Police Reform is not Enough, Reinvention is the Only Solution
In more than 20 years of working with law enforcement, I’ve written, reviewed, and delivered training programs tackling bias, hate crimes, and violent extremism for American police officers - from recruits all the way up to police chiefs. I spent a decade at the U.S. Department of State leading police training and reform programs in conflict-affected countries. We position ourselves as a world leader, exporting democratic police training around the globe, and yet we struggle to uphold the very basics ourselves. To be fully democratic, our police must be accountable, should consistently adhere to the rule of law and operate through procedural justice. Our system regularly fails on all three counts. Micro solutions, e.g., targeted training initiatives or specialized “community policing” programs, simply aren’t enough to address our failures. We need a wholesale reinvention - reimagining what police should and could be in our country.
Nearly three years ago, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, I was leading law enforcement training programs and like many professionals, I genuinely thought that the answer to the crisis of brutality was reforming how we recruit, train, and manage police officers. I no longer believe recruitment can solve the problem. I’ve had the opportunity to engage with police officers of all levels, including recruits. I’d walk into a classroom full of bright, shining young faces - people who joined the department to “be the change” and walk out thinking, “Ok, maybe we’re headed in the right direction.” Over time, however, I have realized that whatever optimism they might bring to the job or whatever desire they had to police with empathy - eventually and without fail, police put their “brothers in blue” over all others, and therein lies the problem.
Racism threatens our national security. Police abuse threatens our national security.
Addressing this crisis is a pressing national security issue. Half of all Americans - and over 70% of Black adults believe major changes are needed to improve policing in the U.S., according to a recent Gallup poll1. When the majority of Black Americans cannot trust the police to treat them fairly in an encounter - let alone protect them from harm from others - this is a national security crisis. This issue is systemic and everyone should be horrified at the violence. It’s not just Black people who are killed at higher rates; Native Americans2 also suffer at the hands of police compared to white populations. Members of the LGBTQ3+ community suffer at the hands of the police. Individuals with mental illnesses4 suffer at the hands of the police. Those who lack a fixed residence5 suffer at the hand of the police. The list goes on.
With this much long term mistrust is our system of policing capable of reform?
The simple answer is no. We need to start from scratch with a system built around service. We need peace officers whose primary objective is to help the public get home safely. We need an orientation towards collaboration rather than compliance. We need to eliminate qualified immunity. Yes, I said it - eliminate it. As long as officers continue to have a safety net that allows them to escape the impact of their actions, we will continue to see abuses. We need to rethink completely what we ask the police to do. Is there any reason for traffic stops, truly? Should we even risk the loss of life over a speeding violation?
Training could be a solution if it were standardized, regularly inspected, and updated. But even in departments that prioritize the right kind of training, no message delivered by an instructor - especially a civilian instructor like my colleagues or me - will be heard above the cacophony of “your primary job is to get home safe.” Any good training a recruit receives in the academy is undermined the moment they start to work the job. And, frankly, I knew better. The number of times I walked away from an in-service training program in tears because of what participants said…no more. How could any empathy survive in that toxic environment? It can’t. The good police are eventually destroyed, pushed out6, sidelined, or converted.
Management of police - with a robust emphasis on accountability - could theoretically transform behavior, but I no longer believe that any meaningful reform is possible. There’s too much pushback; too little appetite to take this on politically7. The institution itself was built on racism8, yet even acknowledging its origins is too much of a stretch for most.
We need to stop talking about bad apples and individuals. Yes, there are good cops. I’ve met many and worked with them. My heart breaks for them, too. But they cannot solve this. This rotten institution simply won’t allow it. We need a full reset. Anything less is an insult to our democracy.