We are have reached the one year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, and the past year has seen an unprecedented amount of activism surrounding the nature of policing in general and race relations more broadly. Sadly, the issue of lethal police use of force is hardly a new issue; six years ago I wrote about the Washington Post’s then-new database on police shootings, and I noted that “[o]ver the past three years as we have tried to come to terms with the many high-profile police killings across the country.” And the issue of police use of force obviously stretches back far before that–it has been a problem for decades, if not centuries. If there is a silver lining regarding the social and political upheaval that we are now undergoing on this issue, it is that we are finally dealing with this issue head on, and therefore we may have a chance to make progress.
Unfortunately, a lot of the past year has seen more heat than light brought to bear on the question of police use of lethal force, on both sides. Given the nature of the problem, this level of passion and raw emotion is understandable. And any serious effort to change status quo needs to generate political energy and grass-roots support to be successful. But the ultimate goal has to be real, meaningful, achievable reform, which means diagnosing the problem accurately and then building coalitions to generate majority support for a sustained solution.
Most of the protests–and most of the media coverage of the issue–has focused on the fact that police use lethal force against Black Americans at a higher rate than against other groups. This disparity has led to calls for greater diversity and implicit bias training for police officers, as well as a broader political movement to address systemic racism that exists throughout society. These are all urgently important issues, and our country will be a better one because of the challenging discussions we are now having and the reforms that they will bring about, inside and outside of the criminal justice system. But as many reformers are pointing out, the issue of police lethal use of force does not only affect Black Americans; the Washington Post database notes that victims of police killing come from across the racial spectrum; given the higher numbers of whites than Blacks in the American population, police kill twice as many white people as Black people.
Thus, even if all of the factors that lead to a disproportionate number of Black victims were eliminated, and Black citizens were victims of police shootings to the same degree as white citizens, we would still see over 700 police killings per year, including roughly a hundred Black victims. Some percentage of these killings are unjustified, and certain reforms (such as increased use of body cameras and the elimination of qualified immunity for police officers) will help to deter such actions. But most of these police killings are justifiable under the law. Thus, we need to think not just in terms of eliminating unjustified killings, but also work on reducing the much larger number of justified killings–that is, we need to work towards a world in which police are almost never put into a position where it becomes necessary to use lethal force. By re-framing the debate in these terms, we are more likely to find a consensus among the police and those being policed.; law enforcement officers never want to find themselves having to make life-or-death situations, even if their actions are ultimately found to be justified. And these situations are obviously dangerous for police officers as well: over a hundred police officers are killed on duty each year. Politically, reaching a consensus with the police and their supporters is necessary: even at the height of the protests in the summer of 2020–the political zenith for those who seek to challenge the way we police crime in this country–a majority of the public still supported the police and rejected calls to abolish or even cut funding to police departments. Thus, arguing that the police are racist and calling for police forces to be disbanded is not a way to build the coalitions which are required to achieve the necessary reforms.
Luckily, there are a number of common sense reforms that are supported by a majority of Americans that can make a real difference in reducing the instances of police lethal use of force. Banning no-knock search warrants, requiring body cameras for every police officer, banning chokeholds, enhancing community policing efforts, increasing funding for mental-health professionals to work with police departments, increased police training, and emphasizing de-escalation tactics in training are all policies that could go a long way to reducing the number of violent and potentially lethal encounters between civilians and police. Many of these reforms are found in the federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which has passed the House. In later posts, I will break down some of these potential reforms and evaluate how effective they might be.