#Ferguson and police reform

Posted by Sappho on August 21st, 2014 filed in News and Commentary, Race


Yesterday I talked about the push to get police to wear body cams. Today I want to round up some of the other discussion I’ve seen about things that may have contributed to the problems in Ferguson, and what reforms are possible.

There’s a word in German, Schlimmbesserung, that describes an attempted improvement that actually makes things worse. My more conservative friends and family, who look on reform proposals with caution, may find their predisposition confirmed when they hear that one of the complaints put forth in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and protests concerns the unintended effect of some old Progressive reforms. Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve and Ray LaRaja, at the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post, suggest a reason why Ferguson’s government is so much whiter than its population, as they discuss How Ferguson exposes the racial bias in local elections, and how old Progressive reforms designed to shelter local elections from partisanship (holding local elections at a different time from national elections and making all races non-partisan) have made it harder for voters with less income and education to become informed about local elections, and increased racial disparities in voting in municipal elections.

Josh Vorhees at Slate, on the other hand, points to a reform that followed on the Rodney King beating that is no Schlimmbesserung: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allows a “consent decree” for a troubled police department that “would mandate a specific set of reforms that would then be overseen by an independent court-appointed monitor.” Such a process, Vorhees reports, turned the troubled Los Angeles Police Department around. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site, Stephen Rushin, expert on criminal law and police reform, discusses whether structural police reform litigation should be initiated in Ferguson, Missouri.

Also at Slate, Boer Deng argues that Smart Policing Takes Good Training, Not Just Diversity. The ending, though discussing research that’s still in the pilot stage, sounds plausible to me:

Officers and police departments are often “indifferent to hostile” to lessons about diversity, says Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who conducts police training throughout the country. “I think the way we’ve been teaching the subject in this country has been wrong,” she says, because what education there is often begins with the assumption that police are explicitly racist, and many therefore reject it. Fridell and her colleagues have developed a curriculum to address implicit bias—prejudices a person might consciously reject, but reflexively influence their behavior—which, studies show, can trigger excessive violent action in police work. Schlosser and his colleagues at the Police Training Institute are piloting another. Both report anecdotal successes (e.g. when officers report using the training to diffuse a difficult situation or stop them from acting on unwarranted reflex), but longitudinal studies have not yet been done. The relative newness of these ideas speaks to the gap in crafting better policing policy. That will require a change not just to composition but also to policing culture.

This report matches my own experience with diversity training. When I was in college, the research in implicit bias that Fridell references hadn’t yet happened. But I did go through a diversity training workshop, that I remember as just awful, and I remember what worked better. The workshop, purely voluntary, was held at one of the coops, and assembled an assorted group of mostly left leaning students eager to learn about prejudice. And it began by asking us to talk about the biases we had about other groups; I remember leaving the workshop more convinced than ever that I was not racially biased, and darn it, why was I spending all this time talking about biases that I didn’t have? Far more compelling was a demonstration that Phil Zimbardo did in his introductory psychology class, as a demonstration of the difficulties of eye witness testimony, where he had us look at a picture really quickly and then report afterwards on what we had seen; a large portion of our class, when asked to remember something they’d seen very quickly, shifted a weapon that the white man had been holding to the black man’s hands. Bias is, of course, not always implicit or at all subtle, but, let’s face it, even the most overtly racist people are reluctant to see themselves as overtly racist, and even people who are not overtly racist may still have biases that show up in implicit association tests.

The big topic of discussion and debate, though, has been the militarization of police. Here’s an old Wall Street Journal essay by Radley Balko, who has been on this issue for some time, on the Rise of the Warrior Cop.

Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

Wired reports that the Pentagon has mounted a vigorous defense of a program that’s now taking some heat, to turn over excess military equipment to police departments.

We don’t push equipment on anybody. This is excess equipment the taxpayers have paid for and we’re not using anymore. And it is made available to law enforcement agencies, if they want it and if they qualify for it.”

The ACLU has a Militarization of Police page.

And a commenter at Rod Dreher’s blog, a police officer for more than sixteen years, offers his perspective.

On a final note, if you’re following #Ferguson on Twitter, Vox has assembled a list of useful accounts to follow, of journalists, reporters, and protesters, to which you can subscribe.

Also, Ferguson Library Offers Learning for Students in Limbo.



One Response to “#Ferguson and police reform”

  1. WiredSisters Says:

    “Schlimbesserung” sounds like it ought to be a Yiddish word.