Police Reform Doesn’t WorkRoundup
tags: racism, policing
Michael Brenes teaches history at Yale University. He is the author of For Might and Right: Cold War Defense Spending and the Remaking of American Democracy.
The trial of Derek Chauvin has concluded with a guilty verdict. But the police killing of Daunte Wright in a Minneapolis suburb only weeks ago drives home that one guilty verdict doesn’t go nearly far enough. Building on the weeks-long protests that galvanized Minneapolis and the country in the summer of 2020, the demand to transform U.S. policing, not just convict so-called “bad apples,” continues to gather momentum.
The exhausting depravity of Floyd’s death—the indelible image of Chauvin’s knee pinched into Floyd’s neck as fellow officers looked on with indifference—served as a vivid illustration of a fact Black activists have long known: that police brutality is not only endemic in the United States, but in Minneapolis specifically. The Minneapolis City Council seemed to recognize this last summer, when city officials announced a commitment to substantive police reform—up to and including the possibility of replacing the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD). Such bold action was unthinkable prior to 2020.
In the weeks prior to Wright’s death, city legislators approved, or at least considered, a series of specific reforms of the MPD. In March, legislators put forward a ballot measure (to be voted on in November) to amend the Minneapolis city charter to deputize the city council with the authority to make significant changes to the city’s policing: once this has been approved, actions being considering include putting the MPD under the supervision of both the mayor and the city council (the MPD currently answers only to the mayor), in some way curtailing the growth of the Minneapolis police force, and even outright replacing the police department with an “office of public safety.” Piecemeal yet long overdue changes such as banning chokeholds and mandating that officers document when they unholster their firearm already preceded this effort to reform the police via charter amendment.
While these reforms appear ambitious, they are far from the coordinated effort to “defund” the MPD that they were initially billed as being. Indeed, in many senses they coopt the language of defunding, made popular by young activists, to attempt to sneak through the exact opposite: though they would reduce the growth of the police force, they would not in any obvious way address the militarization that has made the MPD into one of the most violent police forces in the country.
The violence of the MPD is, of course, part of a national story. As scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, Stuart Schrader, and Naomi Murakawa have shown, modern, militarized U.S. policing arose collectively out of postwar liberalism: though its precise manifestation has varied regionally, all U.S. policing relies on a rationale of “security” as a pretext for regulating the behavior of poor people and communities of color that were the intended recipients of social reforms since the 1960s. Out of this has arisen everything from punitive “tough-on-crime” policies—historically popular across the political spectrum—to “preemptive” policing initiatives such as Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk.
Unfortunately, our collective notion of what would constitute ideal police reform has its roots in this same context of postwar liberalism, in which private responsibility and collective securitization remain the ultimate goods that are sought. Since World War II, liberals have emphasized regulating individual behavior to correct the inequalities that police often reinforce—the sanctity of Black communities contingent on the ability of the police to “restore peace.”
In the specific case of Minneapolis, for example, the failure to curtail police brutality—despite numerous waves of well-intentioned liberal reform efforts beginning as early as the 1920s—derives precisely from the limitations of those who sought transformative racial justice, not because of the efforts of reactionaries to undermine those reforms. At many points in the postwar history of Minneapolis, police reform efforts were led by the very progressives who had helped militarize the MPD in the first place.
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