Analysis: Legal scholar explains the origins of America’s policing crisis and how it may change
What change has this perpetual interrogation of anti-Black police violence led to?
The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are the origins of the US’s policing crisis?
Think of the roles of police in participating or failing to intervene in lynching, the harsh policing of Black urban communities in the mid-20th century that led to a spate of uprisings during the 1960s, police use of military-grade weapons to flatten some Black communities in many of our lifetimes and the role of policing in inhumane styles of immigration enforcement today.
These roots and contemporary realities mean that police departments have been engineers of maintaining the status quo. When that status quo is White supremacy, economic hierarchy, border patrol, the policing of queer populations and so forth, the very design of policing has been overwhelmingly oppressive to marginalized communities. We have to get past questions of whether individual police officers are kind. Of course many are. But all the good intentions in the world don’t make up for unjust systems and institutions.
The policing crisis as I described it is partly why we’re at a situation where certain communities, especially Black communities, experience legal estrangement. This describes a sense of not really belonging in one’s community or city or state or country because of the police and other legal institutions.
This estrangement happens on multiple levels. Often when people discuss distrust between Black communities and the police, they focus on individual police behavior. But the reasons for these frayed relationships are also communal.
What do recent shifts in policing conversations tell us about the direction of racial justice activism?
Defund made people in power take seriously the idea that there might need to be less investment in policing and more investment elsewhere.
The deeper change in conversation was in the fact that, really for the first time in broad-based national discourse, people were asking: Do the police actually make us safer? And the “us” included Black people.
Policy change has been moving at a more glacial pace than conversation change has.
Another barrier has to do with the spike in violence created largely by the pandemic. More people are now willing to question whether police create safety, but there’s a gap in knowledge about the availability of alternatives and how they work.
There are alternative emergency responses, front-end violence prevention efforts and transformative justice projects that address harm without resorting to the criminal system. These exist and in some places have been successful. But for many reasons, these alternatives aren’t yet widespread, and where they do exist, not enough community members know about their success. What’s funded and studied and recognized is policing. So partly because we live during a time when there’s fear of violence and because there have been some spikes in violence in several cities, the path toward transformational change is on precarious ground.
What should the path forward look like?
There are short-term goals and long-term goals, not just for reform within policing but for reorienting the country toward a broader set of justice aims. The criticism that “defund the police” isn’t politically savvy is, I think, a myopic view of a theory of social change that’s building toward something greater than police reform legislation.
We’re currently seeing a shift in the politics of police transformation. Activists are moving the conversation more than most politicians and much of the wider public are ready to move right now, and creating space for reforms they were pushing for years ago.
Everyone should step back and think carefully and charitably about theories of social change. There must be a theory big enough to include everyone needed to make sustainable and substantial change: members of communities most directly affected by the criminal system, policy-makers, activists, politicians and people in the public who less tangibly understand racial injustice and the policing crisis. The fight for justice needs all of us.