In response to George Floyd’s recent killing by police, Minneapolis decided to disband its current police department and invest more in community-led public safety measures. For some, this seems like a radical move. But, for those who’ve seen police reform doing little to prevent police brutality against African Americans, it’s not so far-fetched.

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“We have failed [African Americans], and we need to entirely reshape the system. We need a full-on cultural shift in how our Minneapolis Police Department and departments throughout the country function,” said the mayor of Minneapolis during an interview for ABC News.

Other cities are considering following suit. Some, like Los Angeles, have already diverted police funding to community services. Many recognize a long history of police departments using racial profiling to fight crime, leading to larger arrest rates, incarceration, and killings of African Americans. They worry the problems are systemic, and nothing short of a complete overhaul of police will curb the violence. Some also point to the rising costs of policing without added public safety and the undue influence of police unions in maintaining the status quo.

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Does the Minneapolis plan make sense? Will divesting from police and investing more in communities make people safer?

It’s hard to know for sure. After all, we can’t do experiments and randomly assign communities to have or not have police departments. But we can still turn to criminologists and other experts to shed some light on the state of policing. While some research suggests that there are things to be done to decrease bias in policing, other research suggests that today’s protesters may be right: Strengthening communities and creating social safety nets could be a better model for public safety than investing more in police.

The problem of bias in policing

In light of previous, highly publicized police killings of unarmed Black people, efforts have been made to train police to reduce bias and unnecessary use of force and to increase public confidence. For example, some departments have instituted trainings in how to handle mental-health crises, communicate respectfully with community members, recognize their own implicit bias and stereotypes, and practice stress-reducing technique like mindfulness, all having some positive effects. Departments also have tried eliminating chokeholds, making officers wear body cameras, and more.

But, as a group of criminologists found out when analyzing the data behind recommendations like these, the research is often fairly weak, and many police departments institute them out of a sense of urgency rather than a wealth of data. “As police executives seek to answer calls for reform while meeting expectations of evidence-based practice, there is limited scientific research to support them,” they write.

Even with these trainings and policies in place, police still kill unarmed Black people. For example, New York had a chokehold ban in place when Eric Garner was killed in a chokehold, and several police killings of unarmed Black men—most recently, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta—happened when police wore body cameras. So, while reforms may be implemented in good faith, they don’t necessarily work in practice.

Barriers to reform

While criminologists call for more and better research on police reform efforts, there are barriers to this—not having good data about police shootings among them. As criminologist Franklin Zimring points out, the lack of government oversight and the independent nature of many police departments around the country make it hard to get adequate data on police shootings that would aid researchers in creating good policies.

There may be other underlying issues in police not addressed by reform research.

Some argue that having a military-like approach to policing—what is sometimes referred to as a “warrior” culture—as opposed to an approach that focuses on community relations—a “guardian” approach—is problematic. Research suggests that when police favor the warrior approach, they tend to be more willing to use force in an encounter.

However, it may be hard to change police culture, even with the best of intentions, says Geoff Ward of Washington University. That’s because policing is rooted in a history of racism, white supremacy, and punitive retribution that is hard to overcome, he says.

“The police, court systems, and legislative systems we have in this country have always been dominated by white Americans, by men, and by wealthier people, and have specifically excluded people of color,” he says. “This is harmful to our democratic culture and to the realization of the idea of equal justice.”

While his research suggests that diversifying staff in criminal justice institutions can make a difference in reducing prejudice and lead to fairer outcomes, it’s likely not enough to overcome institutional racism, he says. Police view criminal behavior through a racial filter that runs deep and has been exacerbated by campaigns like “the war on drugs” and by media depicting African Americans as dangerous criminals, he says.

So, while officers from under-represented groups may join a police force in hopes of changing the culture, they’re often pressured to participate in the racist (and sexist) norms of the department or risk losing career mobility and, possibly, their own safety on the job.

“To expect women or people of color to come into these positions as part of a diversity initiative, and expect them to change how police operate, is naïve,” says Ward.

Though he is hopeful about efforts to mandate police officers intervening when they see another officer abusing their power, Ward also sees that as a hard lift for them.

“To redirect your law enforcement energy away from a civilian and toward a fellow officer means facing a pretty tremendous barrier: the culture of impunity and loyalty within police culture and the pressures to close ranks and ‘back the blue,’” he says.

Science suggests that Ward may be right about the culture of loyalty within police departments and how it can interfere with reforms. Law professor John Rappaport of the University of Chicago has been studying the effects of police unions and police hiring practices, and he’s found that they often insulate officers from the consequences of misconduct, perpetuating violence.

For example, one of his studies found that when sheriffs were given an opportunity to unionize, violent incidents of misconduct in their ranks rose. Another study showed that officers fired from one police department were often rehired elsewhere, and, when they were, they had higher chances of repeated misconduct in the new location.

These issues imply that problems run deep in police departments and restructuring them from the ground up may be needed. Ward says that it makes sense to dismantle a system and culture that dehumanize people who commit crimes while promoting an unhealthy hero worship of police. 

“When people talk about abolishing police, they are saying we need to imagine and redevelop what public safety is, and begin by acknowledging that the policing system we have created does not in fact provide public safety,” he says.

Investing in community programs could reduce crime

Like many of today’s protesters, Ward believes that public safety could be achieved by investing in and strengthening communities of color. He argues that much of the money that has been funneled into police and prisons could be better spent on things like after-school programs, neonatal health care, and more.

