Yesterday Noah Smith wrote a persuasive blog post about what police reform might look like. Similarly Jen Doleac wrote a thread about policing reform, in the comments of which Kevin Grier absolutely gave me the business while righteously criticizing the implication that law enforcement institutions could be even remotely trusted to reform themselves. I always find it awkward trying to respond to criticism when I essentially agree with every point being made.
I’m fine with Kevin’s criticism, to be clear, because I think it comes from the frustration that policing has arrived at it’s state along a tide of winking half-asssed internalization of some reforms exceeded only by the whole-assed petulant refusal of others. While the broader chattering classes and technocrats have been trying to adjudicate whether the dominance of White Supremacy within the culture of policing necessitated its wholesale defunding, law enforcement has managed to quietly be on an apathetic half-strike in major cities while bearing no material cost that I am aware of and remaining as militarized as ever.
What I do want to reconcile is the notion that the decentralization of policing across states, counties, and cities is an opportunity for reform because I’m not optimistic we’re going to get any meaninful action at the national level. What we can hope for, agitate and campaign for, is state and local reform. No one is getting elected to the presidency if they can have the “defund the police” label successfully slapped on them. A town, however, can fire its police and reform an entirely new force under different job expectations, with different hiring objectives (de-escalation, human services), qualifications (higher training bars), and bigger salaries. A town or small state can change the burden on police unions or even hire entirely parallel to them. We can decide that law enforcement is important work where you can make a professional salary with attractive benefits, but like other such jobs you can be fired with or without cause because someone else wants your job and might be able to do it better.
I don’t want to give the impression I think the problem of law enforcement in America can be solved with a few paragraphs. I guess all I want to do is remind you that Charles Tiebout has a pretty good point: local public goods always face the competition of those offered by their neighbors. Maybe the single most important contribution any of us can make to improving the deadly, destructive disaster that is the current state of law enforcement is to push your local government for reform. Your state could end police retention of seized property or end qualified immunity. Your sheriff’s office deputies could be at-will employees. Your city could require the police union to self-insure against civil lawsuits.
Because it only takes one place to start a Tiebout chain reaction, a place where people want to live and work that much more because they’re less afraid that the police are going to hurt their family or friends. Less likely to ignore theft and assault. Less likely to tase their teacher to death. Beat their neighbor to death. That’s sounds like a nicer place to live or start a businesss. The time for half measures is over, which unfortunately probably means the opportunity for national reform has passed. There are 18,000 police departments that can and need to be reformed.
Maybe we can start with yours.
Decentralization, though, makes the status quo that much more powerful. The anti-reform side have incumbency power and simple, powerful message: “Don’t change anything or else chaos.” Defund activists have an equally simple message, plus national recognition. Anyone in the middle will get hammered on both sides.
There are many, many research and activist groups doing good work. Too many! The average voter will struggle to name one. Fragmentary efforts won’t move the needle without one or a few nationally recognizable organizations. Like the NRA, Planned Parenthood, NAACP/ACLU/SPLC, etc.
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