After weeks of protest and calls to defund the police, where do we go from here?
A “next steps” assessment is a common journalists’ follow-up when social movements like Black Lives Matter strike a chord with the general public. These important if predictable reviews trot out possible outcomes in civic life or public policy with one poignant, pro forma question often lurking in the subtext: Will this be a movement that makes a real difference or one that fades away when headlines change?
That question seems to have already been answered about the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the killing in Minneapolis on May 25 of a handcuffed and helpless George Floyd.
“The moment has already been seized in Minneapolis,” said Shannen Dee Williams, an assistant professor of history at Villanova University, responding by direct message to queries from America.
“With the support of the world at large, local B.L.M. activists have finally scored the monumental changes that they were seeking,” she said. “The Minneapolis public school system recently voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department, and the University of Minnesota is scaling back its relationship with the local police substantially.”
And on June 7, “the Minneapolis City Council even committed to dismantling the city’s police department.”
Shannen Dee Williams: “The blueprint for transformation and liberation is already available,” she said. “The question that remains is: Will those in power use it?”
“I don’t think the question is: ‘How does B.L.M. move from a protest posture to authoring/influencing policy and legislation,” Dr. Williams said. “The question is whether legislators and institutional leaders will respond to the clear demands of B.L.M. leaders and the community at large to dismantle white supremacy in all American institutions.
“The blueprint for transformation and liberation is already available,” she said. “The question that remains is: Will those in power use it?”
Many of those in power indeed seem to be in a rush to use it in response to protesters’ demands. After 10 straight nights of large-scale demonstrations, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said on June 7 that the previously sacrosanct $6 billion N.Y.C. police budget would face cuts and funding reallocations this year.
Austin’s embattled police chief Brian Manley, contending with local allegations of police brutality and the police shooting of 42-year-old Michael Ramos in April, quickly banned chokeholds and said police officers who turn off body cameras would be suspended. Suspensions of chokeholds and neck restraints quickly followed in other U.S. cities and states.
New York legislators passed the Eric Garner Anti-Chokehold Act on June 8—it had been moldering in the state legislature since January—banning police chokeholds and creating a new crime category called “aggravated strangulation.” Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on June 12. And across the nation, municipal and state authorities were similarly reappraising police policies and budgets with an eye on reform policies and legislation—and sometimes deep reallocation of resources away from policing and into job- and community-building and mental health, housing and other social services.
Tia Noelle Pratt is president and director of research at TNPratt & Associates, L.L.C., and a former scholar-in-residence at the Aquinas Center in Philadelphia. She acknowledged that events have been moving swiftly, but she remains confident that the Black Lives Matter movement is squaring itself for a long struggle.
Tia Noelle Pratt: “This is an exciting time, but no, it’s not going to be over in a month because true liberation is going to take longer than that.”
“Freedom doesn’t come in a month,” she said. “We’re seeing such change so quickly because it really is different this time,” she added, noting previous protests that followed the deaths of other African-Americans at the hands of police or while in police custody. With Mr. Floyd’s death, she said, more people seem to have decided that enough is really enough this time.
A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll in fact found strong public support for police reforms in the aftermath of the widely viewed recording of Mr. Floyd’s agonizing final minutes. According to the survey, more than 80 percent of Americans want to ban chokeholds and racial profiling, and 91 percent support independent investigations of police departments that show patterns of misconduct.
“We’re seeing this is really a global movement…Europe and France and the U.K. and here across the country. We’re seeing concrete stuff,” Dr. Pratt said. “You’re seeing statues that memorialized slaveholders and slave traders taken down in Bristol in the U.K.… and tossed in the river.
“This is an exciting time,” she said, “but no, it’s not going to be over in a month because...true liberation is going to take longer than that.”
Dr. Pratt added that a civic dialogue of reform that began around policing would inevitably have to move beyond that initial crisis “because there’s lots of things we need to talk about.”
“We need to talk about jobs. We need to talk about banking and mortgages and education. We need to talk about all of our systems.”
As peaceful protests concluded a second week in June, House Democrats were lining up support for a sweeping police reform package that would, among other measures, outlaw chokeholds and end the qualified immunity that shields police officers from civil lawsuits. They hope to bring their legislation to the floor in July.
“We need to talk about jobs. We need to talk about banking and mortgages and education. We need to talk about all of our systems.”
Congressional Republicans have declined to review the Democrats’ plans but are working on their own proposals, and President Donald Trump said on June 11 that he would pursue an executive order to encourage police departments to meet “current professional standards for the use of force,” while slamming Democrats for broadly branding police as the problem.
While Americans pondered major police reforms in June that just weeks earlier seemed impossibly stalled, the Black Lives Matter movement broke across U.S. borders. Large-scale protests in Europe, Asia and Latin America in solidarity with American demonstrators have inspired similar rounds of personal and national self-examination.
Statues of slave traders and traffickers were pulled down by demonstrators in the United Kingdom. And with the French government similarly under pressure to address accusations of brutality and racism, Interior Minister Christophe Castaner announced on June 8 that “the method of seizing the neck via strangling will be abandoned and will no longer be taught in police schools.”
