Law enforcement

Police Reform Should Match the Needs of Different Communities

Leave people room to experiment with approaches to protecting life, liberty, and property.


Demonstrations against police brutality and mistreatment of minority communities is nudging Americans toward agreement that law enforcement needs to change. What change means, however, ranges from proposals for reform to calls to "defund" police agencies and advocacy of outright abolition of traditional policing. How that discussion will shake out is unclear, but in a country as diverse as the U.S., there's no reason why the same approach to protecting life, liberty, and property has to be adopted everywhere.

Minneapolis, where George Floyd died under the knee of former police officer Derek Chauvin, now has a city council majority that wants to "begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department." Except that what they mean by "ending" so far looks like banning a few controversial practices, such as chokeholds, and opposing the hiring of new officers.

At least for Minneapolis, "ending the police" looks more like "defunding the police," a vague slogan that generally shakes out as reduced police budgets, with resources reallocated to programs like education, social services, and housing. The assumption is that improved living conditions and greater availability of services, such as treatment for mental illness, will reduce crime. Advocates of the approach recognize that armed responders who default to the use of force just aren't good at resolving a lot of the situations they encounter—something many officers themselves concede.

"What do you think cops deal with on a daily basis? Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Mental illness. Crushing poverty. Family problems and dead bodies. Lots of poor judgement," writes Greg Ellifritz, a police officer in central Ohio who also trains law enforcement officers and the public. "In reality, arrests seldom really solve any problems. But it takes 15 or 20 years of arresting people before a cop realizes that fact."

"Defunding" police could mean unbundling some of what officers now do so that it can be taken on by others better suited to the role.

"Don't use a hammer if you don't need to pound a nail. Road safety does not require a hammer," economist Alex Tabarrok recommends. "The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by a unarmed agency… Similarly, the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless—jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies."

That's not to say that actual abolition of policing doesn't have fans.

"We have [millions of] low-level arrests in the United States every year and most of them are completely pointless," says Brooklyn College sociology professor Alex Vitale, the author of The End of Policing and an advocate of legalizing victimless activities and replacing much law enforcement with social services. Yes, there are real crimes against people and property, Vitale concedes, but "the reality is a lot of people just don't call the police as it is because they feel like it's just going to make their lives worse."

Calling the police can be frustrating even when it's not dangerous. After burglars climbed the fire escape to my New York City apartment and mugged my roommate at knife point many years ago, we called the cops. Officers took a report, advised us to put a gate on the window, and were never heard from again.

That's not unusual. For 2018, the FBI reports the percent of crimes cleared by arrest or "exceptional means," including the death of the offender, as 62.5 percent for murder and non-negligent manslaughter and 52.5 percent for aggravated assault. After that, rates fall off the cliff, with 33.4 percent for rape, 30.4 percent for robbery, 18.9 percent for larceny-theft, 13.9 percent for burglary, and 13.8 percent for motor-vehicle theft. Overall, says the FBI, "45.5 percent of violent crimes and 17.6 percent of property crimes were cleared."

Police may be deterring crimes that would otherwise occur, but the data raises questions about their effectiveness. Those questions are then amplified by serious concerns about brutality and disparate treatment of minority communities.

Still, not every advocate of change favors abolishing or defunding police.

"Protection of life, safety, and property is a legitimate function of government," writes David Bernstein, a professor of law at George Mason University. "There are plenty of police reforms that could be enacted from a libertarian perspective that would improve matters."

Bernstein favors stripping police of the qualified immunity that makes it so hard to hold them accountable for abuses, dis-empowering police unions that harbor misbehaving cops, and banning no-knock raids. Bernstein also wants to reduce encounters between police and civilians by ending the criminalization of victimless activities, such as drug use, and reducing the number of regulations and taxes that drive people to black markets.

Ilya Somin, also a law professor at George Mason University, agrees with Bernstein about curbing qualified immunity and drug prohibition, calls for reform of civil asset forfeiture, and adds, "we can also reduce police abuse and improve relations between law enforcement and minority communities by curbing the widespread practice of racial profiling. A 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that some 59% of black men and 31% of black women say they have been unfairly stopped by police because of their race."

Such moderate approaches are likely to be an easier sell than defunding or abolition in communities that have relatively good relations with police. They'll probably opt to retain traditional police departments, though (hopefully) with improved accountability and better protection for civil liberties.

