Although policing remains one of America’s most trusted professions, we expect that reform efforts will continue to accelerate in the coming months.
Ordinarily, police professionals play a central role in efforts to improve public safety. Unfortunately, an increasing number of officers and senior leaders are reporting that their experience is discounted, their advice is ignored, or they are excluded from the discussions because “they are the problem.”
If traditional public safety, officer safety, or crime reduction were the focus of current reform efforts, it would be difficult to explain the exclusion of police experts. However, where civic leaders embrace “progressive reforms,” such as “equity,” “social justice,” and the “dismantling of systemic racism,” it is no longer obvious that the training, education, and experience of police officers will play a central role.
Still, if we hope to participate and influence police-reform efforts, we should recognize where “progressive reform” differs from traditional efforts to improve public safety. In this article, we hope to make sense of the “progressive” reform proposals by viewing them through the stated goals and priorities of their advocates.
Progressive Reform and Equity
Understanding the progressive reform agenda starts by understanding their language. The foundation of progressive reform is the demand for “equity” in the criminal justice system.
Equity is not equality of treatment or equality of opportunity. Equity is equality of outcome.
To progressive activists, equity envisions eliminating “racial disparities” in all aspects of the criminal justice system. To determine whether a racial disparity exists, researchers compare a racial group’s representation in the overall population with their representation in a specific aspect of the criminal justice system. If, for example, a racial group represents 6% of the population but makes up 40% of the arrests, a racial disparity exists.
“Equity” is not limited to incidents of racial discrimination. Even where racially diverse individuals are treated equally, if equal treatment results in unequal outcomes (“disparate outcomes”), then equity demands the system be reformed.
When you use population percentages as the benchmark, racial disparities exist in nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system. This reality enables proponents of “equity” to justify reform proposals without considering their impact on public safety, officer safety, or crime reduction—so long as the proposals are intended to eliminate a racial disparity.
From Disparity to Systemic Racism
Racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system is obvious. What isn’t obvious is how the disparity is created or what to do about it. Unfortunately, merely asking these questions in the context of progressive reform can be “problematic.”
This is because, for many progressive reform advocates, the cause of racial disparity is beyond debate. For them, disparities in stops, arrests, incarceration, and use-of-force are the natural consequence of “systemic racism.”
In this context, “systemic racism” is the result of overt acts of racists, implicit racial bias, a lack of privilege, and cultural insensitivity—including the failure to consider “disparate impacts” that otherwise equal treatment and neutral laws can have on racial groups.
Critics of the “systemic racism” theory might argue that criminal conduct, dysfunctional associations, or a myriad of other economic and criminological alternatives might better explain racial disparities. However, to many progressive reform activists, proposing alternatives to the “systemic racism” theory is itself evidence of systemic racism and privilege.
The Big Switch: Police as Oppressors
Flowing from the “systemic racism” theory is the belief that racial disparity is largely the result of undisciplined, untrained, and racist police. Through this lens, the police are viewed as the “oppressors,” against whom reform measures must be enacted if we are to hold them “accountable.”
To those who believe that the police are oppressors, and therefore illegitimate, any use-of-force may be characterized as “police brutality.” Even lawful force might be condemned as a result of officers too eager to resort to force, unwilling to respect the dignity of the individual, and unwilling to value the sanctity of life.
Recasting the police as oppressors transforms criminals into the “victims” of this oppression. As “victims,” criminals are more easily excused for their crimes. They have reduced “agency,” meaning they have little control over their thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Under this progressive view, criminals do not simply choose to commit crimes. Rather, the legacy of slavery, enduring systemic racism, and racist officers have trapped them in a cycle of oppression that impedes legitimate economic and educational opportunities.
Under these conditions, some believe that crime is inevitable. In response, it makes sense that progressive prosecutors, civic leaders, and judges might prioritize rehabilitation, education, and social services (e.g. financial assistance, housing assistance, counseling) over incarceration, restitution, and punishment.
How Progressive Reform Makes Sense
Once you understand that progressive reform advocates believe “systemic racism causes crime,” progressive reform proposals begin to make sense.
If your goal is to reduce the economic impact that an arrest will have on a suspect, then it makes sense to eliminate bail, eliminate fines, and limit the number of arrestable offenses.
If you believe that police are racist, abusive, and corrupt, then it makes sense to mandate body-cameras and enact policies that prevent pretext car stops, restrict consent searches, and limit investigatory stops.
If you believe that the police profession is illegitimate and untrustworthy, then it makes sense to construct and empower layers of civilian oversight.
If you believe that the police are shooting too many people during foot chases, it makes sense to prohibit foot chases.
If you believe that the police cause violence (or simply don’t do enough to avoid it), then it makes sense to enact “elevated” use-of-force policies that restrict constitutional and otherwise reasonable use-of-force–shifting responsibility from the suspect to the officer.
