Is Police Reform Possible?

By Jonathan Blanks Phillip Atiba Goff Diane M. Goldstein Seth W. Stoughton

Tagged criminal justicepolice

On July 20, 2020, Democracy conducted a roundtable over Zoom to discuss the prospects and roadblocks for police reform with four experts. The conversation took place before the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The participants included Jonathan Blanks, a visiting fellow in criminal justice at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity; Phillip Atiba Goff, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, and a professor of African-American studies and psychology at Yale University; Diane Goldstein, a retired lieutenant of the Redondo Beach Police Department and chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership; and Seth Stoughton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former municipal police officer and state investigator.

Editor Michael Tomasky moderated, with editors Jack Meserve and Sophia Crabbe-Field joining the discussion. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Tomasky: First question. What do you see as the opportunities for reform and change in policing that maybe didn’t exist before all of this happened?

Jonathan Blanks: I’ll go first. I think there are two basic areas where there’s opportunity for change: law and policy. From the law perspective, you could change things like Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, which provide myriad protections for officers that are built into state laws such as in Maryland that provide police officers waiting periods before they face questioning after an on-duty shooting and other special rights and protections that you and I would not have if we were under investigation.

And then on the policy side, I think you just start looking at things that we’ve always taken for granted in policing that can be changed. For example, New York City recently disbanded their plain-clothes units and put the officers back on the street doing patrols rather than surveil and make arrests while incognito. We have an opportunity to reassess specialized units more broadly, particularly those that use arrest as metrics for officer success rather than actually trying to make the community safer.

Seth Stoughton: I also think we have the opportunity right now to see changes in how we as a society view the institution of policing, the kind of things that we expect police agencies and individual officers to deal with. I think that’s very exciting, very promising. For many, many, many years, we’ve given officers and police agencies mixed messages that have been reinforced institutionally the way that agencies are organized, the way that officers are trained, [such] that we’re trying to use the very blunt instrument of criminal enforcement against a host of social ills that officers just aren’t trained or equipped to deal with. And I think now we’re starting to see more social pressure to change the role of policing itself.

Diane Goldstein: For me personally, it’s about not reimagining, but it’s redefining what public safety means. I think one of the things that’s been really lost for many years is that we have not been inclusive of the community relative to how they want to be policed. And for the first time I see an opportunity where we as citizens have [traditionally] left public safety to the so-called experts, and we have excluded the community very deliberately. And what I believe is going to happen is we’re going to redefine it. “Public safety” needs a holistic approach and should be renamed to “community health and safety.” And that brings in everyone from a sex worker or those suffering from a chronic substance abuse disorder to the police chief to the legislator to the business owner.

Phillip Atiba Goff: I’m trying to think about what is the most honest answer to the question of what’s possible now that wasn’t possible before. I think a lot of people are thinking about things that they weren’t thinking about before. I think that if we get anything done on a national level, it will be in large part because of these protests, because they’ve shifted the Overton window and they’ve democratized the imagination about what public safety could be. But what was possible before and what’s possible now, I think we’re going to know that a little bit better after it’s done. One of the things that I preach and preach and preach to my graduate students, my undergraduates, and to my staff at the nonprofit I run is one of the greatest weapons that we have in this fight for justice is intellectual humility.

I don’t know what the heck is coming next. What I know is that when it arrives, a lot of people will say of course, [but] it’s only of course in hindsight, it’s never of course going forward. But some of the things I think that are on the table right now, that I hope are going to be part of how we define public safety going forward… For almost the entirety of my adult life, we’ve thought about public safety and policing, sheriffs, law enforcement broadly, as disconnected from the other elements of democracy. And boy, is that dumb. We really should never have been thinking about it that way. It’s always been that policing is the most common and most consequential contact people will have with the state. And yet we don’t think about that when we think about how we educate around democracy, and how we educate around civics.

I was in a room full of civil rights lawyers a number of years ago, and they didn’t understand the difference between police and the sheriffs. And I don’t know that that’s them so much as it is on [the fact that] we don’t teach it. So that’s one element of it. What I think comes from that is that the millions of people that we’ve seen out on the streets, they’re not just there because of policing. Policing is always the spark. They’re there because the spark has always been about racial oppression in particular. And so my hope is that we have an opportunity to talk about the full unaccounted-for debts. And this last piece of that—everybody is talking about abolition in response to defund. But I think I want to frame it a little bit in terms of a discontinuity with the original mission of policing.

So you have many cities that didn’t have police forces until there was property that could run away and go learn to read and write. And then even if that’s not the case in a given city, when there were racist laws on the books, it was their job to enforce racist laws. And at no point in time in our nation’s history did we say, “That racist thing we did, that we started doing because we were racist, and that we kept doing in super-racist ways? We should redefine the mission of that thing.” And that’s not to say that law enforcement is one continuous streak from then to now, of course not. But it is to say that when you start with such infelicitous beginnings, it’s oftentimes a good idea to take a pause and a restart.

