Police

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.

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"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.

NEXT: U.K. Officials Want Even More Power To Punish You for Being Mean Online

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  1. Eliminate QI.

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    2. That would be one of the best single steps to take. That goes back to making the police (and the individual policeman) accountable.

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  2. So why is the slogan "Defund the Police" instead of "Reform the Police"?

    1. It also makes one wonder what to make of the group (small though they are, but having an outsized influence on the movement) who explicitly have called for abolition.

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    3. Because when you propose something that will never happen, you can't be held accountable for its failure. There are a very few anarchists out there who really believe we should "defund the police". The rest are cynical opportunists who latch on it as a consequenceless slogan.

    4. Reform is a liberal thing. BLM is Marxist. They hate the cops until they take over.

  3. For instance, here's Angela Davis, one of the TITANS of Critical Race theory on abolishing the police.

    First quote: The call to defund the police is, I think an abolitionist demand, but it only reflects one aspect of the process represented by the demand. Defunding the police is not just about withdrawing the funding for law enforcement and doing nothing else.

    1. Interviewer: You and others have called for the abolition of police, why?

      Davis: Well, we've known for a very long time that the structure of racism is such that it invades all existing institutions of our societies. [...] One cannot study the history of police without also studying the history of racism.

      #DefundThePolice may not be about eliminating the Capitol police when Nancy Pelosi utters it, but the idea was put in her head by the Davis cohort and the academies.

      Conclusion: Policing is inherently racist and it can't be separated.

      At its core, this IS an abolitionist movement, even though maybe... 75% of the people calling for it claim it not to be.

      Be careful not to become an apologist.

      Interviewer: Some people have argued to disarm the police, why is that insufficient in the eyes of abolitionists?

      Davis: [she begins to meander here, but concludes the call to disarm the police as:] to address the fact that there are more guns in this country than there are people, the call to disarm the country ALSO has to include the call to disarm the police. It's important to frame that demand in an radical abolitionist way.

      Guys, Angela Davis is a titan of this movement, her influence on it cannot be understated.

      1. The interviewer asks why the black population by and large want the police presence to remain, meaning abolition is a "minority" view.

        She really starts to meander here, which is where these intellectuals seem to be obscuring what they think-- the lack if clarity is, in my opinion, by design. She concludes with the statement that she's surprised that "that many people DO support abolition" (which the interviewer cited as around 15% of the public.

        So say what you will here, Davis is intimating that her ideas are catching on faster than even she ever thought they would. Which brings us back to the discussion about how these lofty, rarified and radical ideas were, until just a few short years ago, considered crazy-pants shit that floated around in grievance studies departments in places like UCLA. Now they're becoming remarkably mainstream at an alarming pace-- as Davis herself notes.

        Be careful when you say you want to tear it all down. You might just get what you wanted.

        Link to interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZnRUHYkjwx4

        1. Above interview conducted on Al Jazeera. Yeah, they're still a thing.

          1. They are a decent news outlet.

            1. As long as they're not reporting on Muslim extremists or Israel, then they are just a standard propaganda outfit.

      2. At its core, this IS an abolitionist movement, even though maybe... 75% of the people calling for it claim it not to be.

        Maybe if 75% of the people in your movement don't agree with you on what the movement is about, you could be the one who doesn't understand what the movement is about?

        1. I believe Marx attended a conference once and said "everyone there was a Marxist except me."

          I believe Keynes said the same thing, "Everyone at the meeting was a Keynesian except me"

  4. 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.

    I've been saying this for years. People who enforce bad laws are not worthy of respect or trust. Want people to respect and trust law enforcement? Make the law worth respecting.

    No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

    -Bastiat, The Law

    A long time ago I made that choice. I chose morality. I only respect the law when there's a real chance of getting busted. Otherwise fuck that shit.

  5. Um, two days after the Saint George incident, some stupid group ran with the narrative and squished any possibility of any actual reform. Though the majority wanted reasonable changes.

    1. If only we knew what the group was named and what they were actually about.

  6. Libertarian "reform" is different from the leftist "reform". They want a federalized woke police to enforce their agenda with even less accountability. Their reform will win because the Progressives have pretty much won every political battle since the late 19th century so the only real solution is in fact abolition coupled with gun proliferation.

    1. so the only real solution is in fact abolition coupled with gun proliferation.

      Which is literally the opposite of what Angela Davis calls for. She explicitly calls for abolition to coincide WITH a mass de-armament of American citizens.

      How would that be achieved? Well, there's this thing called the constitution but this process gets rid of that. We're talking about radical, revolutionary change.

      If you think this movement is going to come quietly in the night asking for your support, you've got another thing coming.