But other communities have hostile relations with law enforcement agencies. For them, police departments are tools of social control that maintain government power, punish consensual behavior, impede economic advancement, and only occasionally protect people and property.

Police also infantilize people, acting as the go-to complaint department for every curtain-twitcher who objects to a neighbor's choice of music or fears the appearance of a stranger on the street. Their existence provides an often-dangerous alternative to conflict-resolution skills. It also enables a host of intrusive laws and taxes that would be unworkable in the absence of an army of enforcers.

Such concerns could spur deeper changes to policing that empower individuals and communities. That should mean greater respect for self-defense rights so individuals can better take responsibility for their own safety and protect their neighbors. It could mean neighborhood patrols such as those that took up the role of keeping the peace when Minneapolis police were overwhelmed by protests. It also points to private alternatives hired by individuals and businesses and fired if they fail to meet expectations.

Services for the mentally ill, the hungry, and the addicted are also necessary, but we need to remember that government schools and government medicine are as much tools for social control as are government cops. The school-to-prison pipeline resulting from harsh policies and lousy education is evidence that the state can't be trusted with jurisdiction over children. Expanding options so that families can choose education approaches that work for their kids and reject those that don't is a necessary part of reform.

Likewise, government officials prone to punishing people for seeking mental health or addiction treatment are dangerous stewards of such care. People need means of meeting those needs without subjecting themselves to government enforcers by another name.

Ultimately, real police reform means finding ways to protect life, liberty, and property in ways that respect people and protect individual rights. Just as communities and individuals vary, so may approaches to keeping the peace. We're going to need room to experiment to find what works for us.

NEXT: Both Left and Right Should Stop Blithely Wishing for a New Civil War

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  1. I’ll start with this…

    But multiple studies have shown that cops walking around, outside of their cars and interacting with citizens does decrease crime rates in that locality.

    The focus should be on behavior. Because removing cops will just lead to more crime.

    1. If cops walked around they might be accosted by criminals, so a non-starter. They are much safer in their cars with tasers and shotguns at the ready. Cop safety Uber alles!!

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    2. Liberal pundits wonder why so many cops stop-n-chatting with people of color?

  2. in a country as diverse as the U.S., there’s no reason why the same approach to protecting life, liberty, and property has to be adopted everywhere.

    Of course, this applies only to “defunding the police”, not to “locking down the economy”.

    1. You might be speaking too fast. I could be wrong but I don’t the federal government ever did “lock down the economy”. Perhaps they encouraged it but from my knowledge the lock-downs were ALL enacted by local authorities.

      1. You are definitely correct. I think, though, it refers more to the response by the intelligentsia that demanded a uniform approach and excoriated anyone who dared not believe in the viral apocalypse by allowing people to continue going out in public and working.

  3. ” . . . there’s no reason why the same approach to protecting life, liberty, and property has to be adopted everywhere.”

    There is one overriding reason; socialism.

    Welcome to the revolution.

    1. Collectivism wants a unitary government.

      1. Don’t forget to cut-out the protection of liberty & property.

        I find it so hilarious that the exact same CHAZ mob insisting on “de-funding the police” also wants you to give them health-care, college, a house and etc… by legal force… WHAT LEGAL FORCE???

    2. Why would there be one reform suitable for East Nyack, but another wholly inappropriate for West Nyack? It makes no sense. Minneapolis could end Qualified Immunity, but Saint Paul could continue Qualified Immunity. Makes no sense. Seattle ends the war on drugs, but Tacoma continues bashing skulls for smoking dope.

  4. Policing culture in America is entrenched, and it seems to be fairly uniform across the nation. Even if local leadership had actual control over their departments (which it’s more than obvious they do not) and even if they had the personal desire (which I don’t see that they do), they lack the political will to attempt to enforce much less enact real changes.

    For city councils, policing is policy enforcement. Cutting themselves off from enforcing their mandates absolutely is just not good business, especially when voters are unwilling to demand it on election day.

    Bottom line: even if policy changes are made (WHICH I DOUBT), either nationwide or provincially, they will not be enforced. Strict enforcement is for the ATM’s they call citizens, not the enforcers.

