win for police reform … right? Not so much. Even police departments that had adopted each and every one of the 8 Can’t Wait policies faced criticism, protests, and demands for defunding. 8 Can’t Wait was not enough: now activists wanted police defunded or abolished completely.
Remarkably, the “reformers” at 8 Can’t Wait agreed: “If you are from a place where #8CANTWAIT is being considered, demand steps towards defunding and abolition.” Co-founder Samuel Sinyangwe put out a remarkable apology on Twitter in which he said that 8 Can’t Wait was “intended to reduce the harm police cause, for however long they continue to exist.” This graphic was added to the 8 Can’t Wait website:
What’s remarkable about this image is that it lays out the whole plan. They intend to start with “reasonable reform” like consent decrees and changes in use-of-force policies, move on to defunding police, and finally abolish police altogether. This didn’t happen because defunding the police is still massively unpopular, and so this graphic and message have been memory-holed and you won’t find them on the 8 Can’t Wait website today. But now we know what they’d like to do if they could.
They’re not the only ones who have said the quiet part out loud. Here’s decarceration activist John Pfaff, writing in the New Republic in April about expanding “police alternatives” like CAHOOTS in a time of rising crime:
….the expansion of programs like CAHOOTS and STAR may help with the politics here as well. In the short run, their existence helps push back against claims that public safety requires more spending on the police. In the longer run, these programs will become entrenched interests of their own that can check the power of police lobbying. It’s actually politically popular to fund programs like CAHOOTS and STAR—as long as the funding is not framed as a way to cut back policing. In an increasingly hostile short run, then, it may be better to advocate for these programs on their own terms, and then capitalize on their existence in the future to push for police reductions.
When I wrote about how the CAHOOTS program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, I added that I had nothing against it. But then I read this article by Pfaff, and now I do have something against it. Apparently, it’s all just a long con aimed at defunding police, so why shouldn’t I be against it? Especially since there’s literally no evidence these programs actually reduce violent crime.
The people holding these views are not random nuts on Twitter. They are making national criminal justice policy. Vanita Gupta is currently the Associate Attorney General and supervises the DOJ unit that investigates police departments and oversees consent decrees. What did she have to say about defunding the police last summer? She said it was “critical for state and local leaders to heed calls from Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives activists to decrease police budgets and the scope, role and responsibility of police in our lives.”
Gupta disavowed these opinions when Biden nominated her to the DOJ, but even the Washington Post didn’t believe her. Why should I? If you’re working in a police department that is being investigated by the DOJ or under a consent decree, why should you? Maybe you should simply take Vanita Gupta and the 8 Can’t Wait guys at their word when they tell you that the consent decree process — which costs millions of dollars — is just a step toward defunding the police.
Clue #2: Sophistry and lies
Arguably the biggest issue in policing is the use of deadly force. So when would-be “reformers” talk about the use of deadly force, you would think it’s important to tell the truth about simple things — like the current legal standard for use of force. Yet here is how police “reformers” describe Graham v. Connor’s rule of “objective reasonableness” to the public. Georgetown Law Professor Rosa Brooks:
Right now, the standard for the use of lethal force in many jurisdictions is whether lethal force is "reasonable" from an officer's perspective, which—like "reasonable suspicion"—is often interpreted so broadly that it doesn't pose any real constraint.
Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia:
All an officer has to say is, '“I feared for my life” — those are the magic words.
This is not even close to true. If cops can literally just say “I feared for my life” and be acquitted, how did Derek Chauvin end up in prison? How have dozens of other cops landed in prison? If a standard of “reasonableness” is so weak that it’s totally meaningless, why is it also the standard for civilians who use deadly force in self-defense? Why is half of our system of law — from torts to criminal law to habeas corpus petitions — built around the word “reasonable”? (Guess how much lawyers are ethically allowed to charge clients in fees? A “reasonable” amount.)
Brooks and Fagan know that the objective reasonableness standard does not let officers use whatever force they want. They are professors at elite law schools. Brooks even worked as a reserve police officer. So why say this? Because they want less policing. Brooks, for example, wants to get rid of Terry stops and traffic stops, which means eliminating 90% of police-initiated activity. To justify that kind of radical shift, you have to make things seem far, far worse than they actually are.