      1. The main obstacle isn't the Constitution (meaning the 2nd Amendment), it's reality. Nations with no constitution still have armed criminal gangs. Many American cities got away with utterly ignoring the 2nd Amendment for decades, and had sky-high murder rates. Criminals don't obey disarmament laws, but love having the law-abiding citizens disarmed.

        Even if it was somehow possible to keep guns out entirely, that just gives the advantage to strong and vicious men. There were no firearms in the Medieval era, but not even the nobles in the midst of their private armies were very safe, and it was extremely dangerous for anyone without such protection.

  7. American compliance to tyranny is un-American, unwise, and not life enhancing.
    They were "seeking permission to build on their own lot."? This contains a false premise, i.e., that property rights require permission. If they exist, no permission is needed.

    I submit that under the political paradigm, few people have rights because they don't exercise them. Their surrender amounts to self-enslavement.

    For example, the IRS has maintained in writing and verbally that the income tax is voluntary. The public does not believe it, but are afraid to challenge. Why? They don't want to be punished for exercising the right to property, e.g., their wealth. The same with the public's submission to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Act. Most believe it to be "highway robbery" but let govt. get away with stealing their cash, i.e., let govt. violate their property rights, even as they firmly believe they have rights. Their actions speak for themselves. They believe defense is futile, compliance is the only option.

    Is resistance futile? Are they helpless?

    Only if they believe it. There are always options, if one uses ones mind.

    The first step is to completely identify the reality that the coercive political paradigm is immoral/impractical and must be replaced with a voluntary political paradigm based on reason, rightts, choice.

  8. Ugh. Though I respect the people at Reason and it as a new source more than any other, this article unnecessarily confuses several issues. Also, you unfortunately, fall into the same pattern of mistake the mainstream media do (though at least it's incidental, not the main focal point, for that, congrats); that is, talk about police misconduct, but at first opportunity, drag the race card into it. BS. Police misconduct is; it doesn't have to be more heavily destructive to minorities to be news worthy. It should make us furious when any cop violates Any persons rights; the skin color of the cop or the victim is Completely irrelevant.
    Should we get rid of bad laws? Of course. But again, that's a side issue, not really related to the individual policeman abusing his authority. Trust? HA. There are certain people I trust. But to trust a collective group? No. Do you trust "government"? How about Brazilians? Or Nigerians? It's a silly idea. I might trust an individual policeman...if I know them. It's a bad idea to rely on "trust" anyway. The police have already shown they will violate and use trust as a weapon when needed. No, we need Accountability. And for that, laws probably need to change; stupid laws that should have never been put in place to begin with. (There's a bunch of stupid laws shielding DA's & judges too and quite similar, but one thing at a time). The best thing I've seen in the last decade was the creation of police oversight boards. Unfortunately, even in the few places where they existed, the same politicians helping create them, took any teeth out of them. (Police unions helped see to that). The oversight boards should have the power to terminate bad cops. The board should be composed of civilians; on police police present or former. Their decisions should be final. Of course they should look at both sides; often cops are faced with split second decisions, bad lighting, and suspicious movements in their interactions. Sometimes the media does unfairly accuse cops when they weren't doing a bad job. When cops are actually held accountable for their actions, we can have real police reform.

  9. Most police officers are good people with good intentions, risking their own lives for complete strangers. The “perception” that the small percentage of really bad cops can commit felony level crimes and there is no justice can make it dangerous for the good cops and increase vigilantism.

    The totally “Defund the Police” idea was not only stupid but counterproductive. Most Americans probably want to increase funding for “constitutional” practices and only defund the “unconstitutional” practices which are illegal. Police chiefs probably would have supported this idea and this would have made a real impact on reducing policing abuses.

    In a free nation, with maximum individual freedoms, there might be more traditional crimes but if we want to surrender our individual freedoms (giving police unconstitutional authority) it doesn’t decrease crimes - it only increases authoritarianism crimes by officials.

    In other words, following a police chief’s own Oath of Office (to follow the U.S. Constitution) conflicts with their goals of a Cold War style police-state society - where everyone is under surveillance, everyone must submit their privacy and everyone must prove their innocence. Free societies may not catch the maximum number of traditional criminals but do we want a Cold War style police-state? These foreign style police-states (unconstitutional authoritarianism) worldwide kill more innocent people than traditional criminals do [source: Cato Institute].

    Simply put: the “ends” never justify unconstitutional “means” in the American system. Police-chiefs swear an Oath of Office to do this. Police-chiefs don’t take an oath “to protect & serve” in America that supersedes the constitutional oath (or employment contract). If the police-chief gives illegal orders, their subordinate officers are required to follow those orders.

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