Opinion

How do we fix the police?

I imagine that amongst the vast majority of readers, the sentiment that All Cops Are Bastards will be broadly familiar and largely uncontroversial. Nowhere else in the developed world is this more obvious, and the sentiment more true, and more widespread, than in the United States. While general confidence in the police usually stands at around 50%, that falls to 44% with those under 35, and as low 30% among black people. What began last week as peaceful protests over the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a Minneapolis Police Department officer named Derek Chauvin, has devolved into full blown rioting across the country. To be clear, this escalation was largely down to the police employing excessive use of force whilst dealing with the mainly peaceful protestors, and has risen tensions to a fever pitch that ought never to have been reached.

We have seen law enforcement act in an increasingly aggressive manner towards peaceful demonstrators; Twitter is abound with videos of police using tear gas on peaceful crowds of protestors and shooting rubber bullets at bystanders (note that the British Medical Journal has found that 3% of people shot at with rubber bullets die, while up to 15% are left permanently disabled). We have now seen the police permanently disable some protestors, kill others (David McAtee, another innocent black man and local business owner, was killed on Monday), and we have seen them open fire into the free press (investigative journalists Bellingcat have so far [as of 2/6/2020] collated over 100 instances of police targeting journalists with violence).

The problem with police goes deeper than their blatant abuse of power. Rates of domestic violence in police officer families is staggeringly high (the National Centre for Women and Policing have estimated, albeit on old data, that the number is as high as 40%). Clandestine links between domestic terrorist groups, especially white supremacists, and law enforcement have been exposed frequently; a leaked FBI Counterterrorism Policy Guide from just 2015 states that “domestic terrorism investigations focused on militia extremists, white supremacist extremists, and sovereign citizen extremists often identified active links to law enforcement officers”, and a 2019 investigation by the Centre for Investigative Reporting found that “hundreds of active-duty and retired law enforcement officers from across the US… [who] have worked at every level of American law enforcement… are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook”. Corruption is widespread among officers; around 1,000 US police officers a year are arrested, with 41% of their crimes being committed on duty. Of course, this number is misleadingly low; the “blue wall of silence” is a term that refers to the informal rule among law enforcement officers to not report fellow officers’ breaches of conduct, bearing a chilling similarity to omertà, the oath of silence taken by members of the Mafia.

All the claims above are explicit in the data, and though brevity requires me to summarise, I hope that I have shown why the ACAB sentiment is so strong, especially among the young and minority groups. Still, the suggestion to do away with law enforcement entirely is not, at least for the time being, a realistic one, yet at the same time we can see quite clearly that the police forces of the United States are unfit for purpose; they are systematically corrupt, systematically racist and systematically violent. This raises a crucial question; how do we fix them?

It is an enormous task to address every problem with law enforcement. However, there are several proven, practical steps that can and should be adopted which may lay the foundations required to bring about the lasting changes that we are all hoping for.

To first tackle corruption, we can look at the example of Georgia (the country, not the state), in the mid-2000s. In the early 2000s, Georgian traffic police were considered “the most feared and hated people in Georgia“. As well as being the go-to “symbol of corruption” in the country, they exerted wanton violence to enforce their arbitrary, on the spot fines.

In 2005, newly elected Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili undertook dramatic reform, disbanding the Ministry of Internal Affairs and firing the entire police force: 25 to 30,000 people. He created a new MIA and rehired a police force from scratch, cutting ties completely with the old guard. As described by President Saakashvili:

“The old police used to beat up people. They basically used what amounted to torture to extort the evidence. And the new police force was educated and is controlled in a way where nothing like this–there is zero tolerance towards torture. Zero tolerance. Everybody thought that there was no way to keep crimes checked unless you occasionally beat them up or managed them with beating them up or blackmail them into something. No, our examples show that you can reverse the crime trend even by being civilized.”

By 2009, the reformed Ministry of Internal Affairs had undergone such a dramatic change that it ranked as the third most popular institution in the country, after the church and the army. For a lasting change in the way law enforcement is conducted, such a dramatic overhaul is needed.

