- The problems with American policing have been on display since the killing of George Floyd.
- Police have too often rejected reform and pushed to expand their budgets. Now this resistance to reform is coming back to bite police in the form of the defund the police movement.
- Hopefully the push will be an impetus for many police departments to pursue long-needed change.
- Max Burns is a veteran Democratic strategist and senior contributor at Millennial Politics.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The systemic racial and violence issues plaguing America’s police departments existed long before the death of George Floyd and long before June 2, when President Donald Trump stood in the historic Rose Garden and encouraged police across the country to “dominate” peaceful protesters and own the American “battlespace.”
Since these events, Americans have been confronted by an emotionally exhausting stream of police brutality.
Just two days after Trump’s authoritarian pep rally, Indianapolis police announced an investigation into an officer who groped a female protester before beating her with a baton. On June 5, two NYPD officers were suspended without pay after inciting multiple violent incidents at otherwise peaceful protests.
Yet no instance of police violence since the Floyd killing has grabbed national attention like the violent assault on 75-year-old Catholic peace activist Martin Gugino by two police officers in Buffalo, New York.
In chilling footage, a Buffalo police officer forcefully shoves Gugino backwards, causing a fall that slams his head against the pavement. As Gugino’s head bleeds onto the sidewalk, the officer who pushed Gugino prevents a colleague from rendering first aid.
The whole incident plays out over just 15 seconds of video recorded by a cell phone camera. The transparent cruelty visited an elderly man — and the Buffalo Police Department’s inexplicable decision to initially falsely claim Gugino tripped and fell further inflamed calls for policing reform. Just over a week later Gugino’s lawyer revealed that he had suffered a brain injury and a fractured skull from the fall.
On June 3, just one day after Trump’s Rose Garden photo-op, author and Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb spoke to MSNBC about what he called Trump’s strongman fixation on “break the rules policing.” He had no way of knowing the events in Buffalo would validate his concerns about police forces egged on to excessive force by a constant stream of explicit presidential encouragement.
History teaches us that state excesses contain the seeds of their own destruction, especially when those excesses take the form of state violence. Minority communities facing sustained police violence and racial prejudice rapidly lose faith in the credibility of law enforcement and city government. The end result is a dangerous power struggle between marginalized communities, local governments, and police unions.
A problem of their own making
When Americans view police as a threat to their safety rather than its protector, we risk permanently damaging the trust that makes democracy function. Over the past month, Americans have watched militarized police forces and their unions lash out against calls for police reform — often with blatant acts of intimidation.
In Buffalo, 57 police officers resigned from an emergency unit following the suspension of Martin Gugino’s alleged assailants. In states like Wisconsin, where police reform has been a local concern for half a decade, police unions have consistently prevented demilitarization and community policing efforts through bipartisan pressure campaigns.
During the first days of the protests, the New York City Council launched an investigation into the powerful Sergeants Benevolent Association after the SBA leaked the arresting documents of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 25-year-old daughter Chiara.
As de Blasio noted, this isn’t the first time the NYPD has violated the New York City Charter and city privacy laws to threaten elected officials into supporting the police. “The SBA did something unconscionable and it’s not just because it’s my daughter,” de Blasio told reporters. “They do this all the time with people’s privacy. This is another one of the things that has to change.”
Now activists and lawmakers are asking vital questions: why haven’t elected officials held police departments accountable for leaking private arresting information as a means of silencing critics? Why has police intimidation of elected officials become an accepted and expected part of the governing process? And why should communities trust police departments that are more interested in protecting fellow officers’ pensions than the community at large?
Police are now caught in a credibility crisis of their own making — by framing any calls for police reform as anti-police, officers and unions are positioning themselves against the 54% of Americans who believe law enforcement needs serious reform. Now there are reassuring signs that residents and elected officials in over-policed communities nationwide are finally taking steps to control our out-of-control police departments..
Turning off the funding hose
Lawmakers from politically-diverse cities ranging from liberal New York to conservative Maricopa County have dutifully expanded departmental budgets and overlooked allegations of systemic racism and abuse for fear of being tarred as “soft on crime” — or worse, “anti-police.”
The numbers are staggering. Until the protests began, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti had planned a 7% increase in the LAPD’s operating budget — to nearly $2 billion. The NYPD’s $6 billion operating cost accounts for over 6% of New York City’s entire budget.
The result of this decades-long pressure campaign is a police culture awash in impunity, where officers enjoy near-unlimited discretion in the field and almost no fear of consequences when Black and brown victims of police violence file complaints
As ‘defund the police’ campaigns gain nationwide traction, there are encouraging signs that cities may finally be turning off the funding pipelines that enable police excess.
Following pressure, Los Angeles announced plans to cut bloated police budgets and reroute the money to underfunded social programs. In Minneapolis, where the murder of George Floyd ignited these national protests, the City Council took the extraordinary step of announcing plans to defund the Minneapolis Police Department in favor of more effective community approaches to community problems like drug addiction, mental health crises, and homeless care.
Elected officials are finally reasserting control over the law enforcement apparatus entrusted with protecting our communities. But many of those officers still feel like strangers in the communities they serve. On average, only 40% of police officers live where they work.
When police feel disconnected from their communities, they form stronger relationships with their fellow officers than they do with citizens. This is how the infamous “blue wall of silence” develops, where officers protect their colleagues from punishment by turning a blind eye to abuse. That silence led three Minneapolis police officers to remain silent as Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. It also destroyed the Minneapolis Police Department.
Americans from all walks of life are taking to the streets to demand long overdue policing reforms. For the first time in a generation, elected officials are ready to listen. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, our “moment of national anguish is now a moment of national action.”
Real Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matterBecome a founding member
We owe it to George Floyd and the countless unrecorded victims of police impunity to ensure the policing system that emerges from this unrest exemplifies the core idea of equal justice under law.
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe