Police Reform: Impossible?

Two Oakland, Calif., police officers and a lawyer for one of the men at a 2002 trial at which the officers, members of a group known as the Riders, were charged with criminal abuses. The officers are wearing suits and one is looking over his shoulder toward the camera with a pensive expression.

Two Oakland, Calif., police officers and a lawyer for one of the men at a 2002 trial at which the officers, members of a group known as the Riders, were charged with criminal abuses.Credit…Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group East Bay Times, via Getty Images


Over the last fifty years, I have continued to press for efforts to improve our nation’s police. During that time, I successfully participated in major police reforms in the two municipal police departments I had the pleasure leading. I think it is safe and correct to say that many of the reforms I initiated fell by the wayside over the years; time has a way of attrition — non-military uniforms, integrated police-fire functions, community policing (responsibility for policing “turf” rather than time of day), police officers in schools, raising hiring standards (higher education and “emotional intelligence” as requirements, strongly diversifying in terms of race and gender, strong controls in uses of force, and so on seemed to drift away.

A recent post of mine suggested that the only avenue of true police reform/improvement will come from small, wealthy cities and suburbs. I stick by that. Our national politics and police unionization will effectively prevent citizens from living in safe communities which respect everyone’s rights; by that I mean fielding a police function that is trusted and supported by the community in which it delivers effective police services.

It’s a sad thing to have to say.

Most recently, what has gone on in Oakland, California, in spite of federal consent decrees and community initiative, seems unable to effectively improve their police no matter what the community does. Maybe that’s the way it is in the community in which you live? What’s a citizen to do; especially citizens who, often historically, cannot come to trust their police?

To further illustrate my argument, read the review below:

THE RIDERS COME OUT AT NIGHT: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland, by Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham

“It’s been more than two years since protesters filled the streets of America’s cities, since we all saw the video of a police officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. And yet killings at the hands of law enforcement, by various metrics, continue at a steady pace.

“Set aside for a moment the debates about crime rates and the calls to abolish the police (or, at the other extreme, to place officers beyond criticism). Ask instead what it would take to hold police accountable for abuses, in a minimally satisfying way, and what role civilians can or should play. How many protesters went on to join a citizen oversight board? How many knocked on doors for district attorney or sheriff candidates who promised change?

“And how long until we witness the next George Floyd, and another cycle of outrage, reform and backsliding?

“It’s hard not to ask such cynical questions after reading The Riders Come Out at Night: Brutality, Corruption, and Cover-Up in Oakland, an exhaustive case study of policing in the Bay Area city by the reporters Ali Winston and Darwin BondGraham. ‘More has been done to try to reform the Oakland Police Department than any other police force in the United States,’ they write, arguing that the racially mixed city of less than half a million holds ‘parallels for other communities that have struggled to reign in the coercive arm of the state.’

“The main parallel seems to be: True reform is nearly impossible. By zooming in geographically, but also stretching out their timeline — the town had a racist mayor who unleashed police officers against Chinese immigrants back in 1879 — the authors conjure a sense of chronic tragedy. A culture of corruption and violence keeps flourishing despite repeated good faith efforts to stop the bad apples, who continue to show up, generation after generation, to spoil the barrel…”

Read the full article HERE.

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