Today on The Argument, policing is broken. So how should we fix it?
- judge peter cahill
Members of the jury I understand you have a verdict.
Derek Chauvin’s been found guilty!
- news clip
Breaking news, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been found guilty in the death of George Floyd.
Say his name! George Floyd!
- news clip
Cell phone video of Floyd’s death horrified Americans and galvanized a nationwide social justice movement, leading to protests in cities across the country and those calls for police reform.
- vice president kamala harris
A measure of justice isn’t the same as equal justice. This verdict brings us a step closer. We still must reform the system.
- news clip
Killed by police less than two days after the palpable relief felt over the guilty verdict in the Chauvin trial, the Minneapolis area in mourning again as the family of Dante Wright held his memorial service.
Last week, an anxious America awaited the jury’s decision. Officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all charges for the murder of George Floyd. But whatever feelings greeted such a rare outcome were short-lived for many. The next day, a Virginia man named Isaiah Brown was on the phone with 911 police dispatch when a sheriff’s deputy shot him 10 times, allegedly mistaking the phone for a gun. It feels like every day in America, there’s a new name to learn, new footage of lethal police violence to witness, another community in mourning, pleading for change. There’s no debate here. Policing in America is broken. Where there is debate, though, is how to fix it. [MUSIC PLAYING] I’m Jane Coaston. And I don’t think we need to abolish the police. I do think we need some serious fixes, like getting rid of qualified immunity and having the police focusing on dwindling homicide clearance rates, rather than focusing on how best or how often to wield deadly force. Today, I’ve gathered three guests who approach reform differently to see where we agree and don’t. Rashawn Ray is a fellow at the Brookings Institute and a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland. Randy Shrewsberry is a former police officer. He’s now the executive director of the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform. And Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is the first Black woman to serve as co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee, a social justice training center where seminal figures like Rosa Parks trained.
Randy, Rashawn, Ash-Lee, welcome to The Argument. And thank you so much for joining me.
Thanks so much for having us.
So my own personal interest in police reform came from the experience of both overpolicing and underpolicing. My father’s Black, my mother is white. And being pulled over with my dad because he was driving a car he should not have been driving, a Mazda Miata, of which he was very proud of. But then they look in the car and they see me. And I’m wearing my ballet outfit because I was six. And the police officer, you could just see in his face being like, this is just stupid. This is just absolutely stupid. But then I went to a predominantly white high school, all girl’s Catholic high school in Cincinnati, Ohio. And the policing they experienced was totally different, absolutely different, where you would hear about interactions they would have with police in which they would be — and I’ve written about this before — they would be downright disrespectful to police. And I think we’ve seen that there is an expectation in this country of who is supposed to be policed and who is not supposed to be policed, that you’re supposed to go police those people over there, but if you order me to wear a mask, well, that’s just too much here. And we see time and time again that most killings by police start with traffic stops, mental health checks, domestic disturbances, low level offenses. We’ve seen with the cases of Philando Castile and others that traffic stops can be deadly. Randy, where does this come from? Why is the focus on low level offenses and not solving murders? I think a lot of people think that the police are focused on catching criminals, when that’s not really what they do.