“We have to basically break the system down and build something else up in its place that is more honestly, more sincerely oriented toward providing public safety, and is better equipped to do it,” he says.

“We have to basically break the system down and build something else up in its place that is more honestly, more sincerely oriented toward providing public safety”
―Geoff Ward, professor of African and African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis

This is what happened in the town of Camden, New Jersey, in 2013, where a high crime rate and decimated city budget led city officials to disband their police department, break up the union, and start over. The town instituted a community policing approach that involved a stronger collaboration between police and the community they served. The city also focused funds on increasing public services. This resulted in a huge drop in crime.

Of course, Camden is just one example of how this can be done. But research suggests that focusing on community health may indeed be more important to crime prevention than warrior-style police forces.

In a meta-analysis of over 200 studies, criminologists Travis Pratt and Francis Cullen of the University of Cincinnati looked at how different factors in the community and police force predicted crime.

“If you want to reduce crime, the first thing you need to know is what’s associated with crime, right?” he says. “Things we think of as ‘get tough blue’—like large police forces and expenditures, and enhanced sentencing structures—were pretty uniformly weak across the board when it came to predicting crime.” In other words, they didn’t seem to make a difference in the crime rates.

Instead, he found that variables like “concentrated disadvantages”—like poverty and family disruption in a community—are what increased crime and “collective efficacy”—the ability of a community or neighborhood to band together with a common set of goals and to find ways to regulate itself—were what reduced it. To him, these findings suggest that policies aimed at eliminating poverty and building self-reliance would be better for public safety than increasing the police force.

Pratt says these results were the same no matter what kind of crime was measured—whether it was violent crime, property crime, robbery, burglary, or homicide. And the results didn’t vary by decade, either: What was true in the 1980s was also true in the 1990s, he says.

Indeed, research supports the contention that providing better education to communities is connected to reduced crime rates. After-school programs that focus on social skills and character education also help prevent youth delinquency, which suggests investments in these programs would increase public safety.

Health care access also reduces crime. As one study found, expanding Medicaid is associated with a sharp decrease in crime rates. Providing local access to drug treatment facilities has also been tied to less crime, meaning that we can improve public health and reduce crime rates effectively by providing better health care.

Still, says Pratt, it can be a hard sell for some people to divest from police and invest in healthier communities. That’s because people prefer simple explanations to complex social problems, he says, and it seems logical that tougher policing should translate into less crime. This notion is hard to dispel, even if it’s untrue.

“Every complex problem seems to have an infinite number of simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answers,” he says. “This is certainly one of them.”

A better model for public safety

Ward agrees that investing in communities is important. But, he says, we must first broaden our sense of what “policing” and “public safety” can be.

“We’ve funded policing agencies that actually made us safer—like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Security Exchange Commission,” he said. “If we take a broad definition of policing, then I don’t think there is any society that can function without some kind of policing to help enforce normative sensibilities.”

That means reforming our social contract in ways that truly enhance people’s well-being while removing what harms it, he says. So, while national attention is rightfully focused on the abuses of police and how to eliminate the killing of unarmed Black people, we need to also think about how to end institutional racism, in general, if we want to have a safer, more just society.

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It’s clear that African Americans still suffer from higher rates of discrimination in housing, education, and employment, which all contribute to poor health and reduced opportunity. These barriers have at their roots policies that were designed to enforce white supremacy.

Also, lifelong experiences of racism place a psychological and physiological burden on African Americans. In fact, one study found that African Americans experience a much faster rate of health deterioration as they age than whites—so much so that the average health of an adult Black person is comparable to the health of a white person who is 10 years older.

Yet, while the burdens of racism fall squarely on African Americans and other people of color, they are not the only people negatively affected by it, says Ward. Living in a racist society and working to uphold white supremacy instead of focusing on uplifting the general welfare of citizens hurts everyone, he says.

“I deeply believe that the history of white supremacy in this country has not only hurt the life chances of people of color, but it also undermines the full realization of the (so-called) white population,” he says. “We’re all suffering under these economic conditions, because we’ve allowed this system to be created.”

That means that we can’t just stop with reforming police—even though it’s a good place to start. We need to look deeper into the roots of racism and “othering” to affect social change on a larger scale.

How to do that?

We can start by encouraging all Americans to educate themselves about our history and how it has led us to this moment. It’s hard to make change if you don’t first understand racism’s historical roots. As law professor Rhonda Magee says when talking about the inner work of racial justice, “We can do better. Our culture’s (frankly) infantile way of dealing with our history of racism and how that still shows up today has to change if we’re going to get through this period.”

We also need to enter more honest conversations about race, she adds. Too often, white people are unwilling to consider the effects of white supremacy and racism in society, preferring to think of themselves as “colorblind” or believing that racism is something in the distant past. Though George Floyd’s death may have dispelled that notion for many, white Americans still have work to do on this front.

“If we are trained against understanding how we do see race, if we can’t understand that and we can’t talk about it, we will be less able to address it,” says Magee.

But white people can’t just stop at personal edification. All Americans have to do their part to steer society toward a new kind of public safety—one that eschews racism and violent forms of community control, and instead puts people’s well-being first. That means lobbying our government to restructure the way we police society and to provide social safety nets—like paid parental leave, good public education, job training, and universal health care—that could benefit not only African Americans, but everyone.

“We really need to think about the things we should be doing in the interest of transformative justice,” says Ward. “Only then will our nation realize its potential.”

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