My last piece pointed out that the woke narrative of “systemic racism” seeks to absolve individuals of their anti-social behavior and place the onus of change on institutions whose rules those individuals violate. I called such a notion madness, which it plainly is.
But I don’t want to be misunderstood. Our institutions aren’t perfect and many of them need reform. The fact that the narrative of “systemic racism” is factually, analytically and morally wrong in so many ways does not mean that, for example, law enforcement institutions don’t need reform. They do. They don’t need reform because they’re racist (there’s little evidence of racist behavior among the police), but because various internal forces prevent them from delivering as high-quality services as they ought to be capable of.
Policing is a governmental function. All governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed (to *ahem* coin a phrase). That means that governments need the public’s belief in- and support of- them. Without it, they come to appear (and perhaps be) illegitimate and We the People rightly begin to see ourselves more the way the peasantry did under monarchies, i.e., the helpless governed. We start to see governments as our enemies and us as theirs. That very thing has been happening more and more of late and it’s not a healthy development.
The same is true of the police. One of the major reasons the police solve so few homicides in high-crime black neighborhoods is the lack of cooperation from the public. Of course, much of that lack comes from fear of retaliation from gangs, but some of it comes from mistrust of the police who may be viewed as the enemy. Needless to say, some of that mistrust also comes from the narrative of “systemic racism” peddled by the woke.
In short, police institutions need reforming not only for our sakes, but for theirs. Reform, if correctly done, will make the police better at doing the job with which they’re tasked – protecting us from crime – and more respected and trusted by the public.
If we adopt the narrative of “systemic racism” and base reform of the police on the assumption that racism lurks at the heart of the problem, then our attempts at reform will come to nothing. Misdiagnosis of an illness is an unlikely beginning for effective treatment. As the excellent Heather MacDonald has written and said time and again, police across the country are, from the time they enter the academy, steeped in the awareness of race and trained to combat it on the job. Moreover, the data on police interactions with civilians of different races reveal minimal disparate effects. So, for example, statistics on crime commission as reported by crime victims (not by police) very closely match those of arrests. Various studies show that it’s criminal offending, not racism, that puts so many blacks behind bars. Put simply, there are more blacks arrested by police because blacks, particularly young black men, commit a disproportionate number of crimes.
Focusing reform on the alleged racism of the police will waste money and accomplish little or nothing. It’s throwing water on a fire that went out decades ago.
By contrast, the sine qua non of sensible, effective police reform consists of policing the police, either by the police or by others. Whoever takes on that job, it means identifying the bad apples – the Derek Chauvins of the police world – early, intervening in their bad behavior and, if intervention doesn’t succeed, discharging them.
The great majority of the wrongful actions by police, about which we hear so often (and many more of which we don’t hear), is committed by about 5% of officers, a.k.a., the “bad apples.” Importantly, those officers tend strongly to self-identify within the first three years of their law enforcement careers, mostly by racking up more citizen complaints than their better-behaved peers. Derek Chauvin, for example, had 19 complaints from the public over his 18 years with the Minneapolis Police Department and he was only among the worst 10% of officers. In May of 2020, that department had about 800 officers, which means about 80 had as many complaints as Chauvin or more.
The problem is that police unions and the collective bargaining agreements they sign with city governments make it very difficult to discipline an officer. Indeed, employees in the private sector are five times more likely to be fired as governmental employees. Of those 19 complaints against Chauvin, only two resulted in any discipline, both of which consisted only of a letter inserted into his employee file. Despite 19 people complaining about his behavior, Chauvin never lost a minute of work or a dime of pay until the day he killed George Floyd.
And those are only the 19 we know about, which are almost certainly not all. Police departments often make even the filing of a complaint hard. Chicago PD, for example, requires all complaints to be sworn to and notarized. Minneapolis PD precincts erect various barriers to filing complaints. Who knows how many people tried to complain about Chauvin but failed?
Effective reform of the police would mean real, and above all predictable, consequences for bad behavior. Once every officer understands that violating his training or police protocols brings discipline, more officers will toe the line and that in turn will bring about greater public trust in the police and greater cooperation from us.
It’s a truism that what prevents crime is the certainty of apprehension and punishment. The same holds true for the police. If an officer can be fairly certain that he won’t “get away with it,” that the police union won’t protect him from punishment, he’ll either become a better officer or he’ll find another job. As it is, officers can be fairly certain of the opposite – that they can get away with it, can emerge unscathed from incidents that many of us consider outrageous. The good cops don’t rely on that pass; the bad ones do. If Derek Chauvin had been riding a garbage truck instead of a patrol car, George Floyd would probably still be alive and weeks of riots, billions of dollars of damage, a year of anguish and a further tearing of the societal fabric would have been saved.
Policing in the U.S. needs a change. Above all, law enforcement institutions need to do a much better job of disciplining bad cops before they do something truly horrific. “Defunding” the police is not the answer and the “systemic racism” idea that racial disparities in the outcomes of police work should be the sole driver of reform borders on the delusional. The woke narrative must not be allowed to guide public policy.