- The police killing of Daunte Wright is an outrage, as is the scourge of police misconduct.
- But politicians and activists calling to “abolish” the police are not helping the cause.
- Police reform is popular and possible. Ending policing is neither.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Daunte Wright’s killing in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota was captured on video, essentially through the eyes of his killer.
Body cam footage shows the entire sequence between the moment the 20-year-old Black man stepped out of his car, until the moment he was fatally shot. It all takes place in about 30 seconds.
Recently-resigned police officer Kim Potter, who spent 26 years on the force and was her department’s union president, killed Wright after apparently mistaking her gun for her Taser.
“I’ll tase ya! I’ll tase ya!” Potter cried as Wright flailed in the driver’s seat in a mad attempt to flee arrest. But it’s clear from the footage, taken from a camera pinned to Potter’s uniform, that the officer was holding a firearm, not a Taser.
Watching those critical seconds as Potter points the gun directly at Wright, I wanted to scream, “That’s not a Taser, you idiot!”
That a veteran cop could be so panicked as to not know they were holding a Glock and pointing it at a human being speaks volumes about the need to massively reform policing in the US. Reforms that include everything from use-of-force policies to teaching de-escalation tactics to demilitarizing officers’ approach to minor infractions, such as traffic stops.
And you can add “cops being trained to not accidentally kill people because they thought their guns were Tasers” to that list, because it also happens far too often.
But the infuriating and heartbreaking body cam footage of a young man’s killing by police does not mean we should “end policing.”
And while they may believe their hearts are in the right place, politicians and activists agitating to “abolish the police” are unrepresentative of Black and brown communities. In fact, these calls are ultimately hurting the push for desperately needed reform.
Twitter is not real life, and calls to defund the police are not popular (or helpful)
Rep. Rashida Tlaib tweeted Monday “Policing in our country is inherently & intentionally racist,” adding, “No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.”
Fellow progressive “Squad” member Ayanna Pressley also weighed in, tweeting: “From slave patrols to traffic stops. We can’t reform this.”
These are visceral reactions to a gross injustice, and the anger is justifiable.
But as policy, it’s pure fantasy. As messaging, it’s an unhelpful distraction.
First and foremost, the radical activist class that dominates academia and certain Twitter political discourses might generate online attention, but it does not represent or reflect the wishes of the vast majority of the public.
Just 18% of respondents in a recent USA Today/Ipsos poll said they supported “defunding the police.” Among Black respondents, that figure only goes up to 28%. Other polls over the past year have found similar levels of support. The policy is simply unpopular.
But it is useful to the enemies of reform, including conservative politicians and police unions, who delight in using “abolish the police” rhetoric to paint all criminal justice reform advocates as dangerous extremists.
This happened in the South Carolina Senate election, where Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s campaign smeared Democrat Jamie Harrison as a “defund the police” supporter, which he is not.
Democratic Sen. Jim Clyburn said “Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” while former President Barack Obama said the “snappy slogan” is so divisive that it “makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want done.”
To be sure, “defund” and “abolish” supporters say there’s scant evidence that the movement truly cost Democrats elections, and they also argue that activism isn’t meant to be incremental, it’s meant to be disruptive.
But what is clear is that substantial police reforms — actual ideas that can be made into policy — are very popular.
Here’s a short list of things that can actually happen in the real world to reform policing
A Gallup poll last July showed 58% of Americans said “major changes” are needed to reform policing, with just 6% saying “no changes” are necessary. That shows there’s a public appetite for substantive changes.
Among the popular proposed reforms:
- Requiring police to have better relations with the public, including establishing “proactive partnerships with community organizations.”
- Teaching officers de-escalation techniques.
- Reforming management practices so police misconduct isn’t swept under the rug by the higher-ups.
- Making it harder for abusive officers to find new police jobs in other departments.
The jury is still out on the effectiveness of community policing and de-escalation training, both of which may take years to do their parts in changing police culture. And the reforms that would hold bad cops to account are mostly still just in the talking stages, because police unions remain powerful political entities and opponents of reform.
Not included in the Gallup poll, but crucially important, is the need to end qualified immunity — an absolutely absurd and unjust concept that essentially shields officers from being held civilly liable for just about anything they do “on the job.”
When police reform dominated the news after George Floyd’s killing, many cities took action to introduce reforms into their police departments. But police union obfuscation often slowed or halted the implementation of incremental reforms, and before you knew it, we were in the presidential election’s home stretch, when the urgency for reform quietly faded from the public’s consciousness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The tragic killing of Daunte Wright can be the catalyst for meaningful and realistic police reforms.
If done effectively, simple but paradigm-shifting policy changes could lead to fewer people locked up, fewer violent altercations, and more trust in law enforcement. They could also demand more transparency and accountability from police, which would de-incentivize cops from protecting bad cops or covering for abusive behavior.
All “abolish the police” will do is stir up some online noise, make pro-reform Democrats turn squishy, and help Republicans write their campaign attack ads.
We’d be better off doggedly pursuing popular, achievable goals to reform law enforcement, rather than performatively demanding an imaginary world without police.