American cities have long struggled to reform their police 5/4/21

American cities have long struggled to reform their police 5/4/21

The guilty verdicts delivered against Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021, represented a landmark moment — but courtroom justice cannot deliver the sweeping changes most Americans feel are needed to improve policing in the U.S.

As America continues to grapple with racism and police killings, federal action over police reform has stalled in Congress. But at the state level there is movement and steps toward reform are underway in many U.S. cities, including Philadelphia; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon.

Many of these efforts are geared toward ending specific practices, such as the granting of qualified immunity, through which officers are shielded from civil lawsuits, and the use of certain police neck holds and no-knock warrants. Mayors and city councils nationwide have also pushed reforms emphasizing accountability and transparency, with many working to create independent oversight commissions.

It’s too soon to expect substantial improvement from these recently proposed remedies.

But as scholars of criminal justice — one a former police officer of 10 years — we know America has been here before. From Ferguson to Baltimore and Oakland to Chicago, numerous city police departments have undergone transformation efforts following controversial police killings. But these and other reform movements haven’t lived up to their promises.

American cities have long struggled to reform their police

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LA Times

After the shooting death in Missouri of unarmed teen Michael Brown in 2014, police in Ferguson agreed to a reform program that included anti-bias training and an agreement to end stop, search and arrest practices that discriminate on the basis of race.

But five years into the process, a report by the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson found the reforms had done little to change policing culture or practice. This was backed up by a Ferguson Civilian Review Board report in July 2020 that found the “disparity in traffic stops between black and white residents appears to be growing.”

Similarly, concerns over the quality of Baltimore’s police services persist despite federal oversight and reforms brought in after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015.

Commentators have pointed to a resistance to change among officers and an inability to garner community buy-in as reasons for the slowdown in progress in Baltimore.

Part of the problem, as seen with Baltimore, is that federal intervention does not appear to guarantee lasting change. Research shows that Department of Justice regulations aimed at reform only slightly reduce police misconduct. There is also no evidence that national efforts targeting the use of force alone mitigate police killings.

American cities have long struggled to reform their police

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Politico

One beacon of hope is the Cincinnati Police Department. Twenty years ago, residents in Cincinnati experienced events similar to what many cities have faced in more recent years. An unarmed Black man, Timothy Thomas, was shot dead by officers in 2001, sparking widespread unrest. It led Cincinnati to enter into a different model of reform: a collaborative agreement.



Touted by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as a national model for community-led police reform, the collaborative agreement saw the police department, civic government, police unions and local civil rights groups act in partnership for a reform program backed by court supervision.

The resulting changes to use-of-force policies, a focus on community-based solutions to crime, and robust oversight brought about improved policing. A 2009 Rand evaluation of the collaborative agreement found it resulted in a reduction in crime, positive changes in citizens’ attitudes toward police and fewer racially biased traffic stops. There were also fewer use-of-force incidents and officer and arrestee injuries under the collaborative agreement.

But it isn’t perfect. Cincinnati’s Black residents continue to be disproportionately arrested — likely owing to the concentration of crime, service calls and police deployments in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Figures from 2018 show Black Cincinnati residents were roughly three times as likely to be arrested as their white counterparts.

Cincinnati’s collaborative agreement contained a number of elements that experts say are needed if police reforms are to be successful: strong leadership, flexible, goal-oriented approaches, effective oversight and externally regulated transparency.

Moreover, it depended on police officials’ ability to cultivate community investment and overcome resistance from police officers and police unions.

Community confidence is critical to police reform and community safety. When citizens view police as legitimate and trustworthy, they are more likely to report crimes, cooperate during police investigations, comply with directives and work with police to find solutions to crime.

American cities have long struggled to reform their police

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