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Don’t let the moment for police reform slip away

Activists would be wise to accept substantive changes in law enforcement that are possible now — before rising crime could close the window of opportunity.

Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, after the verdict in the trial of former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin.Julio Cortez/Associated Press

After the guilty verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, Philonise Floyd, brother of George Floyd, said he was able to breathe again. Satisfied and relieved, Floyd was also cautiously optimistic. He wrote that “only with the passage of time will we know if the guilty verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin is the start of something that will truly change America and the experience of Black Americans.” He is right, of course, but the window of opportunity to bring about this change is quickly closing.

We are living in a time of criminal justice reform. A new generation of courageous young activists have forced us to recognize the value of Black life and acknowledge its seemingly perpetual vulnerability to state violence. The popularity of Black Lives Matter waxes and wanes, but the movement’s hold on our culture and conscience endures. Most Americans supported the Chauvin verdict, including 70 percent of white people, 93 percent of Black people, and 79 percent of Latino people in a CBS News poll. According to a recent ABC News poll, Black and Hispanic people overwhelmingly believe that racial minorities “do not receive equal treatment in the criminal justice system.” Among white people, support for this position has fallen from an all-time high of 62 percent last July to a still remarkable 57 percent. Eighty-three percent of Blacks and 67 percent of Hispanics support “doing more to hold police accountable.” So do 53 percent of whites.


To capitalize on this moment, Philonise Floyd and President Biden have both endorsed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. Among several reforms, the legislation would restrict the use of such policing practices as no-knock warrants and chokeholds, create a national registry to track complaints and police misconduct, institute best practices and training standards, and grant subpoena power to the Department of Justice in “pattern-or-practice investigations,” which can force police departments to make sweeping changes. Also on the table is ending “qualified immunity” for police officers or making it easier to sue police departments; either change would increase accountability by offering victims of police brutality a form of redress.

The Black Lives Matter movement, however, opposes the bill. BLM, a collective of more than 150 anti-racism organizations, insists that the Justice in Policing Act would not “truly address the root causes of police violence and terror” and would instead focus on “investments in policing rather than what should be front and center — upfront investments in communities and people.” BLM is not alone in this. “Defund,” “dismantle,” and “abolish” have become rallying cries for activists, politicians, and intellectuals on the left. After police killed Daunte Wright outside Minneapolis last month, Representative Rashida Tlaib made it clear that she was “done with those who condone government-funded murder,” declaring, “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”


Republicans are champing at the bit to have this debate. Recently, the National Republican Congressional Committee began running ads claiming vulnerable House Democrats want to dismantle law enforcement. A narrator says, “Defund police? Abolish prisons? Nancy Pelosi and Democrats in Congress have lost their minds.” The ad calls on people to “stand up to Democrats’ attacks on law enforcement.” Whether right or wrong, it has become received wisdom among strategists in both parties that “defund the police” cost Democrats seats in the House in November. After the election, a Black congressman, Cedric Richmond, said, “‘Defunding the police’ is a title that hurts Democrats, especially when the fact of the matter is nobody is calling for defunding the police.”


Segments of the left are clearly advocating for significantly smaller police forces. These, however, do not include most Black people.

When asked if “regular police patrols in your neighborhood” would make them feel less safe or more safe, 65 percent of Black respondents in a Vox/Data Progress poll indicated that they would feel more safe. Seventy percent of Black people, along with 62 percent of white people and 56 percent of Hispanic people, also supported “reallocating portions of police budgets to create a new agency of first-responders, like emergency medical services or firefighters, to deal with issues related to addiction or mental illness.” In a poll of Minneapolis voters last summer, 76 percent of Black respondents and 72 percent of white ones endorsed reallocating “some” funding from policing to social services and violence prevention measures. At the same time, nearly half of Black voters felt that reducing the size of the police force would have negative consequences. Just 25 percent said it would yield positive outcomes.

