A Crime and Policing Expert Critiques Black Lives Matter’s Police-Reform Plan

Ferguson Tense After Shootout On Anniversary Of Michael Brown's Death
Photo: Scott Olson/2015 Getty Images

It’s been obvious for a while now that the Black Lives Matter movement would benefit from a concrete policy agenda around which it could focus its organizing, public protest, and practical negotiations with public officials. Developing such an agenda is no easy task — especially for a grassroots movement that basically came into existence a year ago.

BLM has taken a big step forward on this front, however, thanks to a document released Friday that was co-authored by a group including DeRay Mckesson and Johnetta Elzie (a.k.a. “Netta”), two of the movement’s leading activists. Campaign Zero offers a series of policy recommendations that pursue BLM’s avowed goal to “end police violence in America.” One does not need to embrace every element to recognize that this well-crafted document provides a useful basis of discussion between grassroots activists, elected officials, law enforcement professionals, and policy analysts.

Overall, it’s a very useful and professional document, a very good start to the conversation. And based on my own research on urban crime and policing, which has included the implementation of randomized-violence-prevention trials, interviews with incarcerated offenders, and collaboration with public-health and criminal-justice authorities, several proposals in Campaign Zero struck me as particularly smart. That said, I also think the group would be wise to address certain broader concerns, as I discuss below. 

Here are the best ideas from the proposal:

Greater racial and ethnic diversity in policing. In 2015 it is simply impossible to properly police low-income communities of color with predominantly white police forces. Police departments whose staffing is grossly out of line with the communities they serve are repeatedly enmeshed in problems of misconduct and poor performance. The Ferguson Police Department — 94 percent white in a community that is now 67 percent African-American — is the obvious poster child for this problem, given the deeply troubling pathologies uncovered within it by the United States Justice Department in the wake of the death of Michael Brown and subsequent civil unrest last summer. Even if the Ferguson Police Department had been a highly professional and proficient force, it strains credulity to believe that it could have effectively promoted public safety with only four commissioned black officers on its entire force.

Curbing the abuse of fines, impoundment, and other monetary punishments for revenue purposes. Because local governments are often strapped for cash and find it easy to extract fines from politically marginalized low-income residents, they face unfortunate incentives to do just that, often filling their coffers through asset forfeiture (where property — up to and including cash, houses, and cars — can be seized on the basis of highly circumstantial evidence of their owners’ involvement in the drug trade, even when the owner isn’t charged with anything), fines, and related punishments. Available research suggests that these incentives influence police behavior. Particularly in times of budget trouble, local political economies induce police to expend greater efforts seizing money and property. The probability and dollar amount of traffic fines are similarly influenced by local-tax revenues and other fiscal measures.

Not to put too fine a point on things, but fiscally strapped towns are prone to shaking down their own residents over minor violations. Not surprisingly, these violations have a disproportionate effect on poor people: Relatively small traffic fines put some people on a path to lost or suspended licenses, with large resulting economic harm. These policies also (predictably) generate tension between frontline officers and community residents — when the number of encounters over minor violations between police and civilians rises, the probability of an accompanying tragedy rises, too. Sandra Bland’s suicide occurred after the officer who arrested her for a failure to signal was apparently offended by her less-than-deferential tone. This was an extreme case, but hardly the only one that’s gone public in recent years.

Better training and support for police in de-escalation skills. This past year, Americans have watched a succession of cell-phone videos that show officers killing suspects — often unarmed ones —  in situations in which lethal force might have been avoided. Much of the resulting debate focuses on officers’ split-second decisions in the moment of angry confrontation. Yet in many of these cases, the real missed opportunity was the failure to avoid or defuse a volatile situation before the cell phones were even recording.

Police officers are generally trained or socialized to the view that the only sure way to protect themselves and others is to establish their dominance in ambiguous situations. This “warrior” frame often provides a poor guide; officers need a broader repertoire of de-escalation skills, like responding with professionalism and restraint to a range of difficult behaviors that don’t pose a genuine public-safety risk.

