Police Reform in Baltimore and Beyond

What academic research tell us about protests and police reform.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged Crimepolice

The protests and riots unfolding in Baltimore have focused attention not only on the city’s problems with segregation and poverty, but also the brutal culture of its police department—which is under intense scrutiny after the death of 25-year old Freddie Gray earlier this month. Gray had been arrested and placed in a police wagon. “He came out,” as Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes, “with his spine snapped,” and after somehow not receiving badly needed medical care at several points, fell into a coma and died days later. In the midst of the outrage following Gray’s death, the national media has started to take note of the many, many complaints against the Baltimore Police Department over the last few years, unveiled in a recent Baltimore Sun investigation which found a “disturbing pattern” of police beatings followed by payouts to victims. Noting that the victims were mostly African-Americans, the Sun wrote:

Officers have battered dozens of residents who suffered broken bones—jaws, noses, arms, legs, ankles—head trauma, organ failure, and even death, coming during questionable arrests. Some residents were beaten while handcuffed; others were thrown to the pavement. And in almost every case, prosecutors or judges dismissed the charges against the victims—if charges were filed at all. In an incident that drew headlines recently, charges against a South Baltimore man were dropped after a video showed an officer repeatedly punching him — a beating that led the police commissioner to say he was ‘shocked.’

It’s hard to know which reforms are most needed in places like Baltimore or Ferguson, or how long the process will take. But research suggests that one relatively straightforward measure would be to rein in police departments which have become too militarized and unaccountable—an especially worrying trend, since many seem plagued by brutality and contempt towards the communities they serve. Ashley M. Howard’s work, featured in this Scholars Strategy Network policy brief, notes that although today’s protests are smaller than those of the late 1960s, both are rooted in “perceptions of unfair policing in economically disadvantaged minority urban communities.” One key difference, however, is that today’s police employ military gear and military training. Howard’s brief therefore calls for an end to subsidies which support the purchase of military goods. Although it does not go so far as to speculate whether this equipment buildup has warped recruiting pools, or the mindsets of some officers, this seems a distinct possibility. As critics like Radley Balko have argued, military tactics and equipment have helped create “an American policing culture that has become too isolated, confrontational and militaristic.”

Besides the crucial step of de-militarizing the police, there are other recommendations in Howard’s research. They amount to a call for more accountability, and specifically, for more civilian oversight. This would not only take the form of improved diversity training, but—more radically—the elimination of police-run investigations in cases like Freddie Gray’s. “Individual officers charged with wrongdoing must be investigated by independent authorities, and broader problems should be reviewed by community boards with authority to recommend binding changes,” Howard argues. This step would surely be met with fierce opposition, but after revelations of its apparent culture of brutality—and the horrific death of Freddie Gray—there are good reasons to consider turning some authority over to the community, and away from the Baltimore Police Department. Trust between the department and the city’s residents has been jeopardized. If citizens have no confidence that the police will treat them with dignity and fairness, will they have any faith in them to hold guilty colleagues accountable?

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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