Calls for Police Reform Are Getting Louder—Here Is How to Do It

The United States’ chronic police brutality problem can be solved using evidence and data.

A protester near the site where George Floyd was killed while in police custody, on May 26 in Minneapolis.
A protester near the site where George Floyd was killed while in police custody, on May 26 in Minneapolis. KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images

Horrifying videos of police officers suffocating and shooting Black people in the United States have generated outrage around the world. The killings also triggered demonstrations in thousands of cities and towns in the United States and across the globe, temporarily displacing the COVID-19 pandemic from headlines. Footage of peaceful protesters being beaten, tear-gassed, and rammed with police vehicles escalated the outrage. Some demonstrators and commentators have called for defunding and abolishing the police outright. For many, the persistence of police violence—especially against African Americans—warrants radical policy moves, and anything less seems like capitulation to the status quo.

All police violence must be condemned, but should the future of policing really come down to a decision about whether the police ought to be disbanded altogether? Amid growing pressure to radically cut funding for law enforcement, what the debate needs is a serious, evidence-based discussion about what works, and what does not, when it comes to restricting the use of force by police, improving public safety, and making police substantially more accountable to the people they are supposed to protect and serve.In the United States, police have substantially more discretion to use lethal force.

The first order of business is to curb the excessive use of force. The International Association of Chiefs of Police has described “use of force” as the “effort required by police to compel compliance by an unwilling subject.” In other words, the force used should be proportional to the degree of resistance—but what does this mean in practice? In Europe, knee-on-neck restraints such as what was used to kill George Floyd are banned, and officers use other types of force only when “absolutely necessary.” In the United States, police have substantially more discretion and can resort to lethal force when they have “objectively reasonable” belief that their lives are in danger (except in California, which tightened restrictions on the use of force in 2019). Perhaps it is not surprising that some officers shoot first and ask questions later. It also does not help that U.S. police receive an average of 58 hours of firearms training compared to only eight hours of de-escalation training and eight hours of crisis intervention training.

Proposals to ban chokeholds, strangleholds, and other neck restraints such as the ones that killed George Floyd are good first steps, but much more needs to be done. In the United States, national and state lawmakers are hastily introducing bills to reduce the use of force, improve civilian oversight, require the use of body cameras, and monitor officer misconduct. They would do well to consult the 30 guiding principles recommended by the Police Executive Research Forum, an association of U.S. law enforcement officials. According to Campaign Zero, a nongovernmental organization mobilizing against police brutality, restrictions on the use of force—especially in relation to lower-level infractions—have resulted in fewer killings of innocent people in big U.S. cities. Adoption of de-escalation training and techniques may also lead to improvements, but experts say more research is required. Given the political opportunity for reform, these promising measures should be incorporated into new national policing standards, along with a commitment to ongoing evaluation.

Another priority is getting more and better data on police use of lethal force. Despite the large number of homicides involving police in the United States, there is no reliable government database tracking the exact number of fatalities. At the moment, just 40 percent of the country’s roughly 18,000 federal, state, and county police forces have contributed to a Federal Bureau of Investigation database tracking police misconduct. To fill the gap, newspapers such as the Guardian and the Washington Post have assembled data repositories, and activists are mapping police-related deaths, though all are using unofficial sources. Without better data, police and citizens are flying blind.Despite the large number of homicides involving police, there is no reliable U.S. government database tracking the number of fatalities.

Police departments and their unions should also include more stringent accountability mechanisms in employee contracts. Too often, police are legally shielded from any consequences of their actions. At a minimum, complaints levied against officers must be investigated, disciplinary measures for misconduct need to be swiftly enforced, and any appeals for reinstating police officers after they use excessive force should be more carefully reviewed. An investigation by the Washington Post found that at least 1,881 officers were fired for misconduct between 2006 and 2017 from the largest U.S. police departments—and almost one-quarter of them were reinstated after an appeal.

Police departments should also monitor complaints about the use of force more carefully, not least because evidence shows that officers with a record of abuse can negatively influence the behavior of others. As the proverb goes, “A rotten apple quickly infects its neighbor.” Making data on fatal and nonfatal police-related incidents public could improve oversight, deter misconduct, and strengthen badly tarnished community relations. Policies to strengthen internal discipline and prevent officers terminated for serious abuses from being rehired are also associated with improved overall performance.

