Writes Conor Friedersdorf in The Case for Police Reform Is Much Bigger Than Michael Brown:
As a longtime proponent of sweeping reforms to the criminal-justice system, I’m extremely apprehensive of the impulse to treat the killing of Michael Brown as a focal rallying point, even granting that the case has mobilized people and attention. His death is a perfect illustration of the need for dashboard cameras on every patrol vehicle and lapel cameras on every police officer in America. The way officials in Ferguson reacted to the protests over his death did illustrate the alarming militarization of U.S. police agencies. But when it comes to the problem of police officers using excessive force, including lethal force, against people they encounter, there are scores of cases that better illustrate the problem.
Why not start shifting focus to them?
One needn’t deny the disproportionate harm police abuse does in minority communities to see that it’s inaccurate to say that police abuse of whites isn’t a problem, too. Racism is far from the only factor here, and eliding that fact is surely counterproductive for reformers. Whites would be obligated to help reduce police abuse even if they were never subject to it, but the cold political reality is that people of every race have a purely selfish incentive to rein in law enforcement—even white people, whether they’re being assaulted by police with pepper spray or high-powered pepper plume or tasers … or literally beaten to death.
So what specific reforms are needed? Too many to list them all in this article. But here are a few measures, beyond video cameras, that would improve policing:
- Decisions about when to charge officers should be made by independent prosecutors, not regular district attorneys, who rely on police to testify in most of the cases they bring. That gives these district attorneys a perverse incentive to refrain from aggressively prosecuting misconduct.
- Police unions should be able to negotiate salary, benefits, and nothing else. Firing an abusive police officer should be easy.
- All police departments should have strong civilian oversight.
- The War on Drugs should end.
- Most military-grade police equipment should be returned to the federal government or destroyed.
- Civil asset forfeiture should be reformed.
- No-knock raids should stop in almost all cases.
The movement that grew in the wake of Brown’s death will need to pursue concrete, specific goals like these if their anger and outrage is to serve any purpose. Supporters with constructive criticism might improve the odds of success. The present course probably isn’t sufficient, despite the rhetorical support it enjoys.