Americans Want Police Reform, Not Abolition. So Did This Slain NYPD Officer.

Despite a binary media narrative, the vast majority of the U.S. is in favor of quality, accountable policing.


"My perspective on police and the way they police really bothered me," wrote Jason Rivera, then a probationary officer with the New York City Police Department (NYPD), in November 2020. "As time went on, I saw the NYPD pushing hard on changing the relationship between the police and the community. This was when I realized I wanted to be a part of the men in blue" in order to "better the relationship between the community and the police."

A year into his job, Rivera, who grew up in Manhattan, was shot and killed on January 21 while responding to a domestic disturbance call at a Harlem apartment. His colleague, Officer Wilbert Mora, was also shot and ultimately pronounced dead last week after spending several days in critical condition.

According to Rivera's note, his desire to change the NYPD by joining it came from watching his community deal with the department's stop, question, and frisk program, which allows police officers to detain people and search for weapons based on reasonable suspicion. "Has this program been successful in removing guns off our streets? NO!!" wrote then–State Sen. Eric Adams in 2011, who had previously served as a captain with the NYPD and who has made waves with his early tough-on-crime approach as the newly-minted mayor of New York City. "Police are illegally going through their pockets…Our young people are being arrested for disorderly conduct for questioning these stops…Our young people will have police records that will impact their future." In 2009, Adams noted, 0.13 percent of stops resulted in a seized weapon. Future iterations of the program, he said, needed to be more constrained to better target crime.

Rivera's start at the police academy in November 2020 happened to coincide with a record-low approval rating for police nationwide: That same year, about 48 percent of the public held a favorable view of law enforcement, the lowest that has ever been recorded and the first time it's ever fallen below a majority since Gallup began asking the question in 1993.

Like Adams, Rivera appears to have understood at least one reason for the low marks: Police officers often are unaccountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. He also seemed to understand that one of the solutions to that problem is to build trust.

It's an obvious answer to public discontent with law enforcement, and yet it seldom appears in public debate, possibly because you can't legislate trust. Instead of talking about how to encourage more idealistic young people to follow Rivera's lead, discussions of police reform in major media and on Capitol Hill are dominated by the most extreme ideas: back the blue (no matter what they do), or defund the police.

The vast majority of the American public fits into neither one of those camps. Only 15 percent of people surveyed by the Pew Research Center want the police "defunded" in some way, while the bulk of that cohort—9 out of that 15 percent—only wants to decrease funding by "a little." A mere 6 percent of people favor "abolishing" the police, according to a recent Economist/YouGov poll.

But the public does want better policing. In the summer of 2020, after former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, a Gallup survey found that 96 percent of Americans support punishing bad officers and 98 percent back barring those with multiple misconduct complaints from continuing to serve.

The desire for police officers who truly serve the public while being held to high standards of conduct cuts across racial lines. An overwhelming share—81 percent—of black Americans want police presence either maintained or increased, according to a Gallup poll taken in August 2020. Perhaps more interesting: When given a choice of issues and asked what the most pressing one was in their community, 87 percent of black Detroit residents responded with public safety, according to a survey conducted by USA Today and the Detroit Free Press. (Contrast that with the mere six percent of white residents who gave the same answer.) In dead last for black residents: police reform.

And yet, those data exist alongside another racial gap in polling: Just 27 percent of black Americans trust the police, compared with 56 percent of white folks, according to a 2021 Gallup poll.

In other words, black communities don't want more Derek Chauvins. They want more Jason Riveras. Instead of arguing whether cops should be legally untouchable or not even exist, we should be thinking about what programs and policies will help officers like Rivera build the bridges that are necessary for solving violent crimes and helping victims while curbing the negative impacts of policing on low-income and minority communities.

We know what the problems are. In addition to the harassment that police inflict on minorities and the poor, the police clearance rate for murder in the U.S. hovered around 54 percent in 2020, which means about half of murders went unsolved. In the final quarter of 2020, New York City's clearance rate was 46 percent.

Put more plainly, police departments aren't always adept at solving crime. But that's different from preventing crime, a distinction sometimes lost on progressive advocates. And the data on the latter are fairly clear: More police officers lead to higher crime deterrence, with people less likely to brazenly commit crimes amid a heightened police presence. Perhaps that explains, at least partially, why some communities want to see that presence increased, or are wary of reducing it.

So how do you bolster police forces without bolstering abuse? Often missing in this debate are the laws that police are charged with enforcing. It should be plainly obvious that not all cops are bad. All cops are, however, made to enforce bad laws, which naturally increases trust-violating interactions between law enforcement and the public. If a law isn't worth having an armed agent of the state enforce it, then maybe it's not a good law.

Consider drug laws: Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses, despite white people using and selling illicit substances at comparable rates. Police unions have long opposed legalizing or decriminalizing even marijuana, as the drug war is a major source of their funding for initiatives like drug task forces. But if the above abysmal clearance rates are any indication, perhaps it's time police diverted their limited time and resources to fighting the violent crimes that make communities unsafe.

Getting more out of our police requires holding them accountable. At the heart of that debate is qualified immunity, the legal doctrine that allows certain government actors to infringe on people's rights without having to face federal lawsuits if the way in which they allegedly violated the Constitution has not yet been outlined concretely somewhere in a prior court precedent. In practice, that means an officer can violate his own training and still be shielded from civil court if no preexisting ruling delves into the precise circumstances surrounding the misconduct in question. Around two-thirds of Americans say the doctrine should be reformed.

"As long as we make that [civil suit] payment transparent so we don't have nondisclosure agreements, then we can act, and we also collect data on it," Rachel Harmon, a University of Virginia law professor whose research focuses on police reform, told Tyler Cowen in June 2020. "Then a community could actually say, 'Hey, I don't want my taxes to go up because you idiots won't train and prepare officers and discipline them and supervise them so that they do less of this.'"

As Harmon notes, such suits may serve as a signal to both police departments and the community that something is awry with certain employees. That's especially true when considering that municipalities can be hesitant to hold rogue officers to account: "The City Council has failed to demand accountability from the NYPD," wrote Adams in the aforementioned presentation.

Violent crime is up nationwide. In New York City, where Rivera worked, murders have increased 68 percent from 289 in 2018—a record low—to 485 in 2021. And while context is certainly always important, I'm not particularly swayed by the constant refrain that "crime isn't as bad as it was in the 1990s." While that's objectively true, I can't think of many times when "it's been worse before" was lauded as an especially powerful argument. Those stakes are raised when considering the subject matter, and that the 68 percent increase in homicides isn't a meaningless statistic. Those were real, human lives lost.

Yet cops can't do their jobs in a vacuum—they need the trust of their communities. In order to improve those numbers, law enforcement undoubtedly has to have the trust of the people, who want to see them as accountable to the public they protect and serve.

Part of that trust will come with accepting that police officers are also human beings—imperfect as they might be—something that can get lost in the fray of our hyperpolarized media environment. Also sometimes lost in that noise is that the American populace wants policing: quality, accountable policing. May Mora's and Rivera's deaths not be in vain.