Months after the brutal January 2023 killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, the problems with policing have largely receded from the headlines. Before the next crisis and at the 10th anniversary of the Black Lives Matter movement, where stands the national debate over police reform?
The conversation around policing has become intensely polarized, pitting the small percentage of people who favor abolishing the police against an equally small number who insist that policing is perfect. Although both camps have prolific and vocal supporters, neither comes close to representing the views of the average voter, who prefers meaningful but not radical police reform and whose perspective may have been left out of the debate, writes sociologist Neil Gross of Colby College in Time.
A former cop, Gross says he has encountered three widely held but false or misleading beliefs about the police that underlie polarization on the issue. Clearing away these misunderstandings could lead to more productive conversations and policymaking.
Myth 1: Police can't prevent crime. Organizer Andrea Ritchie, who co-wrote the abolitionist tract No More Police with activist Mariame Kaba, expressed this position when she told The Guardian, “the police are not producing safety. They are not preventing or interrupting violence.” Rresearch shows that the opposite is true. All else being equal, the larger the number of police officers in an area, the less crime there tends to be, at least for many kinds of crime.
Myth 2: Police reform compromises public safety. It’s already clear that crime and policing will be major issues in the 2024 presidential campaign, with Republicans doing their best to paint Democrats as soft on crime. , Florida Gov Ron DeSantis charges that Democratic politicians had succumbed to demands from the radical left to defund and hamstring the police, sending crime rates soaring in blue cities.
DeSantis’s speech made for good political theater, but it didn’t square well with reality. In 2020, Democratic politicians in a number of big cities, including Minneapolis, Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, did vote to reallocate a portion of funding from police department budgets to other areas. Much of this reallocation never happened, and by 2021 nearly all the cities on the list had restored or grown their police budgets.
Myth 3: Because of policing's racist origins, there is nothing we can do to improve it.
A common refrain of activists on the left is that because policing originated in slave patrols, racism is built into its DNA, making real reform impossible. It is true that in the South, we can trace the history of the municipal agencies that came to be called police departments to antebellum “city guard” units whose primary task was capturing enslaved Black people who had escaped and quelling slave rebellions.
Police departments elsewhere sprang from different roots. Boston and New York, for example, established police departments with full-time, uniformed officers in the mid-nineteenth century for the same reason that European cities like Paris and London had done so: urbanization generated crime and public disorder problems—along with mounting social anxieties—at a scale that previous, more informal systems of justice administration couldn’t handle. Problems like that track with inequality, so even in the North policing functioned to maintain hierarchies of race and class.
Gross writes that anyone who doubts that institutions can evolve beyond their origins should consider American colleges, which began as conservative, all-male, and dedicated to providing future ministers with an education in classics and theology. Or state institutions and many large private enterprises in contemporary Germany were more or less successfully de-Nazified after World War II.
Or the Democratic Party, which defended segregation and white supremacy for nearly a century before becoming committed to civil rights. Although an institution’s founding and history can certainly shape its present performance, the fact is that institutions can and do change, Gross says.