Which is why you’ve had people who are not particularly radical, who were saying four and five years ago, “You need to abolish the police and start over again.” If you want anything like actual public safety, there are metrics we can be following. There’s the social determinants of public health and public safety. We can define public health and public safety. All of these things are possible. I don’t know how much more possible they are right now, except that we are having public conversations about them. And the public imagination has blossomed around that area, but we’ll only really know once we’ve done it. And if we don’t do it, the things that we don’t do, I guess they weren’t possible.

Tomasky: I’m curious. Do you all think the phrase “defund the police” or the word “abolition”; are those good things, are those useful phrases and words to have entered the lexicon right now?

Goldstein: So I can start. I don’t think we should be scared of those words. And I think it’s really important. You know, my organization and our work has been talking about resource reallocation for years. That’s another form of defunding the police, and it’s simply—what Dr. Goff says is so correct—we have to have a connection to all the systems. This isn’t just about policing. This is about redlining, it’s about racial inequity relative to public health strategies. Everything is interconnected. Until we in law enforcement understand that we took money away from really critical, important resources that have actually made our job worse. It didn’t make our job better. I try not to use “defund the police” or “abolish the police,” but I’d like to go back to the Peelian principles and talk about how law enforcement should be judged. We should be judged based on the absence of crime and community satisfaction and not simply on churning mindless arrests over, let’s say, drugs or sex work or other things. But it doesn’t scare me. I hate that it’s become a political issue now.

Stoughton: It’s become a buzzword. And the problem with buzzwords is people can assign their own meaning to them, and they can agree or disagree at a relatively superficial level. I think it’s good that the concept has sparked public conversation. I think to the extent that “defund the police” as a phrase or “abolition” as a word has contributed to creating space for that conversation, I think that’s a good thing. But I think it’s also turned off a bunch of folks who we might want to be part of that conversation, too. I don’t know if it’s possible to say whether it’s good or bad. I think there were good things about framing the conversation as a defund or abolition conversation. I think there are bad things about framing it that way. I think having the conversation, regardless of what buzz word or terminology we use for it, is the important part.

Goff: There are so many different groups and people and institutions trying to make these changes. And I think most of us have the same goal. Like if an abolitionist is pushing something that I don’t agree with or something like that, I don’t care. I mean, we’re all going to say what we think is the best policy. Whatever name you put on it, I’m going to say, okay, what’s the policy area? What are we going to talk about and try and do? My one concern really is the people who [say] reform won’t work. We must abolish it. Okay, well, what are we going to do with that? What are we going to do five steps from now? There are self-described abolitionists who are willing to have that conversation and want to talk about policy. But there are also abolitionists who are just out there saying, “Oh, defund the police, abolish it, abolish it. And I don’t want to hear about any of these other reforms you’re doing.” But I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily representative of the abolition community. I’m just saying, the politicization of this is causing a lot of problems, but you know what I mean? It’s politics. It’s what happens.

Instead of addressing problems, we’re putting an armed person and the threat of a cage in between a person in need and the help they need.

I don’t think it’s the protesters who are causing the problems. I also don’t think it’s for us to tell the protestors how they should be protesting—it’s working. And the thing is that from what I know publicly, the people on this call agree with about 95 percent of them, as do most of the police chiefs that we deal with and the sheriffs that we deal with and the rest. My concern is that we have militarized the ability for people who benefit from distraction and division to be able to co-opt these moments. Right? So when I was explaining [on cable news] a number of weeks ago, what I heard when I heard from folks talking about defund [was] people who think there should be no law enforcement, communities can handle violence themselves. And you have people who are interested in giving money into black communities so they don’t have to call the cops in the first place, and resources so that there’s more options when they call 911, when there’s a crisis. All of those things are true. But I think that in part I misspoke because given the pressures of live television, the part I didn’t say [was] that I very much would like to abolish the idea that it’s law enforcement’s job to keep people who look different away from the people they look different from—that’s not a good mission, and there’s too much evidence that that is functionally what too much law enforcement ends up doing. So if we talk about abolition in the context of the mission of law enforcement, I know a lot of police chiefs who are dyed-in-the-wool, believe-it-in-their-core abolitionists by that definition.

Goldstein: This goes back to academy training. It goes back to how we recruit police. It wasn’t until my master’s program, which I didn’t complete until 2017, where working with active duty police officers in a cohort, there were multiple police officers and social workers, all sorts of folks. In the beginning, where I would sit there and talk about structural racism, the cops’ eyes glazed over. And at the end of the two years, every single one of the cops that were there understood what structural racism meant and understood that when they went back and policed their communities, that they weren’t being personally attacked. I think that’s the hard part when we start talking about these deep philosophical [questions], is how do we, because I think it’s our job as law enforcement, really listen to our constituents and understand the history of law enforcement? Because we’d never acknowledged that. We’ve never even been taught that. In academy training, somebody needs to stand up and say, “You’re going to hear this history, whether you like it or not.”

