In the five months since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, 10 U.S. states have held special legislative sessions to adopt police reforms. More than 100 cities have at least debated new police procedures and department budgets. Many are revising their city charters to enable broader changes.
Now, after a summer of protests over racial injustice, Americans are adding their voices at the polls. Scores of elected offices may change hands. In eight states, voters will decide 20 ballot initiatives covering reforms ranging from bans on police use of chokeholds to reallocating police funding toward social services.
For what is perhaps the most essential of public services – the 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States – policing remains something of an oddity in the American system of government. The need for it and the restraints on it arise from the country’s founding and the evolution of the U.S. Constitution. But it is also constantly being reshaped by social history.
The earliest forms of law enforcement included units in Boston to monitor the predominantly immigrant labor unions and in the mandatory patrols in the South to enforce slave laws. The slogan “to protect and to serve” was minted only in 1955. In recent years the conspicuous use of military hardware by police has prompted critics to echo the framers’ warnings against keeping a standing army for domestic purposes. Such a local force, Alexander Hamilton argued with foresight, could diminish civil and political rights.
The summer’s deep anguish over police violence against Black people and other minorities flared anew Monday in Philadelphia. Two police officers fired multiple close-range shots at a Black man allegedly wielding a knife. Jarring incidents like this have again prompted calls to defund the police. But polls show reforms cannot be that simplistic.
In August, a Gallup Poll found public confidence in the police had fallen below 50% for the first time since it began tracking it in 1993. Among Black people, only 19% trust police. Despite these low numbers, police remain one of the most popular public institutions among all races.
A July Pew poll found that large majorities favor reforms instead of defunding or disbanding the police. Some 73% said police budgets should remain the same or be increased, while 92% said officers should be trained in nonviolent alternatives to deadly force. Citizens also want more accountability. Two-thirds said police officers should be able to be sued for misconduct or excessive force, something not usually possible under current immunity laws.
The reforms being debated across the country show a society striving to address the causes of violence. This reflects a desire for greater compassion toward “the violence of poverty” – mental illness, homelessness, and addiction. “We can ban choke-holds. We can ban no-knock warrants. We can ban the use of grand juries in a police shooting,” Isaac Bryan, founding executive director of the UCLA Black Policy Project, told Bloomberg. “But that won’t ultimately change the material conditions of life for communities that have historically had a lethal relationship with some of our civic institutions – not in the same way that changing our budget priorities to center on care, healing, opportunity, and justice will.”
Through a season of marches and now ballots, Americans continue the long project of uniting a multiethnic society on the ideal of equality under the law. Shifting the culture and practice of policing will take time, requiring more than institutional change. The latest reforms come from Americans reassessing their relationship to each other and toward law enforcement. Both exercises rest on recognizing each individual’s dignity and worth.