No, so I’m from Cincinnati, by the way. And I work just outside of Cincinnati as a police officer. And it was an old, retired police captain who was one of our academy commanders who said to me this. And this was a time where I was a bit more conservative than I am today. I don’t really have much conservative viewpoints today. But he said whatever notions that you have of policing, dismiss them. This is while I was in the academy. He said your job is to arrest the three D’s: The drunk, the drugged, and the deranged. And that shook me because I thought these are society issues, right? These are things we can fix, instead of coming behind with enforcement, right? We can get ahead of these kinds of things. And so, over the years, what I realized is that in the academy, we were presented this picture. Like, the world is a war zone, right? Every time we step outside, there’s going to be bullets flying over our head. The bad guys are always out to get us, these kinds of things. And then I really realized that it was a pretty boring job. Most of the calls that I went to, normally speaking, there was some substance abuse issue, alcohol or mental health issues. So the commander was absolutely correct. These elements existed. And they were usually for small property crimes, petty disagreements between neighbors that could be handled inside the community. And so while there was no defined quota in any of the agencies that I ever worked at, is just that we knew that the administration was going to start leaning on us if we weren’t generating tickets, if we weren’t making arrests. Well, where would we go to do that? We’d go sit in a poor neighborhood, wait for somebody in a junkie car drive by, who may have an expired tag, or a headlight out, a taillight out, and go on these fishing expeditions. And then we’d find somebody with a little bit of weed. Or they maybe have a suspended license, which were almost always, by the way, because they were poor and had an unpaid traffic ticket or weren’t able to pay for their insurance. That put numbers on the spreadsheet. My very first department was all the way out in the boonies. And it was just a small department with five people. I mean, you would easily go a couple of shifts and not get one call for service. So everything that we did was, quote unquote, “proactive policing.” Well, then, over the next 13 years, I worked for the largest department in Indiana, the second or third largest department in South Carolina. It was the same thing. It was just this absolute overemphasis on these petty crimes, while major crimes were going uninvestigated.
Right, I think that we see so much of what policing has looked like, which is about the criminalization of poverty. I think it’s important to note here that this is something that I want to emphasize that police and justice impacts everyone with the cases of someone like Daniel Shaver, who was shot to death while crying on the floor, or Tony Timpa, who is held down by police while they laughed on body cam, and how much of this is the policing of poverty and the policing of what we think police are supposed to be doing is not what they’re doing. And so, Rashawn, I want to hear from you. You’ve done so much work on this. What are your top priorities when it comes to reforming policing?
Yeah, so I started out in this work by doing a lot of work with law enforcement, training them on implicit bias, training them on de-escalation, developing this innovative virtual reality program. But what I quickly realized is that that’s limited because some of the things that Randy’s talking about are some of the minute things that law enforcement can’t control, like training and even maybe how they respond to certain things where, really, what I started noticing is that when you follow the money and when you follow the policy, what you realize is that oftentimes municipalities are lifted up by the things that Randy talked about, these low level citations. That’s how we got Ferguson, right? That’s how we ended up with the death of Michael Brown. So what all of this led me to is when you follow the money, just over the past five years, in the major 20 metropolitan areas in the United States, taxpayers have paid out over $2 billion with a B in settlements for police misconduct. Oftentimes, people are paying for their own brutality, so outside of police budgets, which have swelled over the past three decades. I mean, you have everything from over 40 percent in Oakland to well over 35 percent in cities like Chicago and Minneapolis, that these civilian payouts don’t even come from the police budget. And what it led me to is that if we had police department insurance policies, if we had more police officer malpractice individual liability insurance, we would see not only a shift in financial culpability, but also a shift in accountability. And so, part of how it would operate would be similar to what happens in healthcare, that in healthcare, hospitals have insurance, physicians have insurance. Law enforcement officers must be above reproach. Similar to pilots, they must be perfect, or else, people die. And so part of this shift, since most places are small, they already are part of insurance risk pools, such as small departments in east Tennessee or outside of Los Angeles, where officers that have been removed have become uninsurable because they’ve engaged in misconduct. Departments have actually closed because insurance risk pools have said, we can no longer afford to keep you here. You know what? That helps to address bad apples that come from rotten trees. See, we limit things to bad apples, not realizing that it’s a process. They come from somewhere. And they come from rotten trees in law enforcement. And the roots are embedded in white supremacy ideology that oftentimes we’re unwilling to admit. The other thing, good apples can’t simply override bad apples. Yes, overwhelmingly, officers get into it because they want to protect and serve. But we just heard from Randy what happens in that process. Good apples become poisoned. And they also can at times become rotten themselves. Because part of what happens is that they get swallowed up in the system. And due to qualified immunity, they are completely alleviated from any sort of financial culpability. And I think insurances can be a huge way to increase accountability.