Stoughton: There is a difference between police agencies and the police as an institution. And if we’re thinking about the police as an institution, we might have very different understandings of what policing is. This is to Diane’s point and Jonathan’s point about public health and public safety as opposed to social control. So there are aspects of policing, I totally agree with Phil, that a lot of officers, a lot of police chiefs, are going to want to abolish. But that’s not the same thing as saying we should not have a police agency here that can deal with whatever problems we ultimately decide, hopefully in a democratic way, should be adequately addressed with police infrastructure as well as a broader public health and safety infrastructure.

Goff: I’m in a situation where I get to talk with a lot of police chiefs, sheriffs, law enforcement executives, city councils, and mayors. And what I hear too frequently is, “Here are the things I’m not compromising on.” As the lead. They lead with the areas of disagreement. Anybody who’s ever taken a course on negotiation, that’s the opposite of what we should be doing. “I’m committed to this number.” It’s 5 percent or less of actual disagreement. It’s how big should the budget be? What really should we be calling these people? Then, where there’s a broader conversation is: How do we think about how we engage in violence? That’s really the crux of the great disagreements that we’ve got, right? But even within that, everybody thinks that less violence is good, that the social determinants of violence are a bigger priority than responding to violence after it’s happened. Right? And that violence is a public health issue, more than it needs to be a criminal legal issue, if we handle it on the front end.

I remember at a dinner party I went to, a woman explained to me the difference between an interest and a position. It was something that I had never understood, never heard before. And I think it’s vital to this moment. She explained that a position, once offered, has to be defended. So if I tell you, “Hey, if you’re coming to my house, you have to take your shoes off.” That’s a position.

Now—it’s totally reasonable for me to articulate that position. But maybe you’ve got holes in your socks. It might embarrass you. Or there’s a cultural element, so that you don’t take that off in front of strangers. You have stinky feet. Whatever. You don’t want to do that. Now I’ve got to say, “You can’t come in the house.” If, instead, I articulate the interest, “Hey, I got this carpet. My parents gave it to me. I don’t like it to get mucked up. Can we figure out a way to take care of that? I usually have people take their shoes off, right?” That’s my preference. But the interest is the carpet. Well, now there’s a lot of different things that we can do. We can stay out of that room. You can walk around it. You can be very careful. All those things allow us to get to agreement in a different way than a position that becomes our identity that we have to defend.

So I would exhort everybody. Let’s lead with the things [on which] we have shared interests, right? And where we have disagreements, let’s be careful to understand what our interests are, because often our disagreements are easily sort of squared with the other side, once they’re articulated as interests.

Tomasky: Let’s talk a little bit more in depth about racism and policing. Diane mentioned that after spending two years with police officers and figuring out that they learned some history that they maybe hadn’t known, attitudes changed. When you go to the academy, as two of you did [Stoughton and Goldstein], is there any discussion of race? Is there any discussion of historical racism in the United States? Are trainees tested in any way for racial attitudes? What are police departments trying to do to prevent these kinds of tragedies from happening in the first place, and how widespread is racist belief among white police officers in the United States?

Goldstein: So, my academy experience was 1983. My law enforcement experience ended in 2004. And not once in the very few hours of academy training, because it was 1,600 hours in California back then, did we have any racial historical aspect. And I’ll say this. It wasn’t until I became an advocate and started doing advocacy work when I really started drilling down on the law, culture, and racism. You know—let’s just talk about drug laws as a form of social control, simply based on race.

I think if police officers were taught that early on, all of us would pause a little bit and think about what our true role should really be and maybe have some more understanding. In the training that I received in my almost 22 years, none of that really had context. It was academic classes that did, but not law enforcement. Because it felt that law enforcement was always having things forced down your throat. And so they were always kind of opposed to even listening to the message.

Stoughton: I went through the police academy in 2001, and I remember the man who would later become my sergeant led a daylong diversity and cultural appreciation course. And there was no historical aspect to it at all. The most useful part of the presentation for me at the time was meeting university police officers. I went to academy and then worked in Tallahassee, which is a big university town. And we had some university officers come in and explain the cultural differences with some of the foreign students and how their expectations for police encounters might be very different than our expectations of those encounters. They could be from countries where the police are highly corrupt, where they’re very abusive. But tying that in any way to the experience of communities here, where policing may been seen as corrupt or abusive, never actually happened. In more recent years, I don’t think the history part has gotten any better. I don’t think the connection between experiences overseas and local communities has gotten any better.

I don’t think agencies know how to address that. That’s part of what’s driving this big push for implicit bias training, because they don’t know what else to do. So they bring in someone to do two hours, four hours, a couple of days on implicit bias training and hope for… something? I’m not even sure what the hope is, because it’s not clear to me that they hope that that actually changes behavior, and, of course, there’s an absence of reliable evidence to suggest that it can. It’s not clear to me that implicit bias training is anything other than what I’ve called “PRPR”: public relations police reform.

Individual agencies here and there have taken a slightly different approach and I think have done more and are worth looking more closely at. There was a police chief in Georgia who, three years ago, apologized for a lynching in the 1960s. It was very powerful and it sparked a discussion and one of the things he did in this very small “truth and reconciliation” way was to bring in historical experts from the community to talk to his officers and to facilitate community officer dialogues. And he got tremendous pushback from the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

So even today, there’s a lot of resistance to acknowledging the history. There’s the idea that, look, I just joined the police agency a couple of years ago, what do I have to do with the abuses of the summer of 2014, let alone the shooting of Amadou Diallo, the beating of Rodney King, the civil rights era abuses?

