In the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Defund the Police (DtP) movements gained international visibility following the law-enforcement perpetrated murder of George Floyd. For many, this latest in a long history of killings exemplified the irreparably strained relationship between the African American community and the police. BLM and DtP propose wide-ranging measures to make policing less racially predatory, including the possibility of abolition. While some of these changes may be effective, we need to demystify what shields police institutions from positive change.
The BLM movement seeks, among other aims, to reduce police-related deaths by improving police practices. For example, the movement’s 8 Can’t Wait campaign aims to limit police intervention, regulate the use of force, and ensure the accountability of police departments.
But what if the core of the 8 Can’t Wait campaign’s approach simplifies “officer politeness” as a “silver-bullet” solution for police reform? What if that approach sacrifices true change in favour of inexpensive, easy to implement, and noncontroversial reforms? What if that approach distracts us from structural change by targeting what police do only in their everyday micro-level interactions?
In search of answers to those questions, DtP protestors ask whether we want police at all. In reply to the 8 Can’t Wait demands, DtP protestors published the 8 to Abolition agenda with the aim “not to create better, friendlier, or more community-oriented police” but to build a society where communities can address safety and wellbeing without police and prisons. The DtP movement thus aims both to defund police institutions and to redistribute funds to alternate sectors such as social work, education, and mental health programs.
Defunding and redistribution, however, are likely to face challenges due to the obscurity surrounding the police role. Policing is not confined to a single crime control function, and re-assigning duties to others will require re-assigning the mandate for coercive force. There will always be situations where legitimate force is necessary to ensure the effective functioning of, for example, DtP’s proposed alternatives such as community governance programs. Whether an organization has ‘serve and protect’ written on their police cars or ‘mental health services’ on their ambulance, they still carry the same state mandate for violence, if sometimes expressed in a less conspicuous way.
Demystifying the confusion that surrounds the police role and clarifying its core ideas is therefore necessary to facilitate positive and lasting change. In reference to policing, demystification entails questioning how officers exercise control over their citizens. What, for example, are the origins of the belief that officers protect society from a perceived breakdown of order?
The recent trial and conviction of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin marks progress toward such demystification. Chauvin was convicted of the second and third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter of George Floyd, a rare verdict for violence committed by an on-duty police officer. However, his chances of serving a consecutive sentence remain elusive due to the increased discretionary power Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines afford judges and the fact that Chauvin did not commit three separate criminal acts.
Despite questions surrounding sentence length, Chauvin’s conviction represents a historic moment of cultural change in distinguishing acceptable police conduct from unacceptable. The conviction also establishes a precedent for future cases in that those criminally charged with excessive use of force may no longer be protected by their superiors, colleagues, or the longstanding police mystique.
The conviction could be the first real moment of police demystification. It symbolizes a demand for police institutions, as other institutions must, to hold their employees to account.
Chauvin’s verdict neither marks an end to the disproportionate use of deadly force against African Americans nor remedies the justice system’s many other ills. Instead, it exemplifies how the justice system is just that: another system.
Only with demystification can we reimagine meaningful change in police institutions. This will mean moving policing out from behind a shroud that makes unaccountability possible.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Social Policy Blog, nor of the London School of Economics.