But would you say that part of the problem here is what police are being asked to do in the first place? For instance, the F.B.I. reports that in 2019, across the U.S, 45.5 percent of violent crimes, including homicide, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery, were cleared. And by cleared, they mean someone got arrested, or the case was closed for some other reason. So it seems that part of this is, yes, there needs to be accountability for the bad apples and for all the apples. But what are the apples being asked to do in the first place?
So there are two things happening. First, law enforcement is asked to solve our society’s social problems with force. And it’s not right. Part of the other thing that happens is that all calls about anything under the sun, from a cat being up in a tree to a pothole to a murder, comes in a 911. And we deploy police and acting like they have the skillset to be able to handle all of those type of responses. So oftentimes, they are being set up for failure because they overly train toward use of force tactics and worst case scenarios, instead of the over 90 percent of cases that are non-violent and have nothing to do with force at all. What do you expect for them to do when they’re in a stressful situation? They respond with what they’ve been trained to do the most. So part of what we have to think through is better solutions. And what the research I’ve conducted suggests is that if we reallocate some of those calls for service, not only are there better people in the social service sector, such as mental health specialists or Department of Transportation better equipped to handle those things, but also police officers can then focus on the more violent crimes and increasing that clearance rate.
Not only is there this overemphasis about force, but when we look at how are police officers trained to solve crimes, how to investigate crimes, a small portion of their basic training is surrounding how to investigate crimes. When you’re sent to more advanced schools, we looked at all of the advanced training here in the state of California, so homicide training, sexual assault investigation training, burglary, robbery, car thefts: These are courses that are two weeks or less. I was an investigator as a certified fire and explosion investigator, which sounds like a really cool title. I went to two weeks of school to get this and then later, learned about junk science and forensics, which is a whole other episode. But what I realized is that we’re locking people up. We’re not getting justice for families, especially justice for people who are victims of violent crime, simply because the prioritizations of the police department is incorrect. And the officers are just not prepared in training to be able to investigate these crimes.
Ash, we started talking about reallocating resources. And I saw your eyes light up a little bit. Can you talk about how you think about solutions? You’ve been a proponent of defunding police, which is something people have heard a lot, but aren’t really sure of how it would work conceptually. Can you walk us through what that would look like and how you came to that position?
Yeah. I mean, I think lovingly, I came to this position because we’ve been putting platinum bandaids and piecemeal reforms into place. And it hasn’t made policing any better for Black people or poor people or immigrant people, right? When we talk about defunding the police, we’re not just talking about the sheriff in your county or the P.D. in your inner city neighborhood. We’re talking about the state police. We’re talking about Capitol police who we literally watched hand-walk insurrectionists out of the Capitol on January 6. We’re talking about immigrant communities that are impacted by I.C.E., right? We’re talking about Customs and Border Patrol. We’re talking about the military interventions that force migrants to come to this country in the first place, only to then be policed for being here, right? And so I just want to be clear. The only solution isn’t to continue to attempt to reform a system that is working exactly as it was designed to, right? Policing is not broken in this country. It is literally designed to work in this way. Policing in this country makes people money. Incarceration in this country makes people money. The only solution to that is to abolish it. So, as much as I hear the hope of harm reduction and what Randy and Rashawn say, my question is, is like, OK, and if that doesn’t work and three people every day are murdered by police officers, then what? So for me, when I hear “defund the police,” what I hear is the beginning of a conversation. What I heard was an acknowledgment of the righteous rage, right, the deep grief and the abiding and contagious love of Black people that have had enough of the cumulative death of Black people at the hands of the police that wanted to do something about it. What I also hear sometimes in response to the defund demand is, like, that’s cute, Ash-Lee. Love you, sis, but that’s impossible. How do we keep people safe if we defund the police? But I bet if I asked you, Jane or Rashawn or Randy, to close your eyes and tell me a time where you felt safe, what did it feel like, you wouldn’t tell me that there was a cop there. And if it was, it would probably be because that cop might have been your dad or your mom or your aunt or your uncle, right? Not because they were in their uniform in a cop car policing somebody else. So quite frankly, I think the only solution to policing in this country is abolition. And how do we get there through divestment and investment is really super clear.
