The past couple of months in America has been rife with pain, anger, and deep sadness.
Protesters have taken to streets to demand justice for George Floyd’s death and to protest the racial inequities in our country. We’ve seen countless videos of police using excessive force against protesters, sparking a conversation about police reform. Many have called for a significant reduction in police departments’ budgets. Senator Brian Schatz introduced a bill to end the transfer of equipment from the military to the police. Others called for the complete abolishment of police.
Our Instagram feeds are covered with black boxes supporting the black lives matter movement. Instagram stories display advice on how to be an ally, what petitions to sign, books to read, protests to attend, and explanations of systemic racism.
It can be overwhelming, paralyzing even. The problem is daunting. Racism existed in America before our constitution was ratified. And the history of civilization is filled with division along the lines of religion, gender, language, creed, and race long before that. How can we possibly manage to find a solution to a problem every generation before us has failed to solve?
What is clear, is people want to help. People want to change. According to Gallup polling, the percentage of Americans who worry a great deal or a fair amount about race relations increased from 48% to 66% from 2002 to 2018. Over the same time period, the percent of Americans who think blacks are treated less fairly by police than whites increased from 39% to 52%. I share that not to say that we’ve done enough to educate our society about racial disparities, or made enough progress dealing with the disparities. I share it to show that efforts to educate, to change minds and hearts, are working. And to encourage us to continue pushing.
However, where can the enthusiasm for change be focused? How can we reduce the number of people of unjust killings by the police? Particularly, how can we protect people of color, who are more than 2.5 times more likely than whites to be killed by the police, from these killings? I’d like to share with you a tangible first step.
The Use of Force Project reviewed the policies of the 100 largest police forces in America, to find what polices result in a change in the number of incidents in which police officers use force against citizens. The study identified 8 policies that reduce the number of police encounters that end in death for citizens at statistically significant levels. The policies are as follows:
- Requiring officers to attempt to de-escalate situations before using force.
- Banning chokeholds.
- Requiring officers to intervene when their colleagues are using excessive force.
- Restricting officers from shooting at moving vehicles.
- Instituting a use of force continuum outlining situations in which particular levels of force are appropriate or inappropriate.
- Requiring officers to use all other means before using deadly force.
- Requiring officers to use a verbal warning, when possible, before using deadly force.
- Requiring reporting after the use of force or threatening to use force.
The most successful policies in reducing the number of police killings are requiring officers to exhaust all other options before using deadly force and requiring officers to report their use of force and threats of use of force. The takeaway is clear. Police officers, like all people, respond to incentives. If officers face repercussions either professionally, or legally, for unjustified use of force, their use of force declines. Overall, the study found police departments with 4 or more of these policies had 37% less police killings per population than departments with 1or less of the policies. When you control for the number of arrests, a proxy for the amount of crime in a district, the trend line holds. Departments with these policies in place kill less per 100,000 arrests than departments without them.
Furthermore, some of these policies are common sense. Requiring officers to intervene when their fellow officers are overstepping the bounds of the law, ought to be part of protecting their community.
Having a use of force continuum has two clear benefits. First, it’s easier to establish when and where exactly police over-step their boundaries. This will simplify conduct investigations. And putting a continuum in writing also gives a community a clear place to understand police standards and use their power to alter them when they are unjust.
I imagine the first concern for many is that reducing the power of the police to use force will put police officers more at risk. It’s a reasonable thought and a good question to pose. So, what happens to police safety when these policies are enacted?
The data shows that police officers are less likely to be assaulted on the job when more of these policies are enacted and fewer police officers are killed on the job when more of these policies are enacted. What happened to the crime rate? The rate of reported crimes neither increases nor decreased at statistically significant levels in districts with more of the 8 policies enacted.
Who has the power to enact these changes? There are 3 key decision-makers regarding these policies. Mayors have the power to alter these policies. They can do so with the most latitude and the most swiftly. The state legislature can enact a few of these policies, such as banning chokeholds, and banning officers from shooting at moving vehicles. However, that requires approval from the house, senate, and governor. Lastly, you can send the policies to your local police chief and demand they review protocols. It is an opportunity for police departments to demonstrate they are learning and are interested in protecting the safety of their citizens.
The last important findings of this study are what does not work. The popular proposal after Ferguson, of officers wearing a body camera, was not found to make a difference in behavior. Additionally, community outreach programs and implicit basis training were shown to affect police officers’ attitudes towards communities of color, but not to affect the incidents of use of force.
For many, these policies are not enough. They do nothing to address the racial gap in life expectancy, income, educational attainment, or combat racist attitudes. They are not a magic bullet to bring about equality. They do, however, move us in the direction of progress. To a more equable, more safe country. Lao Tzu wisely said, “A thousand-mile journey begins with one step”. We need to start somewhere. Let’s start here.
Feature Image: NYPost