The complexities of Black opinion frequently get lost in our highly polarized politics. Surveys indicate that most Black people distrust police while approving of the job police in their communities are doing. Most Black people want more investments in social services, violence prevention measures, and structural reforms while also supporting more effective policing. Although most white people trust police, many now recognize racial disparities in law enforcement and endorse greater regulation of policing practices. While most white people oppose the abolition of police, most also see a role for alternative strategies. In the United States today, there exists, perhaps for the first time, a liberal consensus on criminal justice reform.


Yet history reminds us that this consensus may not last. In her book “The Myth of Mob Rule: Violent Crime and Democratic Politics,” Lisa L. Miller shows that a surge in violent crime starting in the late 1960s set the stage for the passage of late-20th-century “law and order” measures. My own study of the development of New York’s Rockefeller drug laws, which mandated lengthy prison sentences for the possession or sale of small amounts of illegal narcotics, reveals that working- and middle-class Black residents of New York City were among the laws’ biggest advocates, as they turned to police and draconian policies to improve public safety. For example, a 1970 survey of the predominately Black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, found that because of crime, 54 percent of residents went out less in the evening and 46 percent had started walking faster in the streets at night. Over 70 percent wanted police to spend more time arresting drug pushers.


Reflecting these anxieties, a 1973 editorial in the Amsterdam News, one of the city’s Black newspapers, welcomed police with open arms. It promised law enforcement “that the [loud-mouthed] vocal minority on the corners who boo and jeer when you lock up a criminal, are not representative of the [hard-working] people watching from their apartment windows.” Because residents were ready to “sit on their stoops again,” “stroll down the avenues unmolested,” and “attend prayer meetings at night,” the paper implored the “cop on the beat” to help them by “locking up every person who illegally prevents them from” enjoying city life.

Margie Rodrigues, Milagros Ortega, and Gino Myers, 10, at a peace walk in Harlem, New York City, to denounce the rise of gun violence on April 30.Michael M. Santiago/Getty

Years of declining crime rates have given us space to reimagine policing and reduce our reliance on punishment. But today, rising violent crime rates have ignited a slow-burning backlash against this age of reform. In 2017, Philadelphia elected Larry Krasner as district attorney. He ran on a progressive agenda, including curtailing cash bail, ending the death penalty, and fighting police corruption. This year, fatal and nonfatal shootings have surged in the City of Brotherly Love, and the homicide rate has climbed more than 30 percent. Although a definitive link between reforms and the crime surge has yet to be established, Carlos Vega, a former prosecutor, is running to unseat the progressive district attorney, alleging that while “Krasner promised us justice that would make us safer,” his “reckless approach to reform has made Philadelphia more dangerous today than before he took office.”

New York City has also experienced a dramatic uptick in violent crime. By early April, 299 people had been shot, an increase of more than 50 percent from the year before. It is no wonder that a leading candidate in the city’s mayoral race is Eric Adams, a Black former cop who is running, in part, on a pro-police agenda. He opposes “defund the police,” telling New York magazine: “When you start defunding, hey, the cop is no longer on your corner. That cop is no longer in your lobby. That cop is not standing outside when you leave your Broadway play. And I have never been to an event where the people were saying we want less cops. Never.” He has also called stop-and-frisk a “great tool,” adding, “Used it, used it often, great tool. We should never have removed stop-and-frisk.”

Whether the Chauvin verdict augurs well for Black lives depends on the debate we decide to have over criminal justice reform. Increasing accountability and transparency in policing is nothing to scoff at. Furthermore, the American Jobs Plan makes substantial investments in community-based violence intervention programs. We may not be able to end policing as we know it, but we can make it safer while substantially expanding community-based services.

Soaring crime rates and fixating on reformers’ most unpopular positions may prematurely end this age of reform. If forced to choose between law and order and abolition of the police, most people, including many Black people, especially in a moment of escalating violence, will choose law and order. It’s time for reformers to take advantage of the current liberal consensus and make its promise a reality before it’s too late.

Michael Javen Fortner is professor of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and senior fellow at the Niskanen Center. Follow him on Twitter @ProfFortner.