Ash, you said that policing was working as it was designed. But my thought is, do you see the potential to redesign it, what policing could be in the absolute best version of it? For example, I know that I’ve called the police twice in my life. I called the police once when there were people in our backyard, and I was by myself. And I didn’t know who they were or what was going on. And I was very scared, and that was the first thing I thought to do because I thought I should probably not confront these people. Bad idea. And the second time was when I found a man who had passed out. There was a police officer about a block away because I lived in a neighborhood where police just hung out on the corner to just see what was happening for reasons one might assume. And in both of those instances, I felt as if this is an entity that is not me, that is someone who will provide an answer of some sort. Can’t we just redetermine what police do?
I mean, I hear it as an option, right? I hear it is an option, a logical option. [LAUGHS] I’m intellectually understand it.
I’m really appreciative, very appreciative.
I do, I really do. I mean, I get it, right? It’s like, there are things. Harm happens, right? But usually, when police officers are called, it’s not to eradicate the world of harm. It’s because harm has already happened. And they are called in to punish the person. Now if what we know is the criminalization in this country is racialized and gendered and rooted in a class hierarchy, then if they are being called in to punish someone for harm, that harm is probably connected to this racist, patriarchal, elitist understanding of what harm is in the first place, right? So could we live in a world, Jane, where cops no longer are weaponized in a way to punish people for harms that shouldn’t be likely illegal in the first place? Like, sure, some people are arguing that those are solutions. But what I would argue is those are platinum bandaids. Let’s go back to Rashawn’s metaphor. If policing is the rotten tree with white supremacist roots that is producing rotten fruit, then why would we continue to put bandaids on the rotten apples and a hope that the exceptional good fruit will be produced, versus taking the resources that we’re spending on those platinum bandaids and putting them into community solutions, right? It’s like usually when people tell me that abolition is impossible, they say because there isn’t really an alternative to policing. There are usually three times where people tell me we can’t — three or four, four times — let’s say four — where there are no alternative to what we ought to be doing in our communities if there weren’t police, right? It’s if someone’s in a mental health crisis, who handles traffic stops, what happens if there’s violent crime, and what happens in a world where there still is gender-based violence, right? If we’re talking about mental health services, police are more likely to use lethal force when a person is experiencing psychiatric distress. If we’re talking about traffic services, one of the services that police regularly provide to our communities, here’s an area again where armed uniformed police are absolutely unnecessary, right? If we’re talking about violent crime, our common refrain in opposition to defunding the police assumes that our society won’t be able to effectively respond to it. But we have to remember that police do not prevent violence. In most incidents of violent crime, police are responding to a crime that’s already taken place. And when this happens, what we need from police is a service that we’ll investigate the crime and perhaps prevent such crimes from occurring in the future. But policing is actually ill, if at all, equipped to suit those needs. Do I think that we can reform our way out of the crisis of policing in this country? I do not. And I don’t because I’ve seen so many times us try. I’ve seen us say that if we just trained them more, it would be different. I’ve seen us say, if we just banned no-knock warrants, it would be different. I’ve seen us say, if we just got body cams on these cops, which is more and more and more money going to policing, but what we’ve seen is that that hasn’t distracted or detracted them because they can continue to use reasonable force as their get out of jail and accountability-free card. So I just don’t believe that the data shows that reforming our way out of policing is keeping Black people free and alive.
Rawshawn, I think I saw you wanting to respond here. What do you think?
