Police Reform Programs

Welcome to the end of the Police Reform Series! We have looked at the legitimacy and effectiveness of the police as an institution, and examined solutions to police violence based on research and policy experimentation. Now we can design programs for police reform.

In a rational society, reform would be a matter of social deliberation, refinement, and implementation. But our society is not rational. Implementing reforms mean struggle, in the streets and in the halls of power. The beneficiaries of the social structure fight for their power and wealth, leading to irrational, compromised law and policy. The cost of achieving even the meanest of changes is such that seeking reform is pointless. When the cost of reform is great, revolution becomes more attractive. For that reason, I present a minimum and a maximum program for changes to our policing practices.

Minimum Program

We would be lucky to get any action on police reform from the various governments and police departments around the country, but these reforms are the minimum that people should demand:

  • Demilitarization of police departments
  • Elimination of SWAT teams
  • Expansion of civilian police units, such as mental health professionals and community service officers
  • Expansion of evidence-based crime prevention policies and practices, and alternative crime control methods
  • Disarming police patrols, or replacing police patrols with civilian patrols
  • Decriminalization of various activities, such as drug use, to reduce police enforcement
  • Implicit bias training for police officers, as far as that will go

Police reform must also be a part of a larger transformation of the criminal justice system. Many Republican-dominated states have pursued reform because of the budgetary burden of American hyperincarceration. These reforms involve reforms to juvenile justice, diversion programs, and sentencing reforms to keep people out of overcrowded prisons. Yet the criminal justice system is still plagued by corrupt prosecutors and judges willing to do anything to play ‘tough-on-crime’ for their electoral constituency. We need root-and-branch transformation, not just of the police, but the whole damn system.

Maximum Program

The ultimate aim is to change policing fundamentally, from the roving of armed men threatening violence to unarmed citizen patrols using persuasion to disarm the criminal. This probably seems utopian to a society that worships violence, especially police violence, but it has precedents.

The first time I encountered the idea of a persuasive police was in reading about the Seattle General Strike of 1919. The city’s entire working class shut down in a sympathy strike with its shipyard workers. The strike committee had effective control of the city. The committee reopened basic services under their direction, including public safety, as the police sat on the other side of cordons. The union paper called for any workers who had been veterans in the army and navy to assemble. The 300 men who responded were organized as the “Labor War Veterans Guard”. One principle was written on a blackboard at their headquarters:

The purpose of this organization is to preserve law and order without the use of force. No volunteer will have any police power or be allowed to carry weapons of any sort, but to use persuasion only.”

The Labor Guard needed to disperse crowds and mobs to prevent the police from having an excuse to move in. One War Veteran described his method of dispersing crowds:

“I would just go in and say: ‘Brother Workingmen, this is for your own good. We mustn’t have crowds that can be used as an excuse to start any trouble’. And they would answer: ‘You’re right, brother’, and begin to scatter.”

Even hostile observers of the strike remarked upon how well public order was maintained in those days. We cannot know which factors might have contributed to this: the many people who stayed at home during the strike, the solidarity of the strikers, or the Labor Guard’s persuasiveness. It does demonstrate, however, a possibility of a less violent system of public safety, and an avenue of social experimentation.

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