Blanks: To follow up on that, here in D.C., Chief Peter Newsham does a lot of this “PRPR,” where he makes everyone in the academy go to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Holocaust Museum to learn about how police operate in society and how they can further authoritarian regimes. He took his leadership to each policing district in the city and had two historians tell them about histories with the MPD in those neighborhoods. Most of these officers had never heard of these conflicts with police that had happened years before. Like, “I’ve been working in this neighborhood for 16 years and I’d never knew about that, that that’s what happened here.” The communities remember, and the cops don’t.

But at the same time, even if there is some sort of evidence that this would have a positive effect on how the officers view the neighborhoods that they police, when there’s an uptick in shootings, if there’s some sort of public outcry, Newsham is going to send in his Gun Recovery Unit and his officers are going to start putting people up against cars and shaking them down for guns. And that sort of disconnect, where he says all the right things—community policing, all that sort of stuff—the on-the-ground policy doesn’t change to reflect that. It’s really a lost opportunity. And I think we’re not holding leadership to account for that.

There’s an absence of evidence implicit bias training changes behavior. It’s not clear that it’s anything other than “PRPR”: public relations police reform.

Goff: I want to just reframe the question a bit. When we talk about racism and policing, we can’t just be talking about racial prejudice. We can’t just be talking about bigotry. It’s not a great predictor of discriminatory behavior. Attitudes of any kind are bad predictors of actual behavior, and racial attitudes are no different, explicit or implicit. But it’s also just not how people who are most affected think about what racism is. I’ve said this a bunch of times the last couple of week: Millions of people in the streets all over the country, you have never heard the marching chant be: “What do we want?” “White people to feel differently!” What is the thing we want? The murders to stop.

Because it’s about behavior. So even if you could screen people out for their racial attitudes, that doesn’t mean that you’ve got a big lever on changing their behaviors. To the degree that attitudes or psychological profiles predict that kind of violence, I don’t know that racial prejudice is the biggest thing. I think that you’re likely to engage in disparate use of force if you are someone who is generally likely to engage in force, in part, because police are engaged disparately across communities, and also because you feel like you can get away with it.

I think it’s useful to be talking about prejudice because there are people who really feel as if prejudice no longer exists, and that’s profoundly ignorant. But we join them in that ignorance if we circumscribe the conversation about racism just to individual attitudes. It is structures, and most importantly it is patterns of history and power.

Blanks: And just to echo that, when Newsham sends those Gun Recovery Units out, they’re going to Black communities. The special narcotics and gun units don’t operate in Northwest, they don’t operate in white enclaves.

Stoughton: It’s not just race and racism in policing that we need to discuss. It’s also the way that race and racism in society is magnified and reflected in policing. It’s not always the police who stopped someone, although that is very often the case. But sometimes it’s the police responding to some community members calling about these “suspicious” birdwatchers for example, or the suspicious guy in a hotel lobby who’s speaking Arabic on a cell phone. I don’t think we have a separate problem with race and racism in policing. I think it is reflective of the problems in society more generally.

Goldstein: So to Seth’s point: As a sergeant, as a day-time young patrol sergeant, I get a call. Redondo Beach is a diverse community, demographically, million-dollar homes to section eight, but we’re a tourist city. We have the Esplanade that’s right on the ocean, right on the beach. And we get a call that says—and our dispatch has just sent it without calling me, the sergeant— “suspicious male, black, sitting in a vehicle on the Esplanade” at 11 o’clock in the morning, on a Sunday at the beach during summer. So I called dispatch and said, “What’s suspicious about that? And I want the phone number of the reporting party.” “Well, it was anonymous.” “Then you’re not sending police officers.” I cancelled the call and I happened to be around the corner of it. I drove by, and there’s a guy who’s probably in his thirties, in a BMW, reading the newspaper.

I wasn’t going to allow my police officers to get into that position. Sometimes we have to start having the discussion about constitutional policing. We have to have the ability to tell our citizens, no, I’m sorry, that’s not illegal. I’m not going to stop someone just because you’re racist or you don’t want this person in your community. We have to have that conversation. And again, the timing of all this; bird watchers, people are calling out the Karens now or the Chads. And it’s really appropriate that we should be calling out that type of behavior.

Goff: Diane, to this point though, you are a rare leader in law enforcement. Because it’s just impossible to keep your job if every time somebody calls to say, “There’s a suspicious person,” you say, “Yeah, you’re probably racist.” You normally can’t do that. So we have to figure out ways to prevent law enforcement from becoming the personal racist concierge of communities.

Stoughton: And it’s not just policing here, because Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin were not killed by cops. They were killed by private individuals who were engaged in what I would call “policing” as an institution. They were engaged in policing efforts, but they were not police officers. It’s complicated. If it was a simple problem, I’d like to think we would have solved it by now.