I think what Ash is really getting at, to build on her profound statements of putting platinum bandaids on deep unhealed wounds, it’s quite profound. Look, can we live in a world where law enforcement doesn’t exist? Sure, but in order to do so, we have to address societal problems that police officers are expected to deal with versus those they are expected to prevent, like guns. So when we look at and we compare the United States to other industrialized nations, do they still experience racial brutality and racial profiling? Yes, but they don’t experience the level of police killings. Why? Because guns are not as accessible to the public or to police officers. And this is the other thing. When I think about abolition, people thought that ending slavery was something that would never happen. People thought that ending segregation was something that would never happen. But you know what? They did. But you know what also survived those historical periods? Law enforcement. You know why? Because law enforcement is the gatekeeper of legalized state sanctioned violence. Law enforcement abolition probably requires a revolution we haven’t seen before. Part of what abolitionists also want — because I think there are two main camps. There are some that are like, law enforcement shouldn’t exist. Prisons shouldn’t exist. There are others who are like, look, we need to reimagine it. Like those rotten trees, we need to cut it down. When you deal with a rotten tree or a rotten plant, simply cutting it down doesn’t make it go away. The roots come back, right? And oftentimes, the plant comes back stronger. And interestingly, it comes back in a different form, like it’s wrapped in a different package. And so, but there are some people who say, how about we address abolition from the standpoint of abolishing police departments as they currently stand and reimagining and rebuilding public safety in a way that’s different? See, even the terminology we use is really important — policing, law enforcement, public safety. Part of reimagining law enforcement is reimagining the terms we use for what safety means. And how I think about it is, who has the right to truly express their First Amendment right and be verbally and/or nonviolently expressive? It’s not illegal to be combative.
Right, it’s not illegal to curse. If you’re from the South, it might not be a morally right thing to do. Or if you’re a really religious person —
I beg to differ. Southerners are the best cussers. [LAUGHTER]
Well, yes, sure. But overall, people, it’s oftentimes some cultural differences there, right? And thinking through that, that’s not illegal. A person shouldn’t be brutalized for that. A person shouldn’t be killed for that. But you know who we found that that does have the right to do that? White people, and particularly, white women. They oftentimes — police officers don’t respond to them. They actually get more deferential when white women raise their voices at them and cuss at them. With Black women, they do the exact opposite. They get more aggressive. They escalate force. One more quick thing. Recently received a grant from the Russell Sage Foundation with some colleagues at the University of North Carolina. We’re examining the role that Black Lives Matter protests in cities have on local police reform. And we’re going through newspaper clips. And one of my colleagues was reading a clip. And he was saying, yeah, we need more police surveillance. We need to make sure that we watch what they’re doing. We need more training. This clip was from the 1980s, almost around the same time where Ash was talking about she was born. So here we are, continuously using the words “police reform,” acting like it works. And it doesn’t. We need transformation. We need reimagining. Police officers cannot do that. They don’t have the skillset to do it. And that is the way we have to think about this. [MUSIC PLAYING]
- listener voicemail
Hey, Jane. My name is Josh. And I live in New York. And the thing I’ve been arguing about with my professors is the two-party system. I see it as just an extremely limiting system that people don’t fit nicely into. You can ask any Democrat or a Republican. And most of the time, I’ve never been able to find someone who completely aligns with one party’s platform. They just kind of choose that one because that’s one of the only two options they have. Thank you.
What are you arguing about with your family, your friends, your frenemies? Tell me about the big debate you’re having in a voicemail by calling 347-915-4324. And we might play an excerpt of it on a future episode.
So, Randy, I think this is the perfect time for you to talk about the fact that police are not trained for this. That’s something you’ve really focused on. The type of policing that I grew up watching on “Law and Order,” that just doesn’t happen. [SHREWSBERRY LAUGHS] What do you think of the divestment argument?
