American police have maced, shot, and driven into crowds of protesters as they rally against the police killing of George Floyd.The police killing of black men, and police violence against protesters, has prompted important questions about American policing.Some people, like former police officer Jason Johnson, say police departments can be reformed over time.Others, like sociologist Alex Vitale, say the institution of policing can’t be fixed – and must be abolished.Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
While most protesters demonstrating in the wake of George Floyd’s death have been peaceful, some have started fires, destroyed property, and looted stores.Minnesotans burned down a Minneapolis police precinct three days after Floyd was killed. And American police have beaten or fired less-lethal rounds at people at the demonstrations, including more than 100 journalists.The protesters against police violence were triggered by Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as he said “I can’t breathe,” killing him. Tens of thousands of people have taken their rage to the streets.But standing against violence has often meant facing more of it.
Some protesters watched New York Police Department cruisers ram through peaceful crowds. Others saw Los Angeles police respond to an alleged looting by arresting black store owners. Others still witnessed police in Philadelphia take off a protester’s mask and spray her with mace at point-blank range.The cycle of violence has raised questions between racial justice advocates and police officers about the nature of policing and how communities can stay safe from the forces that are supposed to protect them.Changing police behavior ‘takes a long time’The relationship between protesters and police officers has been historically fraught, Scott Thomson, former chief of police in Camden, New Jersey, told FiveThirtyEight.For police, Thomson said, “there’s this failed mindset of ‘if we show force immediately we will deter criminal activity.” And even though that approach hasn’t worked, Thomson said, attempts at policy reform and training have still yielded little change.
But according to Jason Johnson, who has two decades of experience with Maryland’s Prince George’s County police department, the policies at police departments are often right, they just aren’t followed — or are often misunderstood.”It doesn’t look good, especially when it’s a white police officer using force on a black citizen,” Johnson told Insider. “It does not look good to people when they watch it, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the police officer did anything wrong.”
A protester stands to face riot policemen during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Raleigh on May 31, 2020.
In 2015, just six months after Freddie Gray was killed by police in Baltimore, prompting protests and riots, Johnson was called to the Baltimore Police Department.In 2016, he became BPD deputy commissioner, overseeing the department’s reform efforts as a Department of Justice investigation found that the BPD conducted racist policing practices.
As deputy commissioner, he said the department “began hammering away at what we thought we could improve quickly.” Johnson said that safe, responsible policing requires good policy, adequate training, and strong accountability measures. “The first step is really policy,” Johnson said. “If you look at the time order of things, you develop the best policy you can, and then you train your officers on those policies as thoroughly as you can.”At the time, he found that some new policies weren’t being clearly disseminated to officers. Freddie Gray died from spinal cord injuries he sustained in the back of a police van. Nine days before his death, the department began requiring officers to fasten arrestees’ seatbelts. Gray did not have a seatbelt on.There’s no standard way to re-train police officersOne of the biggest challenges for police departments, Johnson said, is training officers how to properly use force.
“Healthy use-of-force policies had really fallen behind” in Baltimore when he entered the department, he said. Those policies are some of the most important, but asking an officer to just “read a policy and be able to follow that policy in real life is not practical,” he said.About a dozen states require de-escalation training, where officers learn communication techniques to defuse potentially dangerous situations. De-escalation strategies, beyond being useful for protests and riots, should also bolster officers’ ability to calmly interact with civilians experiencing mental or emotional distress. The few states that do require de-escalation training may only require one hour of it per year. Meanwhile, no single state has such a low requirement for use-of-force training. Most states require several hours’ worth of firearm proficiency training per year.”The gold standard” in police training is scenario-based training, Johnson said. But it’s expensive.
“The problem with scenario-based training is it’s very, very resource-intensive,” he said, suggesting that adequate policing requires bigger budgets — especially for departments like BPD, which Johnson described as “under-staffed” with roughly 2,500 officers. (The department now has almost 3,100 officers, according to its website.)
Police officers guard the Trump Hotel in Chicago on May 30, 2020.
There is no universal standard for police training. Training requirements vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, and the type of scenario-based, de-escalation training Johnson mentioned is often not a priority.”It takes a long time to get an entire department through the type of training that is actually going to change behavior,” Johnson said.Efforts to reform police departments across the country often run into the same problem: police unions. The Fraternal Order of Police, the largest network of police unions in the United States, didn’t respond to Insider’s requests for comment about police violence against protesters. “[The union] is committed to ensuring that all citizens freely engage in any lawful activities they choose,” Jim Pasco, executive director of the national police organization, told Insider.
Johnson also noted that the BPD agreed to a set of reforms with the DOJ through a “consent decree.” Thirteen other American police departments have entered into consent decrees with the DOJ since 2009, although the Trump administration has largely walked back on them.American police, who have become increasingly militarized, kill an average of 2.8 people per dayIf substantial policing reform takes a long time, as Johnson put it, that is partially because of countervailing forces and other interests.Since the September 11 attacks, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have struck deals with local and state police departments, giving them low-cost military-grade weaponry and equipment. The proliferation of military gear has had a noticeable impact on American policing – and the communities they operate in. Ryan Welch and Jack Mewhirter, the authors of a 2017 study on the militarization of police found a direct correlation between the rise of militarization and more police killings.
Police in riot gear form up as protesters demonstrate during nationwide unrest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in Long Beach, California, on May 31, 2020.
Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters
“Even controlling for other possible factors in police violence (such as household income, overall and black population, violent-crime levels and drug use), more-militarized law enforcement agencies were associated with more civilians killed each year by police,” they wrote in the Washington Post. “When a county goes from receiving no military equipment to $2,539,767 worth (the largest figure that went to one agency in our data), more than twice as many civilians are likely to die in that county the following year.”
Another study, conducted between 2012 and 2018, found that American police kill an average 2.8 men per day. “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police,” a third study found. Ninety-nine percent of officers who killed someone between 2013 and 2019 were not charged with a crime, according to data analysis by Mapping Police Violence. “If there’s a serious use of force, virtually every department requires there to be an investigation,” Johnson said.Some advocates say police should be abolished altogetherPolice reform is not up to the task of keeping Americans safe, said Alex Vitale, a sociologist at Brooklyn College and author of “The End of Policing.” Instead, police departments must be defunded and eventually abolished, he said.”It’s time instead to have a complete rethink about why we’re using police in the United States to solve every problem under the sun,” Vitale told Insider.
American police have historically been used to address poverty, the War on Drugs, homelessness, and other socio-political issues, he added.
Police move towards a protester after curfew Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Minneapolis. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd.
As protests erupt over Floyd’s death, it’s “been made very clear” that police are “an intimidating force,” Vitale said. “When you turn a problem over to the police, it’s going to be done through the lens of violence and intimidation.”Police officers would disagree with that characterization. Steven Casstevens, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, wrote in a statement last week that people shouldn’t rush to judgment in the George Floyd case.”Law enforcement officers are trained to treat all individuals … with dignity and respect,” he wrote. “This is the bedrock principle behind the concepts of procedural justice and police legitimacy.”
But Vitale disagrees. “Policing … is a bad idea and it is inherently unjust,” he said. “And that is what people are protesting against.”