We see similar sophistry in the ongoing debate about the crime rate, where virtually all “reformers” insist that “COVID caused the murder rate to go up” and changes in policing had nothing to do with it.This claim is pushed by activist criminologists like Patrick Sharkey without a shred of evidence. In fact, the available evidence suggests otherwise: COVID is worldwide, yet Canada’s homicide rate went up only up a little bit in 2020 while Mexico’s was actually down. And it’s not poverty either: household income was actually up last year due to stimulus spending.
To give you a sense of how ideologically motivated these people are, Sharkey was claiming last year that there was actually no spike in shootings in New York City at all and implied the NYPD was conspiring to fabricate shooting reports.
Conspiracy-mongering like this means nobody should take your opinion about crime seriously again. Instead, Sharkey is routinely cited as an expert on the murder surge by moderate liberals like Yascha Mounk and Matt Yglesias. He tells them that COVID caused the crime wave he once denied was even happening. Sharkey will grudgingly concede that policing reduces crime but nonetheless claims without evidence police can be replaced with the always-nebulous “community organization.”
Pfaff, meanwhile, is so desperate to push the “COVID caused crime to increase” theory that he actually claimed COVID had a different impact on crime in the U.S. because criminals saw Trump on TV saying dumb stuff, got stressed out, and decided to start shooting. Yes, he actually said that:
There’s no way Pfaff doesn’t know this is bullshit. He’s a law professor and has a Ph.D. in economics. He could look at the hockey stick graph that shows the shooting started in June 2020 and deduce what’s happening, and he probably has. But he’s ideologically committed to depolicing, so he grasps for any straws he can find to argue otherwise.
But my favorite example of police “reformers” engaging in bad-faith sophistry pops up anytime police officers start to do less police work. For example, a recent Reuters report documented that police in Minneapolis are now doing a lot less police proactive police work. In response, Jamelle Bouie seethed that police “do not believe they are subject to democratic control or accountability.” Minneapolis Councilman Steve Fletcher also complained: “Is it better [for police] to pull that out from under us? To show us what we’ll miss without them? No.”
These are bad-faith arguments. Even as he was complaining to Reuters about depolicing, Fletcher “questioned whether more stops or arrests would quell violence.” But Fletcher’s “questioning” of the effectiveness of policing goes a lot further than that — a little over a year ago, he joined the entire Minneapolis City Council in voting to abolish their whole police department! Minneapolis cops are not rebelling against democratic accountability — elected city leaders explicitly said they don’t want policing and now that’s exactly what they’re getting. That’s democracy!
This particular bad-faith argument runs deep in the world of police “reform”. Last July, Walter Katz (head of the Arnold Foundation’s criminal justice “reform” lobbying program) openly mocked the idea that a cop in Minneapolis might worry about being unfairly accused of wrongdoing. Katz’s mockery came just a few months after he publicly implied the Columbus PD officer who shot Ma’Khia Bryant committed wrongdoing — an accusation he was forced to retract when it turned out Bryant was shot a split-second before she could stab someone else to death. The fact that Katz himself rushed to accuse an innocent officer of wrongdoing is apparently no obstacle to his scoffing at officers who worry they might be similarly judged in the future. It’s a remarkably dishonest catch-22.
Why would “reformers” so frequently mislead the public about an institution they allegedly want to improve? Why lie about something if you’re trying to make it better? It doesn’t make sense, unless what they really want is fewer cops and less policing.
Clue #3: Moving the goalposts
Usually, in order to “reform” an institution, you start by identifying a problem, figure out how to measure progress, and set a benchmark for success. The No Child Left Behind Act is an example of a (failed) attempt to reform the American educational system, but it did all these things: It identified a problem (low student achievement), figured out a way to measure it (test scores), and set goals to determine whether the problem had been solved (every child reading at grade level by 2014).
There’s a notable absence of any metrics or goals when it comes to police “reform.” What is the problem reformers want to solve? Is the problem that police use too much force, or too much unjustified force? How do we know when the problem is solved? What metric do police have to meet in order to be successfully “reformed?” Police in America use physical force in 1.1% of all contacts with the public.How much lower does this number need to get? What’s the goal? 1%? 0.1%? Nobody ever says.
Let’s take a common demand: civilian oversight of police. What happens when a city does establish civilian oversight? How do we know when civilian oversight is a success? Well, the National Association for Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement says “there is currently no consensus on how to measure organizational performance in the field of civilian oversight.” Nonetheless, almost every major city in the United States now has a body that provides civilian oversight of police.