Sure, so I’m not in disagreement with Ash or Dr. Ray. I think this is something that we need to reimagine. Where I’m probably a little to the right is that I view it as workable, but a very long road. And so the question is, is, what do we do in the meantime? And here’s the issue from a training perspective is that we want to create a 21st century curriculum, one that has a focus on number one is teaching officers the historical context of policing and why we need to make a change, one that has a focus on criminology, so police officers have an understanding of what are the social impacts that cause crime in the first place. And then the greatest emphasis is on solving crimes, instead of, A, trying to prevent them, which we know the police do not do, or responding to minor calls that can be handled by unarmed folks. So, first and foremost is what we have to do in this curriculum is expand it to officers get about six months of training to cover about 60 topics. And a third of that is largely around use of force. When we look at international counterparts, only Iraq, Afghanistan, for whom we train their police, and Papua New Guinea have lower standards than the U.S. So our view is that we can fulfill the promises of better training. We can fulfill the promises of reimagining policing or public safety that doesn’t have to be a punitive only approach.
The United States taxpayer is essentially asked to foot this impossible and never-ending bill to maintain this failed system of policing, right? I want to pull a little bit on Randy’s last point and what Dr. Ray raised about guns as well. It’s like even Forbes, I think, last week mentioned that more than one mass shooting per day has occurred in 2021. And so if cops keep me safe from gun violence, this stat wouldn’t be real, right? So if police officers were keeping Black people safe from gun violence, the world will be a very different place. And I doubt we would be having this conversation in the first place. We’ve got to actually be innovative beyond the request for support for more money for more trainings, for more technology. And so, quite frankly, when we think about what’s happening on the federal level legislatively right now with the Justice and Policing Act, I think the movement for Black — well, not I think — I know the movement for Black Lives unequivocally doesn’t support it. Because, again, it’s an attempt at 1990 solutions to a 2021 problem. The Justice and Policing Act bans no-knock warrants and chokeholds in drug cases. It adds data transparency provisions. It provides some oversight for the local procurement and military equipment by police. It changes the federal use of force standard to only when necessary, instead of reasonableness. And it ends qualified immunity for local and federal law enforcement officers. But it’s a flawed framework. It relies on a flawed root cause analysis and inaccurate theory of change. Two, it doesn’t defund. And then, three, it’s cops overseeing cops. And then, finally, body cameras, trainings, ineffective policy solutions that increase police budgets are embedded all throughout the bill. So if I was doing a side by side, I would say if that is the false solution, that the actual community invested solution is the Breathe Act, right? The federal omnibus bill that the Movement for Black Lives wrote as the legislative love letter to the folks that were in the streets in 2020, demanding “defund the police.” If the Justice and Policing Act puts more money in policing, the Breathe Act divests from the federal grants and agencies that are primarily funding law enforcement in the carceral state. And so, folks can check out more information on the Breathe Act at breatheact.org. And this is our opportunity to make dramatic change years in the making.
Well, I know that we could clearly talk about this for several days. I just want to say thank you so much for bringing your ideas and for the work that you’re all doing on this. I think that this is — it’s a really challenging subject for so many reasons because it’s so personal. And because I think it’s so complex and complicated. It involves a lot of discussions about the way we want the world to be and the way the world is. And I just really appreciate your time.
This was great. So good to see you all, and I’m looking forward to building with you soon.
Thank you so much for having us on. This was such a powerful and important conversation about how we transform policing in America. [MUSIC PLAYING]
If you want to learn more about police reform, I recommend reading the text of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act of 2021. I also recommend The New York Times Magazine piece that features a roundtable of experts and organizers. It’s called, “The message is clear: policing in America is broken and must change. But how?” You can find links to all of these in our episode notes. Finally, I want to recommend the book, “Ghettoside, A True Story of Murder in America,” by Jill Leovy for a fascinating history of how policing has worked, or, more accurately, hasn’t worked in major cities for decades. To quote Leovy, “As a country, we have never been very good at the kind of thorough expert investigations that lead to swift arrest to render street justice moot.”
The Argument is production of New York Times Opinion. It’s produced by Phoebe Lett, Elisa Gutierrez, and Vishakha Darbha, edited by Alison Bruzek and Paula Szuchman, with original music and sound design by Isaac Jones, and fact-checking by Kate Sinclair. Special thanks this week to Laura Juncadella,