“No arrest should put lives at risk,” he said.
In Minneapolis, the city where this latest upheaval over police brutality and impunity began, city officials were preparing their own reform proposals. While those discussions continued, a Hennepin County judge ordered police to stop using all neck restraints and chokeholds in the field, advising officers that they would be held criminally responsible if they witnessed the abuse of a suspect by a fellow officer and failed to intervene. On June 7, nine of the city council’s 12 members appeared with activists at a rally, vowing to end policing as the city currently knows it.
“It is clear that our system of policing is not keeping our communities safe,” Lisa Bender, the council president, told protesters. “Our efforts at incremental reform have failed, period.”
But proposals to “defund police” or dismantle departments will face legal challenges and civic hurdles, and police unions will no doubt push back against any changes that would affect their memberships. Some in Minneapolis are already dismissing the council’s proposal as rhetorical showboating.
“Saying that they’re going to defund the police or that they’re going to ban the police or whatever they’re talking about, that was optics, guys,” Michelle Gross, the president of the Minneapolis chapter of Communities United Against Police Brutality, told The Associated Press. “Just plain optics.”
Proposals to “defund police” or dismantle departments will face legal challenges and civic hurdles, and police unions will no doubt push back against any changes that would affect their memberships.
Maria Haberfeld teaches police training and leadership at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. She describes herself as a long-time proponent of police reform. Now she is alarmed by broad talk of defunding or dismantling departments.
America’s politicians, she charged, “are in a state of panic.”
“They are not listening to people who have a knowledge of police professions,” Dr. Haberfeld said. “They’re not listening to all the stakeholders. They’re just responding based on the pressure from the community, and they make one mistake after another.”
She suggests politicians will settle for “transactional, not transformative change,” reforms designed to appease the voting public but ones not necessarily building on “best practices” gleaned from other departments around the world.
Dr. Haberfeld attributes the problem of police violence against the public to foundational errors in police recruiting and the maturity and education of officers who are put in the field. Many departments accept candidates, she argues, who are too young or too poorly educated, or damaged goods bounced out of other departments, and even people with criminal records themselves.
In many of the nation’s 18,000 police agencies, recruits are not required to learn the at-times divisive history of policing in the United States or about the Jim Crow, segregation and the civil rights eras, she said—events that are within the living or family memories of residents in the communities where they may work, a reality they should be attuned to.
Other nations invest big money in the professional development of their police, she said, while the United States lags far behind. She worries defunding will mean the small percentage of police budgets devoted to training and development will be the first items to go, worsening the problems demonstrators want addressed.
Maria Haberfeld: America’s politicians “are in a state of panic. They are not listening to people who have a knowledge of police professions. They’re not listening to all the stakeholders.”
In the end, she worries, hurried reforms “will just create more conflict because once people are told that there will be changes, they want to believe, right? And then the next thing you know, the same thing happens over and over again, so the anger just aggregates.”
Dr. Pratt has a different concern. “What I don’t want to see is this period of history...slip through our fingers because of a failure of imagination,” she said.
“Let’s imagine what our society could be like if [for example,] instead of the police responding when someone has a mental health crisis, that we have in our community a properly staffed, properly funded, rapid response team for mental health issues.” “Let’s not fall into a failure of imagination. We don’t have to criminalize everything in our society. We don’t have to criminalize mental health; we don’t have to criminalize addiction; we don’t have to criminalize homelessness.”
Nor does she believe the reform agenda should be limited to what happens in the street manuals of the nation’s police. “When we see people killed in the street by police, people who are like George Floyd, handcuffed and on the ground and [posing] no imminent threat to anybody but still restrained with deadly force, it makes sense that that’s where we start,” Dr. Pratt said. “But this is a movement that will go far beyond that…because it is the inequities in all of our systems that have gotten us to the point where we are.”
The changes already in Minneapolis and other cities “are not small things,” and the sudden shift in expectations about “how and who we memorialize in our public spaces…that’s not a small thing either. That’s a big deal.”
But she hopes to see much more. “We should expect to see...a real examination and a change of other systems in our society, like education, banking, so many of the things that influence our day-to-day lives,” she said. “You know when it’s harder to get a loan to start a business, when it’s harder to get a mortgage to buy a house, that really impacts your day-to-day life.”
And the U.S. Catholic Church cannot exempt itself from this process, Dr. Pratt added.
It is “absolutely time” for the church to conduct a institutional examination of conscience regarding racism and its role in the toxic history of slavery in the United States. “It’s hundreds of years past time for the church to start doing that work,” she said, pointing out that the title of an article she wrote for America in September 2019 was “There is time for the church to support black Catholics—if it has the will to do so.”
“Is the will going to be there?” she asked. “And the title of the book that I’m working on now is Faithful and Devoted. And that’s what African-American Catholics are: faithful and devoted. We’re here, we’re ready, and we’re ready to do the work. Do we have a church that is also ready to do the work?”
Corrections June 12, 2020: The report was changed to include an updated professional title for Tia Noelle Pratt. She is president and director of research at TNPratt & Associates, L.L.C.
Courtesy titles were changed from “Ms.” to “Dr.” throughout the article.