But to hear “reformers” tell it, you’d think nothing had ever changed. That’s because they aren’t satisfied unless the new civilian overseers are also ideologically committed to screwing over cops. LAPD adopted all-civilian discipline panels for officers, and it turns out they were more lenient on officers than other cops. So now the ACLU is denouncing civilian oversight in Los Angeles. Why? Because they don’t want a fair discipline system for police — they want cops fired, and if that isn’t happening, then “reform” isn’t done. (The idea that a particular cop might be innocent of what he’s been accused of doing is never considered.)
Let’s return to consent decrees, which usually come with a set of “goals” that a police department must achieve after which the decree is supposed to end. In practice, these goals are often impossible to meet. When a department gets close to satisfying the stated goals of a consent decree, a monitor or judge will decide that they want to drag things on a little longer. That’s what happens in Oakland, where the police department has been under a federal consent decree for an astonishing 18 years:
Of 50 “tasks” laid out by the settlement agreement, just three remained unfinished at the start of 2019. But the police force finished out the year with eight partially or fully opened tasks after [the court appointed monitor] said the department lost ground on five of the previously completed reforms.
Multiple Oakland police chiefs have accused that city’s police monitor — who has billed the city over $5 million — of deliberately dragging out the consent decree. One former chief said he felt he was complicit in a “fraud.”
But perhaps Oakland is a uniquely dysfunctional example. Let’s look at Newark, touted by Katz and others as a huge success for the consent decree process.
Katz fails to mention that the drop in crime in Newark was accompanied by a substantial increase in police use of force and pedestrian stops. Per NBC News: “In 2016, police stopped 2,086 people and used force 294 times, according to the department’s data. In 2019, there were 4,222 stops and 431 encounters in which force was used.” In theory, this is a huge victory for police reform — the police in Newark are using little-to-no excessive force, keeping violent crime down, getting guns off the street, and there’s no depolicing happening.
But in the eyes of “reformers”, the fact that Newark police are still policing is the real problem. Told about the increase in policing happening in Newark, our friend Professor Fagan pointed to it as problematic:
“By this time, after four years, you’d like to see the numbers peaking and starting to go down — assuming there have been improvements in policing, and citizens are picking up on that, and the incidents are less loaded.”
In Fagan’s eyes, so long as Newark police are still policing, the consent decree is a failure. And he isn’t alone — in 2019, the ACLU other “reformers” were saying the same thing. So there is no victory lap, despite the apparent “success” of “reform” in Newark. In fact, the consent decree process in Newark is already behind schedule is now expected to take longer than originally anticipated.
The moral of the story is that cops trying to please police “reformers” are like Charlie Brown trying to kick a football held by Lucy. You can try as hard as you want, but they’ll yank it away as soon as you get close.
Clue #4: Making impossible demands
Another way “reformers” sabotage police is by setting goals for “reform” that they know are impossible. Consider the demand for “racial equity” in policing. The war against “racism” in policing today is no longer a war against Mark Fuhrman-style racial animus amongst police officers. It’s now based entirely around Ibram Kendi’s definition of racism: any disparity is racist. There’s an entire police “reform” nonprofit — the Center for Policing Equity — devoted solely to this idea, and police departments actually pay CPE to “report” things like: “Black people were subjected to force 4.8 times as often as White people.”
But racial “equity” in policing is impossible without having racial equity in crime victimization and offending, which does not exist. Imagine for sake of argument that police were only allowed to use physical force against suspects who had already killed a police officer. Even in this world, police would still use a disproportionate amount of force against black people, because 37% of cop killers in the United States are black while only 13% of the population is black. I’m not suggesting that African-Americans are inherently more likely to commit crime, but socioeconomic disparities in our society mean there ae racial disparities in crime as well. These background disparities are unfortunate, but police have zero control over them.
If demanding “racial equity” in policing is functionally demanding the impossible, why ask for it? It doesn’t make sense if you care about better policing, but it makes a ton of sense if you want to undermine policing as an institution by painting it as racist. It comes as no surprise that CPE’s founder, Phillip Attiba Goff, has said “policing as we know it can occupy a much smaller footprint” than it currently does. He doesn’t want police reform — just less police and less policing.