Recruiting more women into the police may also contribute to reducing excessive force. A 2017 study of police use of force found that male officers were three times more likely to have discharged their firearm while on duty than their female counterparts. In another study published in 2002, men were two to three times more likely to be accused of citizen complaints and cost police forces at least two-and-a-half times more in liability payouts to victims of excessive force or their families. Increasing the diversity of police by boosting minority recruitment is important, but the evidence on the relationship between diversity and misconduct is surprisingly unclear.

Responders outside law enforcement must play a greater role in maintaining public safety. Police certainly need more training for situations involving mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness. Just as importantly, however, other services need to be available when police are in over their heads. In practice, however, this is harder than it seems: Mental-health crisis intervention teams have been around since the 1980s, but their overall effectiveness is questionable. Prevention strategies—based on ample U.S. and international evidence and scaled up—can also shrink the need for police in the first place. Cognitive behavioral therapy, home visiting programs, and parent training programs are all effective crime prevention strategies.

There is also a growing chorus among advocacy groups for greater federal oversight and investigation of police departments that record a higher-than average incidence of excessive use of force, especially when there are significant racial disparities in the use of such force. In the United States, for example, the Department of Justice’s investigations and recommendations have generated tangible reductions in gun violence. Measures such as stricter policies against use of force, better training, and independent reviews contributed to a stunning decline in police shootings in cities such as Philadelphia.Stricter policies against use of force, better training, and independent reviews contributed to a stunning decline in police shootings in cities such as Philadelphia.

Another strategy is to demilitarize the police. Around the world, police are acquiring increasingly sophisticated firepower. One of the most notorious examples of this is the so-called 1033 program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense, which supplies local police departments with surplus military equipment left over from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is evidence that kitting up officers with armored personnel vehicles and grenade launchers can contribute to an overreliance on violence to solve problems. One study, for instance, found that U.S. police departments supplied by the 1033 program had a higher incidence of lethal violence compared to departments that did not receive such assistance.

At a time of spiraling deficits and reduced revenue, hard choices also need to be made about how police violence shouldn’t be curbed. This means investing in what works, but also avoiding what does not work. Take the case of implicit bias training—instruction in awareness about biases and prejudices about race, class, and gender. Although Black people are as much as three times as likely to be killed by police officers than white people, it turns out that such training does not necessarily influence police officers’ implicit bias or alter their behavior. To the contrary, some research suggests that such training could actually increase the expression of bias in what researchers call a “rebound effect” when people try to suppress stereotypical thinking, but their deep-seated prejudices remain.

There is a heated debate about the effectiveness of body cameras worn by police, which have shown mixed results in randomized control trials. While there are positive examples of police cameras reducing the incidence of police brutality and citizen complaints, it turns out that merely outfitting police with cameras is insufficient, by itself, to curb police violence. Robust policies and oversight are needed to ensure that police turn on their cameras during incidents and are prevented from tampering with video evidence after the fact.

Another intervention showing surprisingly limited effect is citizen oversight of police. There are regular calls to set up mechanisms to improve transparency and accountability and strengthen police-community relations in the wake of officer-involved shootings—to prevent police departments from conducting entirely internal investigations of complaints, for example. Roughly 80 percent of the 50 largest police stations in the United States have set up some type of citizen oversight mechanism. But the evidence of their effectiveness is thin. Part of the problem is that they are so diverse. They should certainly not be viewed as a panacea.In this season of protest, Americans have a wide-open window of opportunity to reform their police.

There is no one strategy to reduce police violence. Like most persistent and complicated social problems, there are no obvious, easy answers. But that does not mean that there cannot be progress, and that there isn’t any data and evidence from around the United States and the world on what works and what doesn’t. Putting multiple policies into place, informed by the best data and evidence available as well as common sense, can ultimately make it far less likely for innocent people to die at the hands of police.

In this season of protest, Americans have a wide-open window of opportunity to reform their police. A June survey by Monmouth University found that 76 percent of Americans agree that racial and ethnic discrimination is a “big problem,” up dramatically from 51 percent in 2015. The poll also showed that 57 percent believe that police officers are more likely to use deadly force if the suspect is Black, another seismic change of opinion. A majority of 57 percent also find the protesters’ anger to be “fully justified.” At the same time, 71 percent say they are very or somewhat satisfied with the work of their local police. That suggests that now is not the time to abolish the police altogether, but to dramatically transform and improve it.

Robert Muggah is a principal at the SecDev Group, a co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, and the author, with Ian Goldin, of Terra Incognita: 100 Maps to Survive the Next 100 Years. Twitter: @robmuggah

Thomas Abt is a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice. Twitter: @Abt_Thomas

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