I was an Atlanta, Georgia police office in 1974 in the midst of huge civil rights reforms. Police shootings were down, recruitment of women and minorities was up, and “shoot/don’t shoot” policies were being churned out by the dozens. Discussions about Affirmative Action and EEOC were required across the country from schools to prisons. The Warren Supreme Court was handing out rulings supporting prisoners’ rights, and we cops were memorizing arrestees’ rights as stated in the Miranda decision. The fight against white supremacy was in over drive.
Where did all that white supremacy hate go? It didn’t dissipate or disappear; it just went underground, disguised and allowed to fester. Personally, I think that, within a decade, we began to see cracks in the sincerity of white liberals and white folks in general to stay the course. The consequences of the civil rights movement began to negatively affect both wealthy and poor white Americans, and they came to resent its reality. The Reagan presidency, starting in 1981, saw the beginning of the end of the civil rights experiment and the erosion of its short-lived progress. While explicit atrocities against racial and ethnic minorities were less frequent than they had been, lawsuits began to unravel public and private policies regarding anti-discrimination; ultra-conservatives were elected into office; military surplus found its way into civilian law enforcement agencies; and dark money funded hate groups and legal challenges to affirmative action.
The KKK might not be holding parades down the South Side of Chicago, but police shootings, the dismantling of affirmative action, barriers to gun research, and the rise in white supremacist and hate groups—to name but a few of the obvious examples—have risen again to alarming levels, based on the argument that the social contract implicit in the Constitution was created by white people for the sole benefit of white people.
Thus, I understand the calls for defunding police, police reform, and even the elimination of police departments. Under the social contract, we support the right of law enforcement to enforce laws and rules while giving up certain rights in exchange for protection of our basic civil rights and safety. When government fails to provide that protection for all of us, we are reluctant to obey its rules. Police have come to be seen by many as a tool of white supremacy. I don’t believe they are, but I do believe they can be used for this purpose if not reformed.
Police reform, yes; elimination of police, no. Functioning police forces are essential for a functioning democratic society. We have overburdened policing with contradictory missions, unrealistic expectations, and both unworkable and ineffectual oversight. We have failed policing as policing has failed society. As we discuss and implement changes to the role of police in America, let us not in our frustration over-reach in our reactions and lose what is essential and repairable. Let us not forget the women and men who daily risk their lives to keep us safe. Let us give them clear and unambiguous guidelines while relieving them of tasks that we should assign to ourselves and our social institutions.