Another area in which police “reformers” frequently make impossible demands is when it comes to use of force. Again, let’s go back to the shooting of Ma’khia Bryant. At the moment the Columbus PD officer shot Bryant, this is what he was seeing:
It’s not super often you can look at one photo and say “yes, that cop had to shoot” but here that’s exactly what you have. Bryant was about to plunge a knife into an unarmed person. Yet here is the reaction from Valerie Jarrett:
Again, I’m not nutpicking here. Jarrett was “a highly influential member of [President] Obama’s inner circle” for eight years. She helped him make policy decisions and pick staff. Her name comes up in his book a million times. So I don’t think Jarrett is an outlier. I think when you get up into the highest levels of liberal politics, this is a consensus view. Consider: President Biden has now suggested that police should shoot suspects in the leg not once, but multiple times. The first time he said that I wrote it off as ignorance of how guns work — not uncommon. But saying it repeatedly? That tells me some staffer is telling him to say it.
Most police “reformers” had the good sense to delete tweets attacking the officer who shot Bryant — they could hardly do anything else. But they were careful to never never actually admit the shooting itself was justified. When Katz walked his statement back, he merely said he “was hasty with a comment.” Radley Balko deleted a tweet about how police had “shot the kid who called for help” and said he was “holding off until we know more.” (Apparently, he never learned anything else.)
If police “reformers” really wanted better policing, if they really wanted to help build trust between police and the community, they could have taken the opportunity to stand up for this cop. They could have helped educate the public about why this shooting was justified. They could have criticized Jarrett and others and said: “Hey, if we’re going to call out police for illegal and unnecessary uses of force, that also means we have to support them when they face a terrible choice like this one and are harassed and targeted for it. Super-rich celebrities shouldn’t harass and threaten an officer for using lawful force to save somebody’s life.”
But they didn’t say shit.
The war on cops
My message for police chiefs, union leaders, and people who care about public safety is this: It’s time to wake up. The academics and activists pushing for “reform” want no such thing. They don’t want police to be more effective or build trust between police and the community. They don’t care about the murder rate or the well-being of your officers, and they don’t represent what people in your community actually think. You can work with them now — indeed, you may have no choice. But you should do so with the knowledge that whatever you give them today, they will come back yell “defund!” tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if you accept civilian oversight or eliminate excessive force, because they’re not against bad policing. They’re against policing.
From my perspective, the smartest police union leader in America is Pat Lynch. He correctly intuited from day one that “police reform” was a Trojan Horse for activist ideologues who hate cops. He called out the “reformers” for exactly what they are and warned the public crime would go up — which it did. Of course, the anti-cop movement in New York State is still going strong, but it’s not like departments that underwent “reform” are any better off. And New York City voters just elected a tough-on-crime ex-cop as mayor. Lynch knew what many other police leaders have yet to figure out: Any agreement reached on “reform” today will be void the moment the other side has a chance to come after cops again.
I’d rather not be cynical. Maybe these activists, academics, and think-tankers really are just misinformed, but at this point I find that hard to believe. If you do police reform for a living, I challenge you to prove me wrong. Stand up for a cop who’s being vilified for doing the right thing. Call out the people calling for the “defunding” of police. Stop acting like the murder rate is irrelevant and policing doesn’t matter. Tell the truth about racial disparities and use of force standards.
But until I see that, I’ll go with what I’ve seen since 2014: The same “reformers” — all highly intelligent and well educated — lying, misleading, and moving the goalposts on police before finally coming out and saying cops should be laid off. I think they’ve revealed that the policing debate in America isn’t about “reform” at all —it’s about whether we even have police, and their position is that we should not. I think Heather MacDonald was right to call it a war on cops. And I think that until the people who support good policing see this for what it is, nothing is going to change.
Comments Archive (6/18/22):
I will say, in defense of some police reforms, when you have cops in Minneapolis or in the Louisiana State Police regularly abusing people without consequence, when you hear about untested rape-kits in the thousands, and low clearance rates for violent crimes, it's hard to reject the idea that policing doesn't require a lot of changing. And that's from a guy who - as you can probably tell from my below comment - is pretty pro-police (well, pro-commonsense, pro-morally right, etc., you get what I mean).
I also have to disagree with you on Pat Lynch. Eric Garner's death was unjustified. Daniel Pantaelo had a history of excessive-force, and used a chokehold banned by the NYPD. When you dig your heels in to defend such horrific misconduct, I can't help but predict that the subsequent backlash will also be extreme - evident with the anti-cop dogma that pervades the left.
