Police reform, police abolition, and barriers to police accountability: An overview

There’s an ongoing gathering at the flower-strewn site where George Floyd was killed.

A veto-proof majority of the Minneapolis City Council has committed to dismantle and defund the Minneapolis Police Department, according to stories in MPR, the Star Tribune, CNN and other news outlets.

In New York City, Mayor Bill DeBlasio is proposing to shift some police funding to social services, with the idea that such funding will do more to promote public safety than funding the tradition police force. Congressional Democrats have proposed the Justice in Policing Act of 2020 which “would ban chokeholds, establish a national database to track police misconduct and prohibit certain no-knock warrants, among other initiatives,” the Washington Post reports.

The intersection of 38th and Chicago where police killed George Floyd was still closed of June 7, with people visiting a memorial.

The proposal getting the media spotlight is the one to abolish police departments.

In a recent Washington Post opinion piece, Christy E. Lopez, professor at Georgetown Law School, explained what defunding the police means.

Since George Floyd’s death, a long-simmering movement for police abolition has become part of the national conversation, recast slightly as a call to “defund the police.” … for casual observers, this new direction may seem a bit disorienting — or even alarming.

Be not afraid. “Defunding the police” is not as scary (or even as radical) as it sounds, and engaging on this topic is necessary if we are going to achieve the kind of public safety we need. During my 25 years dedicated to police reform, including in places such as Ferguson, Mo., New Orleans and Chicago, it has become clear to me that “reform” is not enough. Making sure that police follow the rule of law is not enough. Even changing the laws is not enough.

To fix policing, we must first recognize how much we have come to over-rely on law enforcement. We turn to the police in situations where years of experience and common sense tell us that their involvement is unnecessary, and can make things worse.

The nine Minneapolis City Council members committing to end the police department made the following statement, published in the Star Tribune:

We recognize that we don’t have all the answers about what a police-free future looks like, but our community does. We’re committed to engaging with every willing community member in the City of Minneapolis over the next year to identify what safety looks like for you.

MPD150

The local group MPD150 issued the 2017 report Enough is Enough: a 150 year performance review of the Minneapolis Police Department, which proposes abolishing the department. It states:

A muralist painted a memorial to Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor near Floyd’s memorial.

The Minneapolis Police Department was built on violence, corruption, and white supremacy. Every attempt ever made to reform it or hold it accountable has been soundly defeated. The culture of silence and complicity in the department, along with the formidable political power wielded by the police union, will continue to preserve the status quo as long as we keep placing our faith in the reforms that have failed us for the last 150 years. It’s time for us to face the reality – if we want to build a city where every community can thrive, it will have to be a city without the Minneapolis Police Department.

(MPD150  is an “independent association of organizers, activists, researchers, and artists that came together in the spring of 2016 in anticipation of the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD)’s 150th anniversary.”)

Here are the report’s five key findings:

  1. The police were established to protect the interests of the wealthy and racialized violence has always been part of that mission.
  2. The police cannot be reformed away from their core function.
  3. The police criminalize dark skin and poverty, channeling millions of people into the prison system, depriving them of voting and employment rights and thereby preserve priviledged access to housing, jobs, land, credit and education for whites.
  4. The police militarize and escalate situations that call for social service intervention.
  5. There are viable existing and potential alternatives to policing for every area in which police engage.

The report offers alternatives to police for everything from traffic stops to domestic violence and sexual assault.  For instance, regarding domestic violence, the report says:

People experiencing domestic violence need to establish personal safety for themselves and other family members affected by the violence. Having trusted community members available to respond to violent situations is a necessity. Those who respond need to be able to read the situation and be prepared to intervene, de-escalate, and/ or offer emotional support and access to resources like temporary housing.

State of Minnesota Working Group on Police-Involved Deadly Force Encounters

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison and Minnesota Department of Public Safety Commissioner John Harrington co-chaired a working group on reducing police involved killings, one of the reform efforts on the table. In February, it issued 28 recommendations and 33 action steps, covering everything from “community healing and engagement, prevention and training, investigations and accountability, policy and legal implications, and officer wellness.”

More than 50 panelists and community members testified before the working group. It held hearings in Saint Paul, Mankato, Cloquet, and Brooklyn Park. The working group’s recommendations on police accountability include:

  • Creating an independent, special investigation unit within the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) with the authority to investigate all officer-involved shootings and uses of force that result in death or severe bodily injury. (This does not preclude investigations by other agencies.)
  • Establish a data-collection and reporting system that tracks all police-involved deadly force encounters.
  • Review laws about police body cameras “based on emerging concerns related to transparency and accountability of police-involved deadly force encounters.”
  • The State of Minnesota should review use-of-force standards and statutes and recommend needed changes to ensure there is a focus on the sanctity of life, “as well as standards that require that the use-of-force be reasonable, necessary, and proportionate.”

The failure of reforms

Fence art.

Gary Cunningham, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, a Washington D.C.-based research and policy nonprofit, wrote a powerful opinion piece in the Star Tribune Friday about the need for major changes in policing (I’ve battled the MPD all my life and one day we will prevail. The city must enact real change.)

Cunningham recalled being a University of Minnesota freshman when Minneapolis police determined that he looked like a suspect. They “put me in the back of a squad car and beat me,” he said. He continued:

By 1976 the many incidents of police brutality against black people in Minneapolis caused the Civil Rights Commission to hold hearings. I testified. Not much changed. Fast forward to 1987 when Minneapolis Mayor Don Fraser asked me, then 30 years old, to join the first advisory committee tasked to respond to citizen complaints.

We created a civilian-police panel to investigate allegations of police misconduct. It was called the Police Review Authority and had the power to issue subpoenas — that is, until the police union lobbied the Legislature, which stripped out that power. Thousands of complaints came before the board, but few police officers were disciplined. Instead, the city paid millions of dollars to settle claims of excessive force. To this day, that oversight board remains a paper tiger. …

To begin where George Floyd’s life ended, Minneapolis needs the state to give its city oversight board real clout to investigate police misconduct and recommend disciplinary actions.

Accountability barriers

The intersection of Chicago Avenue and East 38th Street, Minneapolis.

Police and other government officials are protected by the legal construct of “qualified immunity.” It’s a “virtually unlimited protection,” according to an opinion piece in USA Today:

The Supreme Court created qualified immunity in 1982. With that novel invention, the court granted all government officials immunity for violating constitutional and civil rights unless the victims of those violations can show that the rights were “clearly established.”

The authors, from the Institute of Justice, gave examples of how this ruling had led to some outrageous results. Here’s one:

… last November the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals held that Tennessee cops who allowed their police dog to bite a surrendered suspect did not violate clearly established law. There, the victim cited a case where the same court earlier held that it was unconstitutional for officers to sic their dog on a suspect who had surrendered by lying on the ground with his hands to the side. That was not sufficient, the court reasoned, because the victim had not surrendered by lying down: He had surrendered by sitting on the ground and raising his hands.

The authors say when the Minneapolis police officers go on trial for Floyd’s murder, the judge “may very well” dismiss the charges based on qualified immunity.

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