Goff: Just to reframe on Ahmaud and Trayvon: So the two individuals who were primarily associated with the shooting of Arbery, one of them former law enforcement and a former DA investigator.

And the other one with Trayvon, someone who wanted to be law enforcement. And part of the outrage around it was law enforcement’s reaction. We [wouldn’t] know Ahmaud Arbery if someone on their side didn’t release the video. And Trayvon Martin—in that situation, George Zimmerman was not given a tox screen, was allowed to return home with his weapon, with no forensic analysis, because he said it was self-defense.

And if that person is Black, there’s no chance. The point is it’s not just law enforcement, it’s the way in which a culture that has lionized racism uses law enforcement in addition to how that culture exists within and gets amplified by law enforcement.

Jack Meserve: As Phil said, there seems to be a pretty broad consensus on the kinds of reforms needed. What do you all think the impediments are to that reform? Some that come to mind are hyper-localized police agencies, police culture, state and local governments, and unions. Do any of those impediments strike you as the one we have to tackle?

Goldstein: I spend a lot of time with legislative staff, and testifying in California, and the biggest impediment you have is about entrenched power and self-interest which people are unwilling to give up. So the job of advocates, which is very difficult, is educating legislators and staffers on the proper role of policing. And yes, I believe that law enforcement leaders and executives should have input. But they have access to politicians and legislative staffers much [more] than the public does. So why do they need lobbyists? Why are police unions allowed to contribute millions of dollars to candidates?

You know, this is a systematic issue that we’re not going to be able to change, but we have to call people out for that type of behavior. A bill in law enforcement that we can all agree on now is national decertification and licensing. Even the unions agree there. So let’s start there to at least try to hold some law enforcement folks accountable. We’re like the military, we’re the only people that are authorized to use state power to kill people. And so educating legislators that a law, no matter how benign, is granting cops the right to kill you over something as simple as a parking ticket. That type of power really needs to be addressed—we have to look at the laws and the over-criminalization of society. We have to start cutting the ties between the cops in this fashion, so we don’t have 50 million laws to be able to stop people.

Blanks: Right now, though, there are so many laws that cops already don’t enforce, or that they enforce as they want to. So there has to be a conversation about officer and departmental discretion. It’s going to take a long time to repeal all those laws. And I’m definitely for it.

But not very long ago, I was doing a ride-along with a police officer here in D.C. We drove through a cloud of marijuana smoke that is blown into the street, which is a bit surreal to me sitting in a police car. So I ask, why don’t we pull over? And the officer responded, “What am I going to do? Even if I can find him, but I don’t actually see it in his hand, I don’t know it’s him. But even if I arrest him, he’s going to be out tomorrow, what’s the point?”

And so while all these laws are still on the books—while marijuana is legal here, you can’t smoke it outside—the cops really don’t enforce it unless they want to. As both policy reformers and citizens, we have to disincentivize officers from enforcing laws for the sake of enforcing them.

But more broadly, it’s difficult to communicate to the general public how the police are providing so many services that we don’t want them to do and that they don’t want to be doing. We have all these problem-solving courts, whether they’re drug courts, veterans’ courts, mental health courts, all to address failures to fix these enduring problems within society. And instead of simply addressing those problems, we’re putting an armed person and the threat of a cage in between a person in need and the help that we all know that they need. And that doesn’t make any sense.

But the thing is, I’m not a psychologist, but there is a very punitive streak in American culture. They want bad guys punished. So even among people who want reform, you’ll hear “I’m against mass incarceration,” but when some person commits a crime they find particularly offensive, those same people will say “throw that guy in jail for a million years.” So there has to be a concerted effort to explain how and why society needs to be less punitive. That punitive mindset is a major obstacle to change.

Goff: I’d say a chief thing that I spend a lot of time thinking about is our inability to hold in our collective minds the weight of all it will take to give Black people freedom. And really what that means is our inability to stay focused on issues of public safety for longer than a couple of news cycles, after things aren’t on fire. Because there are still protests in the tens of thousands every day, still protests, but nothing’s on fire.

Not once in the very few hours of academy training did we have any racial historical aspect.

So people are saying, “Why are they burning these communities?!” Not their community. They don’t own anything. Or they say “It’s just so violent!” But, you’re paying attention, right? It’s really difficult when I hear activists, protesters, organizers call me, and they say, “Sometimes it just feels like you’ve got to burn it to the ground.” I’m like, “Sometimes you do,” because if you don’t have the cameras, there’s not the same political pressure to do something about it. Now I’m not advocating violence. I’m just saying, I wish that we would pay attention when there wasn’t any. So keeping the window open and the political pressure up, that’s one.

But there’s another thing that we do. After Rayshard Brooks was shot and killed, I tweeted out something in anger, that said “You want to understand what Defund the Police is? If you had called a tow truck then Rayshard Brooks goes home alive at the end of the night.”