But take it from an NYPD cop’s perspective. Why accept any proposed “reform” when you simply cannot trust the people proposing it due to the fact that they are a cop hating ideologues? How can you be sure it’s not a Trojan horse for some crazy bullshit? You can’t. Lynch was right to understand that, whereas your average police chief these days does not and even groups like the FOP seem not to get it.
But in the context of the Eric Garner case, you have a cop with a history of excessive-force using a long-prohibited chokehold on an unarmed man who was (according to the NYPD that is, Matt Tiabbi's book presents another theory) stopped for the non-violent offense of celling loose cigarettes (again, according to the NYPD, at least), was all the drama necessary? I know unions have to defend their members, but the way Lynch dug in his heels, claiming that the most mild consequence for Pantaelo - a firing FIVE YEARS after the incident - would "paralyze the NYPD for years?" Common, man.
Let me clarify: When I say "police reformers are bad faith actors" I'm not saying "all police reforms are bad." I would support better training and policies on positional asphyxia that would keep Garner from being killed. But of course, that's not what the police "reformers" wanted - it was all about how Daniel Pantaleo was a cold blooded murderer and so are all the other cops.
As for Lynch defending a member, that's actually legally required. Unions ususally must defend members. I wrote about that at length.
Working through my thoughts in real-time a little, one thing I think is your point of view in this article sharply contrasts to the Slow Boring of Hard Boards (tm!) approach that brought me to your site in the first place. Where is the ethic of responsibility?
Secondarily, wouldn't this theory also suggest police should - for example - oppose disciplinary matrices (as you proposed should exist)? I'm struggling to understand where the implication ends here.
I read you as saying "it's a good strategy to oppose all reforms." Is that right? Or is perhaps a more nuanced view "opposed the reforms that are bad" (but not those that are good)?
Again sorry for the rambling but I really like the writing, like the perspective, and super care about the outcomes. Effective and efficient police service is a core government function. I live in DC - it's not great to see so many outcome gains the city achieved given up so quickly with no plausible path forward.
Well, it depends. I don't really think we are having a debate about police reform in America right now. We're having a debate about whether to even have police, and since that's the case it's entirely necessary and responsible to tell the public: "Hey, those guys are anarchists and want to defund the police." Arguably it's irresponsible not to.
That said, I wouldn't necessarily say "it's a good strategy to oppose all reforms." I would say it's a good strategy to oppose all reforms proposed by anybody mentioned in this article. If you want to be more specific, aybody who's ever mumbled "defund police" should be locked out of the conversation and opposed at all turns.
It's hypothetically possible that these bad faith "reformers" could propose some actually good reforms but in reality it never happens. If the ACLU and Walter Katz start saying we should hire more police officers to cut down on officer fatigue and therefore misconduct, perhaps opposing that would in fact be a bad idea. But I believe the odds of this happening to be about zero.
Imagine if the National Review wrote a piece using your argumentation style here, that a child tax credit or more generous Medicaid would in fact lead to straight-up Communism- and they nutpick an activist here & a Twitter commentator there to 'prove' that any social welfare spending is actually Karl Marx seizing the means of production. (I mean, NR already writes 3 pieces like this every week). They can say 'look, this prominent activist who's pro-Medicaid is *also* pro-nationalizing major industries- proof that it's all a Communist Trojan horse!'
We used to call this style of argumentation 'nutpicking', and I wish you could disentangle the small number of activists (who use Twitter-jiujitsu to appear to be larger in number than they are) from the large majority of Americans who supported law enforcement reforms immediately post-Floyd
As I explicitly said several times, I'm trying *really* hard not to nutpick here. Vanita Gupta, Valerie Jarrett, these are very important people who make or have made a lot of executive policy! Katz is very important, he directs the CJ reform arm of a huge foundation which spends millions of dollars on reform programs. Radley Balko writes for the Washington Post. 8 Can't Wait is running programs with dozens if not hundreds of police departments. Rosa Brooks also runs a massive police reform program (ABLE) which numerous police departments have signed on to. These people are not nobodies or twitter randos. They are the intellectual and political core of the police reform movement. I don't think anyone can plausibly argue otherwise, but I'm open to hearing it.
Or even more dishonestly, claiming that crime is actually down because shoplifting declined even as the homicide rate rose 30%.
Excluding threats of force and the application of handcuffs. Including those, it’s 2.8%.