The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Police Reform is Essential


It seems hard to imagine that it is possible to watch the videos of the events that have unfolded over the past few days and not think that substantial reform of American policing is desperately needed. Of course, this is not a new development. But one hopes that greater public and political consensus can emerge out of the present situation on the need for change.

The George Floyd incident that set current events in motion was itself illuminating. The video stripped away the common uncertainties and doubts that surround particular cases of alleged police abuse. There were no decisions that had to be made in a blink of an eye. There were no conflicting witness statements or complicating context. There were no mitigating dangers faced by a lone officer. There was just a deliberate and drawn out excessive use of force that cost a man his life. It is somewhat heartening, therefore, that the vast majority of the American public reacted with alarm to what happened to George Floyd. It is an encouraging sign that police unions and police chiefs and conservative commentators were unusually vocal in denouncing the police conduct that the video showed.

The subsequent public protests could have built on that momentum, and they still can. But there is certainly a risk that the initial consensus that something had gone wrong in the Floyd case and that it exposed the need for further action could be lost in the civil unrest that has followed. Riots and uncontrolled looting understandably drive a public and political desire to do what is necessary to restore order. Those who would wish to empower the strong arm of the state can win favor when the alternative is rampant lawlessness. Protests have raised public consciousness.  The opportunistic criminal activity that has followed those protests threaten to do something else.

But if the video evidence of the past few days has shown that there are those who would like to hijack this moment for their own anarchic ends, it has also shown that the problems in America's police departments are not limited to the four officers in Minneapolis who assaulted George Floyd. Over the course of the past few days there have been far too many examples of officers violently assaulting the very citizens that they are sworn to protect, deliberating attacking members of the media, recklessly lashing out in ways that escalate rather than deescalate tensions, and unnecessarily initiating conflicts.

Having lost control of many urban spaces, law enforcement is now in a difficult position in trying to restore a sense of order. There have also been moving examples of heroic protesters attempting to reclaim the streets from those who hope to instigate chaos. The increasingly bold factions on the political extremes who have spent the past few years encouraging street violence are genuine problems that need to be addressed.

But the faults that can be found elsewhere cannot be used to conceal the need for better training, more careful management, and more accountability in police departments across the country. There are, to be sure, some bad apples, but rooting out a few bad apples will not be sufficient.