We have a criminal lack of imagination when it comes to thinking about ways to keep people alive. On a deeper level, I was on a train with a colleague at one point. He said, “Think about what life will be like 200 years in the future.” It’s pretty easy to imagine the flying cars, nanobots that live in our bodies and keep us alive—the future is full of different kinds of technology that we can all imagine. Now try to do the same experiment, but think about how democracy is better 200 years from now. And it’s real hard to get specific, isn’t it? It’s not because you lack imagination. It is the case that corporations pay money to studios to advise on how the future could be around technology. And folks used to do that with government. And we don’t do that anymore. We haven’t invested in the ability to imagine a future that’s better than this. Honestly, right now, the thing that’s coming to my inbox, [is] the most is mayor’s offices and police chiefs who are saying, “What on earth do we do next? I can’t even imagine it.” And so that criminal lack of imagination is sitting there with, “Well, we couldn’t have done anything else. He was in a car, not bothering anybody, drunk. He had to die.” And that motivates the kind of ridiculous, “But well, if he just hadn’t resisted…” and all the nonsense that people end up saying when someone gets shot in the back while they’re running away with a nonlethal weapon. So I want us to be talking about that because I do believe our storytellers are the architects of our future. And we don’t have storytellers telling stories as stories about a more democratic future, a better-governed world.

Stoughton: I think there are three obstacles, although I’m going to avoid identifying one as the worst, because honestly there are so many obstacles that it’s a tangled web. One of them is political polarization and the view that everything is zero-sum. That, in order for communities to win some part of this argument, police has to lose some part. Or that this part of the community has to win and that part of the community has to lose. And I see this a lot with police and tactical training, where safety is viewed as zero sum: If we do this thing that will make this community member safer, it inherently endangers the officers and makes them less safe. And that’s typically not actually the case. Safety, like justice, is something that can be co-produced by officers and communities. It’s not zero-sum.

The second is social culture. I was asked in an interview why the officers arrested or tried to arrest Rayshard Brooks. And the answer is because for 40 years, society has been telling them to make more DUI arrests. And because they get awards from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for making more than a 100 DUI arrests in a year, and that comes back to how we, as a society, use the police, the role that we expect them to play.

The last and maybe hardest obstacle, maybe the most difficult to overcome, is the internal culture of policing itself. And I acknowledge that with 18,000 agencies, “police culture” is not one thing. There are many police cultures, but still, acknowledging that as a caveat, I am convinced that we never actually shifted the culture of policing at the dawn of the community policing era in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, that we just put a patina of community policing on top of the professional crime fighter culture, which has contributed to, in my view, a number of the problems that we are continuing to experience. We have to fundamentally shift police culture. And what I mean by that are the values and first principles within policing. That’s really difficult, but I think it will prove essential.

Goldstein: Sanctity of life. I mean it. And Seth’s point is we’ve had the crime du jour. People have told us, through legislation, whether it’s domestic violence or DUI or drugs, we’ve had moral panics and scares around policing and the enforcement of laws rather than using evidence-based studies to dictate what the best outcomes are going to be. And we haven’t even touched on “How do we scale up successful violence prevention programs?” There’s all this infrastructure that we should invest in and scale up and it can be scaled up regionally. It could be through federal grants. Let’s eliminate Byrne JAG grants that go just to arresting people and stick it into reallocation of resources for alternatives to policing. It’s political will now that’s standing in the way in many aspects.

Sophia Crabbe-Field: Going back to the question of unions, do you see a way that we can change government contracts with unions so that they don’t reflexively protect cops from facing any kind of justice? And tangential to that, why does it seem that police unions have so much more power than other public sector unions?

Stoughton: Can we change that? Sure, the scope and contours of collective bargaining laws are set by state law. So absolutely states could say: Here’s what you’re allowed to bargain over, here’s what you’re not allowed to bargain over. The D.C. law now says that the Metropolitan Police Department union does not get to bargain over disciplinary proceedings. Now I think there’s going to be some legal wrangling to find out what exactly disciplinary proceedings mean. But is it possible to adjust the power dynamic between unions and communities, between unions and cities? Absolutely, it is. That’s a matter of state law. Whether or not we have the political will to do that and what we have the political will to do, I will leave to people smarter than I am on this call.

Blanks: I think there’s a growing sense that the unions have to be taken on politically. If you look at the Gallup Confidence in Institutions Survey, cops—and obviously this breaks down differently considerably by race—cops are always third most trusted right behind the military and small business. And police unions play an outsized role in elections, whether it’s electing prosecutors, electing mayors, or even judges, they have too much political power. And to curb that I think you really have to have a political offensive against these unions to actually say: Okay, cops and police unions are not the same. And we should be able to diminish the power of police unions without making cops less safe. But I do think taking them on is going to be a political challenge and it’s not going to involve people like us, but people who are very motivated to take them on.

Stoughton: And the elected officials who are willing to listen and take what can be a difficult position because police unions do wield a tremendous amount of political power, not just at the federal level, but at the state and particularly at the local level.

Goldstein: The local level is very, very difficult, and very strong. The first step is legislation both congressionally and at the state. You know, California, that has prided itself on the issue of its professionalism, also has some of the strongest police unions and police associations that spend millions of dollars, whether it’s electing politicians or protecting their rights. The Peace Officers Bill of Rights in California is probably the classic example of that. It goes much further than I think most other states. And rolling that back is going to require a lot of political will, but I’m an optimist at heart. And I would agree with you, Phil, that seeing those protests on the street every single day is at least forcing the real difficult conversation that we have to have on that very difficult answer.