A natural follow-up question emerges: how do we ensure this new force is different from the previous one, and doesn’t slip into the same corrupt practices? What is required is a complete overhaul of the application and vetting system for police officers. The current application process for US law enforcement is laughable; the hiring process involves the thoroughly debunked polygraph test as part of the background check, and the average time spent in Police Academy is between 13 and 19 weeks. By comparison, police recruits in Germany will spend about two and a half years in the Police Academy, and full training can take up to three. The results speak for themselves; the United States population is around four times that of Germany, and in 2014 had 57 times the number of police shooting deaths.

This increased requirement for education comes alongside another component – increased pay. A newly viral skit from Chris Rock’s 2018 Netflix stand-up sees him quip “Being a cop’s a hard job man. Honestly, I don’t think they pay cops enough, and you get what you pay for.” Rock is right. As with many problems in the labour force, increasing pay is often part of the solution; poor pay and skewed incentives result in poor quality candidates who are not motivated to perform the tasks that they should be performing. To return to the earlier example of Georgia; their new, properly trained police force were given salaries up to 20 times higher than before. Although this dramatic example is due to the much lower pre-2005 Georgian police starting salaries, it serves to emphasise the point. A better-paid, better-trained, better-educated police force perform a better job.

But fixing corruption and overuse of violence will not solve the problem of racism in the US police. Even in a country like the UK, where killings by law enforcement officers are extremely rare (numbering only a few a year), there persists a significant race problem. Home Office data from 2018 embroiled the police in scandal as it was found that black people were 40 times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people under new police powers. The problem is deep and intractable, but there is one suggestion which is proven to have a significant impact; the decriminalisation of drugs.

Enough has been written about the catastrophe of the War on Drugs to fill many textbooks. Suffice it to say that it has been perhaps one of the most harmful political projects ever launched, with a profoundly unequal effect, in particular hitting black communities much harder. The United States is the world leader in incarceration, at 655 per 100,000, with around 50% of all inmates currently in federal prison being incarcerated for drug offences. And this incarceration is not equally spread; black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. Returning to the issue of skewed incentives, in 1988, the US government started the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program, which rewards police departments around the country for their continued participation in the War on Drugs. Local and state police departments receive federal funding based on number of arrests, rather than any actual reduction in crime. Predictably, law enforcement has rapidly descended into self-perpetuating bureaucracy, serving no purpose other than to further its own existence by arresting and imprisoning innocent people with trace quantities of drugs on them.

If the goal of the War on Drugs was to decrease drug use, its abject failure, visible decades ago, would have shut it down. Perhaps the only thing that it has been successful at is mass incarceration, what civil rights advocate Michelle Alexander has described as “a massive system of racial and social control… the process by which people are swept into the criminal justice system, branded criminals and felons, locked up for longer periods of time than most other countries in the world who incarcerate people who have been convicted of crimes, and then released into a permanent second-class status in which they are stripped of basic civil and human rights”. The decriminalisation of drugs is necessary to combat the deeply entrenched and deeply racist policy of mass incarceration.

And there is no reason to worry about any ill effects either; decriminalisation in Portugal and Spain has led to a decrease in drug-related deaths as well as side-effects of drug use such as HIV infections, while demonstrating no increase in use. There is a wealth of evidence, both from these countries and others such as Switzerland and Norway, that a harm reduction policy is much more effective in achieving the purported aims of the War on Drugs than hard line US policy.

Here, then, is a potential roadmap for future policy. The current US police force is unfit for purpose, and a clean break must be made with it. Its replacement must be properly trained, properly paid, and have no incentives but to actually fulfil its mandate, to protect the people it serves. Perhaps most crucially, legal reform is needed which removes the incentives that disproportionately hit black communities harder, and reform which should empty prisons of millions of innocent people.

In the aforementioned skit, Rock goes on to respond to the defence that not all cops are bad, only “a few bad apples”. “Some jobs”, he says, “can’t have bad apples… ya know, American Airlines can’t be like, ‘Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples that like to crash into mountains.’” Indeed. Just like we don’t accept bad apples among pilots, we cannot accept them among police. The only way to remove these “few bad apples” is a complete overhaul of the system of law enforcement; perhaps then we can achieve the lasting change that protestors across the world are fighting for right now.