Why Police Reform Failed

Issue 288

And what we really need.

Alex S. Vitale Jul 1

Following the police murder of Eric Garner, and the massive protests against abusive policing, Mayor de Blasio told us not to worry: the NYPD was going to reform itself. He insisted that a program of de-escalation training, implicit bias training, and body cameras, backed up by the work of the Civilian Complaint Review Board, would reduce abusive policing and restore public trust. Ten years later we have little to show for it. The NYPD continues to be a source of danger to those exposed to it, especially young men of color. 

New York City spent tens of millions of dollars on these police reforms. But the city’s own research showed that implicit bias training failed to make any difference at all in policing, which is consistent with academic research findings over the last decade. It is a ridiculous effort which imagines that the problems of racist police practices are accidental, unconscious and based on the discretionary decision making of individual officers. But the problem is so much deeper than that. 

First, there is plenty of explicit racial bias among individual officers. Second, the NYPD as an institution has been a central force in maintaining the color line and continues to have a deeply racist internal culture. These patterns endure regardless of which demographic group leads the department. And third, the core mission of the NYPD is racist in that it treats the problems of communities of color as being “crime” problems to be suppressed by policing and incarceration, while the dilemmas of better-off communities are understood to be social problems to be addressed in less punitive and violent ways. 

For the NYPD as well as most city leaders, the harmful behavior of corporations, employers and landlords are considered non-criminal manners, despite the fact that they kill, maim, poison, and steal from people at rates far above conventional “street crime.” 

De-escalation training has also been a failure. Over the last 10 years we have continued to see police escalate encounters over and over again, whether they involve young people hanging out on street corners, homeless people in the subway, or people experiencing a mental health crisis, even in their own homes (e.g. Win Rozario). Nor have body cameras done anything to reduce abusive policing. The public rarely gains access to the footage in a timely manner and instead the NYPD edits and releases only clips that tend to show them in the best possible light. There is a clear conflict of interest in allowing the NYPD to manage the footage. 

FInally, the Civilian Complaint Review Board has failed in its alleged mission of holding police accountable. The whole enterprise is doomed to failure. It is underfunded, lacks adequate power, and can only deal with complaints about individual officers, not policies and practices. The board’s investigations are routinely undermined by the NYPD, and the ultimate decisions on punishment are left to the NYPD leadership. When CCRB officials have attempted to actually use the office to hold police to account they are pushed out because the political leadership of the city doesn’t actually want police to be held accountable. 

Unfortunately, the abusiveness and impunity of policing are not some accident or oversight that can be corrected with a few tweaks to training and oversight. These are features, not bugs, and if we want to reduce the harms of policing, we need to reduce the role of police in our lives in as many ways possible by creating community-centered safety practices to reduce violence, serious forms of disorder, and other harms.

Alex S. Vitale is a Professor of Sociology and Coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of The End of Policing (Verso Books).

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