police reform

The Window for Major Police Reform Might Be Closing

Protesters in New York.
Protesters in New York. Photo: David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

New polling from Gallup shows that the American public has less confidence in the police than at any point in the last three decades, the entire time the organization has been tracking views on the subject. This seems like good news for reformers, and abolitionists in particular. But a yawning racial gap in the Gallup poll, ideological quirks that appear in other surveys, congressional gridlock, and Republicans’ increased use of law enforcement as a wedge issue all bode poorly for major change. Piecemeal implementation of policing reduction efforts, meanwhile, seems bound to leave a sour taste in people’s mouths regarding the burgeoning “defund” movement. And the pitched atmosphere generated by President Trump’s authoritarian antics — and his bungling of the pandemic response — has an expiration date, whether it’s a few months or a few years from now.

In short, the outlook for any reforms beyond several that have mostly been tried in the past — and failed to measurably reduce police violence nationwide — is less encouraging than in recent weeks, and there are signs that it will deteriorate further. Gallup’s 2020 survey of faith in American institutions aptly distills the mood of the last two months, which has at times bordered on insurrectionary. Since the pollster began collecting data on the subject in 1993, the share of Americans who’ve expressed “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the police has hovered between 52 and 64 percent. This year, it dropped to 48 percent — the lowest total yet recorded, and the first time it’s fallen below the level of a majority. The numbers are even starker when accounting for race. Confidence among Black adults has always been significantly lower than for white adults, with a high of 37 percent. But this year’s measure of 19 percent marks an all-time nadir, and boasts the widest racial gap in confidence (37 points) ever measured by Gallup on this topic.

This shift is attributable to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police on May 25. Nationwide protests, intermittent rioting, and often-vicious police crackdowns have drawn ever-greater numbers of Americans into the streets, while prompting many more to reassess the merits of racist and unaccountable law enforcement. For a time, this reassessment seemed to be transpartisan. Six years after the Black Lives Matter movement’s onset highlighted partisan rifts — and became a focal point of the Republican National Convention in 2016 — almost half of Republicans today think the criminal-legal system needs either “major changes” or “a complete overhaul,” according to a recent Associated Press–NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. Lawmakers initially responded accordingly. Republicans and Democrats in Congress each submitted reform bills; President Trump issued an executive order conceding that some officers have “misused their authority,” and called for better training, credentialing, and reporting of abusive police. Most Americans support bans on choke holds and no-knock warrants, duty-to-intervene standards for officers who see others using excessive force, and requiring the use of body cameras. At times, their sympathies have verged on radical: A Monmouth University poll conducted in late May and early June found that 54 percent of Americans thought the torching of Minneapolis’s Third Police Precinct by rioters was at least partially justified.

One might intuit that a public so open to this brand of destruction would hold revolutionary views on what should be done about policing. But more often, surveys uncover a more complicated set of beliefs. Polling conducted by Morning Consult around the same time found that 58 percent of Americans supported dispatching the military to U.S. cities to quell unrest. Marist pollsters found that a combined 56 percent felt the nationwide police response — which, to that point, had included brutal assaults and mass deployment of tear gas by agencies like the NYPD — was either “mostly appropriate” or not aggressive enough. Their taste in reforms has been accordingly milquetoast. With the notable exception of outlawing “qualified immunity,” which protects officers from being held personally liable for constitutional violations, the policy changes supported by wide majorities of Americans are already in place in many departments, and to little avail. Among the most popular — body cameras — have no measurable impact on rates of police violence. Choke holds were banned in New York when one was used to kill Eric Garner in 2014; officers were obligated to intervene in Minneapolis when they saw Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, and yet they did not. In some places, this dissonance has failed to sway even those who recognize it. After Rayshard Brooks was killed in June, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms announced a plan to better train police officers in the same speech where she admitted that existing training programs had failed.

Meanwhile, more radical reforms have not found popular purchase. Despite the increased prevalence of cries to “defund” or “abolish” the police, neither proposal has even close to majority support. Nor have most officials who’ve rushed headlong to embrace their spirit done so holistically, as most abolitionists envision. Abolition calls for a reorientation of society toward robust investments in housing, health care, employment, and anti-poverty measures, framed by a new infrastructure for resolving harm. Instead, politicians heeding its slogans have simply withdrawn the police from duty. According to the New York Times, the CHOP zone in Seattle saw several acts of violence against which victims found no protective infrastructure. That police had been prohibited from venturing inside by city officials bodes poorly for a movement that, while meritorious, has plenty of hearts and minds left to win over — including the majority of Black Americans, many whose experience with government neglect, including from police they call for help, holds strong associations with rampant shootings, robberies, and assaults in their communities. This remains so even as most black people plainly don’t trust officers and consider them racist. Experiments like that proposed in Minneapolis — where the city council recently voted to disband the police department and reenvision public safety — would be wise to reckon with this legacy in its totality, rather than offering piecemeal concessions to what they think are abolitionist demands.

The national picture is even less heartening. Congressional talks have since imploded, and a policing-reform deal seems to be off the table. As rioting resumed in Portland and gripped Chicago’s Miracle Mile over the weekend, the president and his allies continued their timeworn tack of demagoguing protest, which has been their main strategy since late June and their default for much longer. Trump has cast the unrest as bedlam caused by Democratic leaders — even as bad policing sparked it and his deployment of federal troops to Portland escalated it. His surrogates on Fox News and others like Rudy Giuliani have gone back to characterizing Black Lives Matter activists as part of a terrorist hate group. One of Trump’s main lines of attack against Joe Biden is the false claim that his Democratic rival wants to abolish the police.

The future remains uncertain, but broadly speaking, the reformist sentiment that seemed transpartisan and was enthusiastically supported by the majority earlier this summer has regressed to a site of partisan bickering, muddled by the ideological inconsistencies of a public whose abstract sympathies often clash with its preferred realities. And hope for structural change that reckons with the more banal violence of policing — as opposed to its more extreme forms, like on-camera killings — rests with localities whose proposed changes, in many cases, have either echoed failed efforts past or engaged in piecemeal abolition that’s left potential allies skeptical. There are other complicating factors at play. In the likely event that the unrest is fueled by antipathy toward Trump — on whose watch hundreds of thousands of people have died from COVID-19, and millions have lost work — protest energy seems bound to flag further once he leaves office, which could credibly happen in January. Absent changes to these trends, the opportunity for major reform seems increasingly tenuous. Even at this historic moment, eroded trust in the police could be greeted with yet another thwarted effort to change them.

The Window for Major Police Reform May Be Closing