What We Should Expect of the Police: Experts Weigh In On Recent Police Violence

A protestor faces off with law enforcement during a protest on May 31, 2020, in Ferguson, Missouri.

In the past several weeks, the United States has witnessed a spate of high-profile incidences of police violence against Black Americans, including the tragic killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. Just five years ago, policing reform was a top national priority in the wake of similar protests following the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York City; and Tamir Rice in Cleveland. Activists and police departments alike pressed for reforms. But after a week where thousands held protests against police brutality, Americans may be wondering whether those reforms have any value or efficacy.

A more fundamental question has to do with the role of the police in our communities. Instead of focusing on how to reform current policing practices, Americans must consider the role that the police have as well as the role they should have in our communities. In 2019, the Center for American Progress gathered together a group of experts on policing and asked them this very basic question: What should we expect of the police? The following are excerpts from that conversation, which have been edited lightly for clarity and readability.

Ron Davis, former police chief and former director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

The challenge with policing is that many of the disparities are created by systemic policies and the institutional structure of policing. If you look at a police department and how it’s structured, how it operates, and its mandates, it will look exactly as it did in 1950, 1940, or 1960. It will be almost the same. You can come up with all the programs, all the reports. We come up with new phenomena all the time; here’s a new thing called procedural justice, implicit bias. But what you’re doing is you’re feeding and you’re adding into a system that’s already flawed. And when you have a system that is flawed, then even good cops can have bad outcomes. It’s not the police officer that decides to do stop and frisk. It’s the structure, it’s the community, it’s the political environment that’s demanding it without any other expectations.

So, we have to basically redo the whole structure. And it starts with the question to the panel: What should we expect from our police? We still have not answered a core question in 2019. What is the role of the police in our democracy? If you say crime and public safety alone, then the systems are set up in a way that the only way I can do that as a police chief is through the oppression and the mass incarceration of communities that are most affected by crime and violence—and not because they’re prone to violence. It’s because the social conditions are set exactly for that outcome—which means the only way to succeed as a chief is to keep going with those same policies, which makes me resistant to things like bail reform, sentencing reform, police reform.

If you tell me my job is to serve the community and protect the Constitution, and that you and I are co-producers of public safety, that I as a police chief have the least amount of impact on crime, that if you were to put jobs into the community, if you were to improve the education system, if you were to look at a whole new correctional system that reduces recidivism, and I participate in that, then together we can come up with a better outcome that is not disparate the way it is now.

Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal

When I left college, I was working in the South Bronx. And I remember being blown away at how many resources had been siphoned out of a community and replaced by a criminal justice system. There were no parks. The schools were bad. There were just no places for anybody to be where there wasn’t a police officer on the corner. Nobody picked up the trash. I mean, this was a community that had a line outside the courthouse that was six, seven, eight blocks long. You understood very intimately how we are giving a system that is supposed to be on the back end of the social process front-end jobs. And that is not a way to create better police.

The answer is that we should expect less of the police, that we should demand less of our criminal justice system as a general rule. But we should simultaneously expect more from all the other social systems that are relying on the criminal justice system to implement the values or the order to a community that police are now expected to do.

To quote a former coworker: invest-divest. If we’re going to divest from the system, what are we going to invest in, and how are we going to shift accountability in that same paradigm?

The other thing is that people don’t actually understand or have an accurate perception of crime. Most people in this country are safer today than they’ve been in five decades by a long shot. In most communities in this country, you could leave your kid in your car outside and they would be fine. You’re not at risk of immediate threat. And then there are other places in this country where it’s worse than it’s ever been. It’s so dependent on so many things. We were just looking at a town in West Virginia where the property crime rate plummeted over six months. And the question was, who got to take credit—the police or the prosecutor? And it turns out that the local Walmart closed down, and people couldn’t steal from the local Walmart anymore because it wasn’t there. And that’s actually a sad story that property crime rate dropping was due to a loss of jobs or loss of resources.

One of the things when we see public safety budgets going up—and we also know that crime is lower than it was 20 or 30 years ago—we have to ask ourselves what we’re getting out of our money, and we should start asking ourselves what the return on our investment really is.

Dr. Phillip Atiba Goff, co-founder and president of the Center for Policing Equity

[The police] should not be the people who you call when you’re scared of a neighbor. That just doesn’t make any sense, right? If you call somebody who has a gun, you’ve escalated the situation. You can’t say, “I got someone with a gun so everybody would settle down.” That’s not a real thing. I’m a psychologist; I know. We study people’s brains. It doesn’t calm people down. But what that means is that when Barbecue Becky calls 911, there needs to be someone else that 911 operators can turn to.

It didn’t used to be this way. You could have school resources that were counselors. Even the school nurse—which doesn’t exist in a lot of schools now—got removed. Those were conscious decisions that were budgetary decisions, and we’re living with the consequences as if no one was in charge when it happened.

[T]he other thing that to me is incredibly important is we got to have a better definition of the word “criminalization.” Because in general, we think about it as, we take something that’s happening; we decide we don’t like it; we make it something that can be punishable by law. But I think scholars have been talking about this for a while, and activists picked up the language of this, which is that vulnerable communities need resources. They need resources in order to keep themselves afloat, to manage against the things that are extra burdens on them. But that becomes expensive, and some folks get resentful of it. So, the other way that you can respond to that is: This is a group of people that need resources; we will give them penalizing resources; we’ll give them punitiveness. And that’s the definition of criminalization that academics have been working with and advocates have taken up. That’s the response that has fundamentally shifted the way that law enforcement has engaged with these communities. As we’ve retreated from public resources and public goods that go to those communities, we’ve replaced that only with the option of punishment.

Ed Chung is the vice president for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center for American Progress. Betsy Pearl is an associate director for Criminal Justice Reform at the Center.