For Next Time: Getting Officers to Stop Causing Suspects to Attack Them.
For those who have been struggling to imagine how progressive reform proposals will improve public safety or reduce crime, it may be helpful to realize that those traditional law enforcement priorities were never intended as the near-term goals of progressive reform activists.
In the next issue of Force Science News, we’ll continue to look at progressive police-reform.
We’ll discuss officer “accountability” and consider how “elevated” use of force guidelines have left officers struggling to understand “necessary,” “proportional,” and “minimum” force standards.
Finally, we’ll look at expanded “officer-created jeopardy” and other efforts to get officers to stop causing suspects to attack them.
Great article, I just wish civic leaders and politicians would read it and let law enforcement personnel have a seat at the table, when discussing police reform. I have personally spoken with 2 Connecticut state elected officials, concerning police reform. And their response was,” That is a very touchy subject and we have to be careful. ” Really and that is it.
As the old culture is replaced by the new culture (re Mao) the Progressives will have won. If every current police officer is not actively seeking a new career they should be. Private security for the well-to-do is a smart choice IMO. If anyone is considering a career in law enforcement I hope they discover this series of articles, and realize the career they hoped for is gone.
Thomas, I understand your frustration, but as a 35+ years law enforcement officer, and a recipient of the medal of valor after being involved in a shoot out with an armed robber, I would not tell anyone to stay away from the profession. You don’t quit, you stand your ground for what you believe in and you never give up. That is to easy. Let people make the decision for themselves, whether to be, or not be in law enforcement. Thomas, no harm meant, just my opinion, which we are both entitled too. Thank you.
Thank you for your service to your community. I am thankful for those who will still wear the uniform in a time when they are not appreciated or respected.
Jerry, I appreciate your integrity and honorable pride in this profession. Many in L.E. struggle with this dilemma of standing your ground versus getting out of the game. Unfortunately, I must agree with Thomas’ sentiment. Sadly, young applicants and recruits have no idea what wrath can rain down on them even when they do exactly as they were trained. There has sadly been a slippery slope in the profession were an officer’s intent and best efforts no longer matter. More unfortunate is the reality that more and more departments are no longer standing by their officers pending a complete and thorough investigation because that is mot politically expedient. IMHO, the risks to one’s personal freedom, safety of themselves and their families and loss of everything they have ever worked hard to achieve and accrue are simply far too great today. And as more and more sentiment to eliminate qualified immunity for L.E. continue to gain traction, it almost becomes a bit of a fool’s errand to take on the challenges of becoming an officer. Many in our society surely still support L.E., but VERY FEW are willing to risk the social outcasting or cancelling if they stand up for L.E. in any meaningful or demonstrative way. This profession, which is still a very proud and important one, is simply not valued by the American society as it once was and as police are now looked at as the villains and oppressors, I see little hope for a positive change in the near future. I truly fear that far too many good, honest and hardworking L.E. will pay far too high of a price for the political rhetoric of our social climate in America. Thank you immensely for your continues service and strong fortitude!!!! I mean that sincerely and hope and pray that somehow this horrific tide turns and those truly responsible for the degradation of public safety (the criminals) are once again appropriately held accountable. Best to you sir!!
Jerry, I understand your frustration with Thomas, but as a 33+ years law enforcement officer, and a recipient of the medal of valor after being involved in a shoot out with an armed robber, I would seriously discourage my son from ever entering the profession. I have been shot, stabbed, punched, kicked and spit upon, I have received several death threats to me and my family from hardened criminals and corrupt cops. I do not fear ANY criminal. I only fear progressive prosecutor’s, defense lawyers, judges, juror’s, politicians, journalists and the Dept of Social Justice. All of whom are completely unqualified to sit in judgement of my use of force against a violent criminal. The chief prosecutor in Baltimore MD arrested four police officers, a sergeant and a lieutenant without a single ounce of probable cause. Even though all charges were dropped, there will be no accountability for prosecutor malfeasance. Who will protect my family while I am sitting in lock up and my name and address is published on the web?
This was valuable. During my career I was assigned to engage (and in my retirement I have chosen to continue to engage) with reform-minded citizens. Von Kliem has laid out, short and plain, the intellectual assumptions underlying the hard-core police reformers. It explains why, when the police reform law passed in Massachusetts, there was so little effort made to check proposals with police professionals and a very flawed bill was a hairsbreadth from passage. The actual law passed is merely challenging, though it is only “a first step” according to those disappointed by the perceived shortcomings of the law.
