Is there still an opportunity to address police reform?

In this Saturday, July 25, 2020, file photo, the words "I can't breathe" are flashed on a wall during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Ore. Photo: Associated Press
By Robert C. Jones Jr.

In this Saturday, July 25, 2020, file photo, the words "I can't breathe" are flashed on a wall during a Black Lives Matter protest in Portland, Ore. Photo: Associated Press

Is there still an opportunity to address police reform?

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Despite the gridlock in Congress, there are some measures that could be taken to address police reform, according to University of Miami experts, such as investing in communities and people, building trust and transparency between citizens and officers, and reallocating certain resources.

For a moment, it looked as if a federal overhaul of the nation’s law enforcement departments would finally happen. Amid nationwide protests over the death of George Floyd, the Democratic-controlled House on June 25 passed a sweeping police reform bill that would ban chokeholds, put an end to no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, and lower the threshold to prosecute officers for misconduct.

The legislation, however, stalled in the Senate, where a competing GOP bill had been blocked by Democrats just a day before.

Now, with the nation’s attention refocused on COVID-19 after weeks of protests over systemic racism have largely ended, has the window for changing the nation’s policing practices closed?

Not quite, according to a leading criminologist in the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences. “The momentum is still there,” said Alex R. Piquero, the new chair of the University’s Department of Sociology and Arts and Sciences Distinguished Scholar. But to achieve true reform in policing practices, it will take reimagining what police departments look like and building greater trust and transparency between law enforcement officers and citizens, he stated.

“The George Floyd killing really is a watershed moment in policing in America. It has led to some reforms in certain cities around the United States—some faster than others,” Piquero said. “If we really care about injustices that are happening in communities in America, now is the time to act.” 

In the wake of demonstrations that spilled onto America’s streets, some civic leaders and residents in municipalities across the nation called for the dismantling of police departments. But taking police departments apart is not the answer, Piquero pointed out. “There is a need for police. If someone burglarizes your home or steals your car, you need to call someone.”

The reallocation of police resources, or what’s being called defunding, is one of the more likely components of police reform, Piquero explained. “We’re going to eliminate some of the roles police have had dumped on them and give them to other individuals who are more qualified to deal with those situations,” he said. “Police officers are not mental health specialists. They weren’t trained for that in the academy. Yet many of the calls they respond to are mental health calls.

“We need trained people who know what to do in those circumstances,” he added. “So defunding means taking a little bit of funding away from the police and funding some other agency. But if we’re going to do that, we have to provide those agencies with adequate resources. 

Donna Coker, professor and dean’s distinguished scholar at the School of Law whose work focuses on criminal law and gender and race inequality, echoed Piquero’s sentiments. And she also said other measures need to be enacted to bring about reform, including putting an end to qualified immunity, which shields officers from being sued for misconduct.

“We need to invest in communities and people,” Coker said. “We know that income inequality is a major driver for some forms of crime. We should put more of our money into prevention and community-based responses.”

Minor misdemeanor offenses of the kind George Floyd (spending a counterfeit $20 bill) and Eric Garner (selling untaxed cigarettes) were suspected of committing should be decriminalized and reclassified as civil citations, according to Coker. “These kinds of encounters are part of what creates a climate of siege in low-income neighborhoods of color and increases the opportunities for oppressive and sometimes violent tactics,” she said.

Other measures, she added, can include the creation of civilian review boards that have the power to enact change and reform that diminishes the ability of police unions to keep officers on the force who have a history of misconduct.

While much of the attention has focused on police violence against Black men, not enough scrutiny has been given to police violence against Black women, Coker explained, noting that Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland are the rare exceptions. “Much of police violence against women is both racialized and gendered-sexual assaults,” she said “For example, a protestor here in Miami was groped by an officer, and in Hialeah, it wasn’t until federal investigators got involved that a police officer, accused of multiple rapes, was actually investigated, four years after the alleged attacks.”

Coker said there are plenty of examples of good officers who are focused on upholding the Constitution. “And we should applaud those officers who face extraordinary pressures. But we have to dismantle the structures that create racial caste and doing that requires more than changing the ways that officers think, though that is useful. It requires fundamental social change,” she remarked.

But ultimately, said Osamudia James, professor of law and associate dean for diversity, equity, and community at the School of Law, everyone must take a hard look at the fundamental nature of policing in the United States. “What do we want police to do, and how do we want them to do it? Calls to ‘defund the police’ are about drastically limiting the situations and contexts in which police are asked to respond to a problem or crisis in favor of non-police trained professionals who are prepared to respond to particular crises,” she said.

“It’s also about interrogating the culture of policing,” she continued. “The idea that police are the only ones standing between us and societal chaos, that civilians could never possibly understand what police are up against and so cannot question them, or that it is the job of police to subdue and control the people with whom they come in contact, is dangerous in a democracy, and often manifests as racist and classist policing that subordinates and terrorizes poor communities and communities of color.”

It is those poor communities that are often the epicenters of high-profile police brutality cases.

“Before the Floyd incident, the coronavirus was the hot news 24/7,” Piquero said. “Then the Floyd killing occurred. And we had protests, and that was the news 24/7. Then it was COVID-19 again, and police reform now has taken a backseat. But the two are actually more intertwined than people realize because a lot of the calls for police reform are being driven by individuals who historically are in either disadvantaged neighborhoods or crime-prone neighborhoods. And that’s exactly where the disproportionate rates of COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are. We can’t talk about these things in isolation.”

The danger of not addressing the issues will only perpetuate inequality in underserved communities where many residents “come to the plate with two strikes against them already,” Piquero said. “The sons and daughters of today will be the mothers and fathers of tomorrow, and the grandparents after that. If we don’t address inequality now, it will continue in those neighborhoods within those families over time.”

When Piquero was the Ashbel Smith Professor of Criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, he served on the Dallas mayor’s task force on safe communities, helping to spearhead efforts aimed at reducing violence through non-law enforcement strategies after more than 200 homicides were committed in the city in 2018.

Simple but effective solutions such as improved street lighting and assembling a team of so-called “violence interrupters”—former gang members who mentored at-risk youth—were created. And the measures, said Piquero, could be easily replicated in other municipalities.

But the bedrock to any form of police reform, he said, lies in improved police-citizen relationships. “We need to have citizen boards. Not the kind that look at police shootings, but a situation where, every month, a board would meet one-on-one with the police chief in a jurisdiction. The chiefs would talk about the issues their officers are facing and the data they have, and ask about the concerns of citizens,” Piquero said. “Sometimes, that’s all citizens want—to be heard. That’s how you start to build trust. If you don’t invite citizens into the process, you’re never going to succeed.”