Goff: On unions there’s a part of your question that we didn’t really talk about, which is why are they so powerful? I think it’s really important that somebody does the thing I’ve been asking for somebody to do, as an academic colleague for the last ten years, which is write the history of the unique role of police unions and the labor movement. Because in every right-to-work state police unions are explicitly exempted. How does that work? If the goal is that you don’t want to force anybody to join a union except where there are badges and guns, it’s almost as if you’re intimidated by law enforcement. But there’s also another element of it in terms of the history of law enforcement, which is the urban unrest from the early 1980s on.

And I think about cities like Philadelphia, where I grew up, Philly and the suburbs nearby, where you had a critical incident with an officer shot and killed, and then we have the Abu-Jamal case, and unions used that as an opportunity to raise funds for the Officer Relief Fund, for the Officer Memorial Fund, reasonable things. But they also then realized that fundraising could be a tool for political engagement. Now police unions are not alone in doing that. Teachers’ unions do the same thing, but the war chests that police unions have been able to amass are enormous. And that period of time in U.S. law enforcement was an absolutely critical period where things changed significantly in terms of the ways in which unions thought about exercising their collective power, both in terms of the messengers and in terms of money.

And we’ve not thought about how we want to manage accountability there. And I’ve got to say a lot of people talking smack about how they’re going to take on police unions: What happens when those exact same strategies and those same laws take out the teachers’ union, a union of nurses, a union of Teamsters. We don’t have different laws for police unions except for right-to-work states. So I don’t think that there’s been a collective thoughtfulness about how to engage with the bad faith efforts of some police unions in a context where unions are essential for guaranteeing the rights of workers, especially at a time when the status of workers in a gig economy is being so massively challenged. So sometimes unions are a problem. I don’t know of a single police chief that wouldn’t greatly prefer for their union to accidentally catch fire.

Last thing I want to say on it: Union leadership suffers from the same thing that a lot of sort of incidentally or accidentally antidemocratic systems suffer from, which is a perverse incentive. You cannot run for union president or run to be chair of a union in a major city and say: I’m going to protect fewer of you. That is not a thing. Same thing as the chief saying: “Nah, all of you are racist, I’m not returning any calls.” Diane has superpowers, but for everybody else, they just can’t do it. And what that means is if you go and you say, “I want to protect good officers against the reputational and financial hit of the bad officer,” you will lose even with a lot of people in that union agreeing with you. This is partly because women are less likely to be engaged in their police unions, African American and other non-white officers are less likely to be engaged. But also because the point of the union is to have your back in case you do something messed up. So you have union leadership that often does not reflect the values of the union and the union with that same critical lack of imagination is like: “Wow, that’s terrible. They don’t speak for me. I don’t know what I’m going to do. Yeah, of course I’m going to vote for them next time.” So creating the right incentive structures is going to be an incredibly important part.

And I guess on this last formal question let me say: It’s the boring shit. It’s the stuff that’s not, like, private prisons! Private prisons are like 2 percent of the 5 percent of the people that you’re having a problem with. But yet it’s so evil as an idea that it makes for a good rallying cry. And by the way, I’m against private prisons. You shouldn’t be able to profit off of that kind of pain. But we look at unions and we’re like: Oh yeah, kill the union! Wait, what happened to the teachers? It’s the boring, not interesting stuff that’s actually going to set some of these things free. So for those who are listening to this and are interested in ways that they can be involved and what’s the real take: If someone’s working on something that’s intensely boring, they’re probably more radical than anybody out there.

Tomasky: One more question: If a political conservative or a pro-cop conservative read this transcript or listened to this conversation, he or she would probably observe: You guys didn’t ask one question to examine anything from a police point of view. So let me ask: Those of us who don’t know much about police culture and people, who are political liberals and are kind of going to automatically be on the side of community in police-community disputes, is there anything about cops that we should know that we don’t know?

Stoughton: Yeah, there are all kinds of things that we should know and don’t know. Sort of motivating the question is the implied criticism, if not the express criticism: Why are we focusing on the police? In any police interaction it takes two to tango, right? And the answer to that for me is a pretty simple one: Because officers are the uniformed, paid public professionals that we tasked to do a job a particular way and we should be holding them to a higher standard than we do other community members. I do think it’s important to remember that we’re not talking about automatons here.

To Phil’s point, why did the officers vote for the union leaders that they vote for? Because they’re afraid, because they’ve been told, “You need strong union leadership to intervene, to intercede, to be a barrier between you and police management so you can be protected from arbitrary and capricious discipline.” When you get right down to it, there’s this fascinating parallel to me that the fears that officers are reacting to—being held to account for some minor violation of a ridiculously thick policy manual—looks a lot like community concerns about over-criminalization, right? Being held to account for some minor traffic violation that’s buried somewhere in the statute book. So our unfortunate history, particularly recently, of adversarialism has masked the fact that sometimes we might get further by saying: Okay, I actually see that concern. I see that there are concerns about disciplinary issues and arbitrary management decisions.