These skills are particularly vital given the distressingly frequent number of encounters police have with individuals who are experiencing psychiatric or intellectual disabilities, and who may respond strangely or unpredictably in their dealings with police. Campaign Zero calls for greater emphasis on Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) and other collaborations between law enforcement and mental-health professionals. Although the research base on such interventions is thinner than it needs to be, existing studies suggest that CIT enhances the safety of both police and individuals experiencing severe mental illness.


It’s clear that Campaign Zero has a lot of good stuff in it. It could have been even better had it taken a broader view. I hope BLM will consider adding some additional items to the conversation. For example:

A positive vision of urban policing. I, and other crime researchers with whom I have spoken, wish Campaign Zero would place the same emphasis on identifying good police practices that should be replicated that they place on identifying bad police practices that must be curbed.

Cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, and Seattle have reduced community violence through improved public management and evidence-based policies. Partnerships such as the High Point Intervention field less-punitive strategies to reduce drug-related violence. Rather than arresting every drug dealer, authorities and community leaders offer assistance with employment, education, or personal challenges to the majority of drug sellers who are not dangerous to the community, while reserving more serious sanctions for the minority of dealers who impose greater social harm.

A broader public-safety agenda. The Black Lives Matter campaign has brought much-needed attention to problems of police misconduct and excessive use of force. Yet, as I’ve heard myself from countless residents of struggling communities, reforming improper police practices is only one of the puzzle pieces required to advance public safety in these areas.

In Chicago, where I work, three-quarters of our homicide victims are African-American. Nineteen percent are Hispanic. Less than 6 percent of our murder victims are non-Hispanic white or Asian-American. The high violence rate in low-income communities of color may be the most painful challenge facing urban America. If we fail to identify and field humane, evidence-based policies to reduce this violence, it’s hard to see how we will address many other issues that lead to race-based gaps in health and wealth, ranging from low educational attainment to residential segregation and middle-class flight.

Especially during a summer that has seen a disconcerting spike in homicides in cities like Baltimore and St. Louis, Black Lives Matter would also be wise to go beyond immediate police practices to an effective violence-prevention agenda within low-income communities. It is a big challenge. Yet several interventions show real promise in rigorous evaluations: Cognitive-behavioral interventions can help young people behave more safely and effectively in situations that might escalate into violence. Offering young people summer jobs, with some accompanying supports, reduced violent offending in randomized trials (such measures are especially valuable because they put money in families’ pockets in tough economic times).

Innovative community-supervision programs for drug- and alcohol-involved offenders also show promise. The Hawaii HOPE and Dakota 24/7 interventions, which provide swift, certain, but mild sanctions for relapsing drug and alcohol offenders, rather than either ignoring misbehavior or harshly punishing it, have shown particular promise for broad replication. In terms of broader policies, higher alcohol taxes are also likely to reduce the harms associated with the single most crime-promoting substance in American life.

Common ground with police on gun policy. It is ironic that low-income minority communities are presumed to be soft on crime given that, when it comes to background checks, assault-weapons bans, and other measures to curb underground gun markets, African-Americans are more likely to support stringent measures than other groups. The near-miss Manchin-Toomey bill, which would have addressed obvious problems in our porous background-check system and strengthened our law-enforcement infrastructure, provided one foundation. Increased support for ATF measures to curb illegal gun markets and increased infrastructure support for the National Instant Criminal Background Check System could also help chip away at the problems facing the communities where BLM is most heavily involved.

Whatever specifics it embraces, Black Lives Matter enjoys a window of opportunity to promote more effective urban policing, and to promote evidence-based violence prevention policies. It should seize this opportunity — while the American public is still listening. And it should embrace a broad approach to complicated problems that don’t have any single root cause. 

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He’s on Twitter at @haroldpollack.