    1. Break up the police unions is a start. The ostensible purpose of unions is to protect the wage worker from the capitalist. This makes no sense for the police, who do not earn a wage and do not work in capitalist firm. Break up all public sector unions. Police, prisons, teachers, etc.

    2. It’s pretty hilarious to watch the same group of voters that never met a law or regulation they didn’t like suddenly don’t believe in actual enforcement. These people are incapable of thinking through the actual reality of a single one of their policies.

      We have laboratories of democracy for a reason. I say let them have their way in a couple of major cities, kick back and watch the show.

  5. Police may be deterring crimes that would otherwise occur, but the data raises questions about their effectiveness.

    A high gun-ownership rate would be a more direct deterrent.

    1. Not having actions not involving the initiatory use of force be crimes would really help lower crime.

    2. That’s not true. Some states with high gun rates of ownership have higher rates of crime than states where it’s much lower. I believe in the 2nd amendment but it doesn’t deter crime nearly as much as gun lovers like to think. Great economies and higher prosperity levels lead to lowering of criminal activity, particularly violent and petty crimes. White collar crimes not so much.

  6. Police reforms SHOULD match their communities. Let’s try this!

    * End qualified immunity. Yes, it matches with every community!

    * End police unions. Yes, it matches with every community!

    * End the war on drugs. Yes, it matches with every community!

    * No more more property seizures without due process. Yes, it matches with every community!

    * No more violent means to subdue non-violent offenders of non-violent crimes. Yes, it matches with every community!

    1. Should we allow necklacing in black communities and lynching in white communities?

      1. Lynching means any extrajudicial killing so necklacing IS lynching.

        1. Lynching means lynching – hanging by the neck until dead.

          1. “Lynching is a premeditated extrajudicial killing by a group.”
            Google is a thing.

  7. I can’t bring myself to read this because the headline is just so incredibly dumb. It’s tryhard sloganeering that doesn’t make sense on its face

    1. Why can’t we have separate but equal law enforcement?

  8. “nudging Americans toward agreement” is lol’able there’s a Civil War thread somewhere around here today too

  9. There’s only one way to protect life, liberty and property, retaliatory force.

    1. >retaliatory
      Is preemptive violence justified too?

      1. What do you mean by preemptive?

  10. We need a separation of school and state.

    Article 4, Section 4, U. S. Constitution mandates a republic which means it prohibits a democracy.

  11. The responsibility for handing out speeding tickets and citations should be handled by a unarmed agency… Similarly, the police have no expertise in dealing with the mentally ill or with the homeless—jobs like that should be farmed out to other agencies.

    Right about here is where I realized there was a disconnect with the real world and this opinion piece.

    Yes, most traffic stops could be handled safely by unarmed people because myself, and most people reading this hopefully, would pull over provide only what was required, sign the ticket, and get back on the road.

    Unfortunately, some people being pulled over will do otherwise. Sometimes this is because they just are thugs that have a knee-jerk violent reaction to authority, sometimes they have an outstanding warrant and don’t want to go (back) to prison, sometimes they just committed a serious crime and assume that they are being pulled over for that rather than because they blew through a stop sign or were driving 45 MPH in a 30MPH zone in front of a public park. When these people pull out a gun and shoot the unarmed traffic officer, the officer is defenseless (and the driver feels she’s at little risk since there will be no return fire).

    Similarly, when someone calls 911 and reports some guy waving a knife around in a crowded public park, sending unarmed social workers to deal with it rather than armed police on the assumption that the person is merely “mentally ill” and counseling will be all that is needed is absurd. If anyone thinks otherwise, I suspect they will change their mind when the knife waver kills a couple of children because it turns out that they were, in part, under the influence of PCP or a drug with similar unpredictable effects.

    None of this is to say that police shouldn’t have better training to deal with the few percent of the cases which get unnecessarily escalated in some jurisdictions. But, expecting defenseless individuals to apprehend/stop potentially armed (or even just those who outnumber or are big and strong) suspects is just stupid.

  12. It is my impression our local cops and especially our SROs are better behaved and apparently better trained than the jackbooted thugs in other jurisdictions in the news. I would not want federal “standards” imposed that could easily be lower than current local standards.

  13. No matter what negative event to African Americans it is always, 100% of the time effected by white racism. I smell something aghast with that “kind” of mental defect.

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