Maybe, to go back to Phil’s excellent point earlier, we can talk about interests instead of positions here. So, how do we ensure that government employees, including police officers, are adequately protected, which is a real concern? The risks of policing are another one that I think we often lose track of. Policing is not nearly as dangerous as it was either on a per capita or on a absolute numbers basis as it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago. But it does still have some dangers and one of the principle concerns about the danger in policing is that it is uncertain, right? And we are more afraid of things that are uncertain than we are of easily quantifiable risks or predictable risks. We should understand, as we’re talking about police reform, how fear, both of discipline and of physical harm, motivate some of the positions that officers take, that police unions take.

Blanks: Officers are humans just like everyone else, and both Phil and I have talked about incentives. If you change the incentives, if you put an officer in something called a Gun Recovery Unit, what do you expect him to do? He’s going to recover guns. If you put him on any particular specialized unit and task him to make arrests, he is going to make arrests. Until we actually convince the police departments that they shouldn’t be doing these things, they shouldn’t be measuring officer performance by the number of arrests they make, the officers are going to be very frustrated because they’re being asked to do these things by leadership and then the community gets mad at them when they do them. And so it really is a matter of trying to align what the community wants and what the police want and making sure they’re on the same page in that respect.

Goldstein: I would say clearly most police officers have become very frustrated in their jobs because they haven’t been given the tools necessary to really invest in community policing. You know, we’ve talked good games about it. But unless you have public-private partnerships or invest heavily in those programs where, say, you have someone who’s a habitual drunk and then the only place that you could take them would be to our jail cell to let them sleep it off so they wouldn’t die because the hospital wouldn’t take them or there’s nothing else available for them… And so we’re talking about policing, but this is systems. This is a system-wide thing that we have to be talking about—about that reinvestment, the reallocation of resources.

But reinvesting in those resources will enhance officer safety, not criminalizing drug users will enhance public safety. Because how many police officers have been killed in no-knock warrants? How many citizens have we killed? You know the Canadian Police Chiefs Association, I think within the last two weeks, just asked their government to decriminalize all drugs for simple possession and make it a public health issue. So there’s things that we can do today that maybe do require greater imagination. If we just looked at it and said: How do we do this safely and support what our constituents want? I want my police officers to be safe. I want my community be safe.

Goff: I’m kind of stuck on the idea of “from the police officer perspective.” Because I feel like both from the experience of half of the team that you’ve been asking questions of, and in terms of the values perspective, the police perspective is here. So if someone were to say: “Oh, well, this has all been liberal or it’s been anti-police,” I’d be like, “Nah.” I wouldn’t have an elaborated response to that because there are definitely folks who feel like when they can’t treat the community with impunity that makes them less safe. The technical word for them is “bad officers.” I don’t care what they have to say. They should be quiet and retire or get fired. It’s absolutely the case that the majority of chiefs I deal with, experienced officers, folks who are beloved by their communities, they don’t think like that.

Stoughton: You know where there is a divide, though, I think there’s a divide in who claims to speak for policing, which I certainly do not. But I’ve also made public comments that draw on, among other things, my experiences and insights as a former officer for five years and I’ve been told to my face: “Well you weren’t a real cop.” I’m sure Diane is similar, despite retiring as a lieutenant, “Well you’re one of those, you weren’t a real cop.” I hear what you’re saying, and I totally agree with what you’re saying, but it sure seems like there is a position or there is a set of positions, a set of individuals, who have staked out: “We speak for the cops.” And it’s very difficult sometimes for folks like Diane or me to communicate past that. Well it’s hard for me. It may not be hard for Diane, so I don’t want to speak to that.

Goff: Point well taken. The people who want to define the boundaries of who gets to speak based on identity are usually not worthy of being in anything like a debate. So I think it’s reasonable for someone to say: “Hey, my experiences are really different than yours. You were on the job for five years, that’s really different from someone who was long suffering for 20.” My guess is you’d be interested in hearing about that. You were in one context, someone who’s in a different rural or even a different urban context, all of those are completely reasonable, but “You’re not a real whatever.” Okay, cool. So I don’t speak for law enforcement ever. Haven’t done that job, couldn’t do that job, wouldn’t want that job. But I can tell you the things that I hear when I talk to law enforcement and I invite you to talk to law enforcement, too. Unless they’re willing to articulate: “Here is the way in which your position I feel disadvantages you.” Unless they’re able to actually engage with a specific critique, you belong to the comments section.

Tomasky: This is a really, really interesting conversation and we’re grateful to you guys for taking this much time. The four of you, thanks again.

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Jonathan Blanks is a Research Fellow in Criminal Justice at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity.

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The New Abolitionists

Phillip Atiba Goff is the Co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, and a Professor of African-American Studies and Psychology at Yale University.

Diane M. Goldstein is Lieutenant (Retired) of the Redondo Beach Police Department. She is also Chair of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership.  

Seth W. Stoughton is an Associate Professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law and a former municipal police officer and state investigator.

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