Von Kliem describes the influential cadre of police reformer, which officers should grasp, but not the uniform entirety of those interested in police reform. I have found that most of those I know personally who are concerned with police reform like “their” police — something I have worked to encourage by spending a lot of time listening to their concerns and a little time talking to them about what seem to be police realities. Where, for example, the very hard core believers among police reformers are not concerned about police deaths when an African-American death could be somehow avoided, the reform-minded people I know do care about police deaths. Again, most people do like “their” police.
Policing as we have known it will get harder. That is the intention of police reform, to change the way police do their work. Massachusetts police will soon have a statutory obligation, prior to using force, to engage in “de-escalation,” but the examples the statute gives of de-escalation are already well known to police, and have been featured for years Force Science Institute’s training in realistic de-escalation. That is because police in America recognize their obligation to reduce the force they use when reasonable.
Policing will get harder, but then it always has gotten harder. I started as a police officer in December of the year SCOTUS declared the Constitution forbids police from shooting all fleeing felons. Before that it was telling suspects, before questioning, they could remain silent or talk to a lawyer. We live in a country where citizens have a say in how they are policed.
But police are citizens as well. The hard core amongst police reformers has, ironically, sought to make police into “the other,” even as they accuse police of “othering” minorities and the poor. I suggest that officers resist this othering by engaging with the citizens in their community who have an interest in police reform. The hard core will not be responsive, but many citizens will be open to officers who show up frequently, spend a lot of time listening, and a little time talking.
I’ve been having those same conversations with police and community members who believe we can always do better while refusing to buy into the anti-police narrative. I don’t have an official survey at my fingertips, but I’ve heard the progressive ideology is held by about 15% of the American population (and growing). Of course, whatever that number is, they have been given a giant (and often violent/destructive) megaphone in the last four years, which they’ve been using to drive a distorted view of policing. I recently spoke with some really nice and socially conscious people (Hollywood actors actually!) who believed that the police shoot and kill about 1000 unarmed black men per year…including joggers!. If you believe that, why wouldn’t you be outraged and demanding reform? I think they were equally outraged when they heard the number in 2019 was closer to about 15 and most of those were actively assaulting the officers or dragging them in cars. Those are the people we can still reach. They have no political agenda…they are just good people who want to believe that their news and their government officials aren’t lying to them. I was lucky. I had the time to go through the facts of 3-4 cases that had garnered national attention. I asked them how they understood the facts (very anti-police versions) and then I shared the actual case facts with them. One guy said, “I knew there had to be something to that story!” But the other guy said “Are you sure? I have to look that up.” He just couldn’t believe how different the media version of the cases compared to the actual case facts. (Just last week I read an article in the Journal of the American Bar Association that said Trayvon Martin was shot because George Zimmerman mistook his Skittles for a weapon!) We can still reach our communities, we just have to have the facts and a trusting relationship. Sometimes we get lucky and all we have to do is show them 1 case of intentional media distortion and they will never believe the lies again. Some take more convincing. Either way, we can’t alienate our neighbors and politicians who have been repeatedly and effectively lied to for the last decade-plus. Thanks for commenting and keeping this discussion focused on building relationships.
An excellent and succinct description of what we are witnessing. Yet, the presentation omits the underlying Racism against Whites and disdain for America and American Values, that motivates so much of the Progressive Agenda. What we are seeing transcends a simple desire for “Reform”. The Progressive Movement in Law Enforcement is Power Politics in an ugly form. And the Progressive Reform fails to take into account the Positive Service Role of Police in Minority communities. Minority victims of crime are most frequently the victims of other Minority members; not Racist White Police. The Advocates for Minorities, are the Police in their Community, Not the Radical Activist.
Maybe I miss understood this after rereading it. Is this article say that all of the claims that have been made by activist is true and Law Enforcement is the problem?
I know my statement is short but that is what I am taking away from this article.
Could be wrong….
The article is making it clear that “progressive” reform should not be confused with traditional efforts to improve public safety, officer safety, or crime reduction. Traditional efforts to improve policing and public-safety are valuable and neverending. Progressive reform has a very different and specific goal of achieving “racial equity” as a subset of “social justice.” If we are to participate and influence these discussions, the first step is to recognize the goals of the reform bodies. If they are progressive reformers, singularly focused on equity and “reigning in” the police, then the role of police professionals may very well be to disprove the foundation of the reform activists who believe cops are racist, abusive, and corrupt. That was not the goal of this initial article.
I have been in LE for 48 years. Like some I have seen a lot of changes, some good. I always have chosen to work in rural smaller towns because people tend to respect Officers. I know we aren’t suppose to toot our own horn but We need to do a much better job of making the public aware of what we do and the statistics related to our work. All we hear is what liberals broadcast. It makes it seem everyone is against us. There are so many more good persons than we realize exists that do thank us for what we do. We need to Show our colors and stop letting liberal news make us look like monsters by having a positive PR campaign. Soon as I win the lottery we can afford it.