It’s time to reform the police again. After each high-profile police killing, the conversation turns toward changing police policies. The definition of insanity is allegedly doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So we have to ask: How many more times can we reform the police?
Though police brutality is a near-constant presence in the lives of marginalized people, wider interest in police brutality and its aftermath ebbs and flows — the tragedies differ in location and victim but are linked by a violent sameness.
Police officer kills Black person. The people object. The officer faces punishment either in the legal system or in the court of public opinion. An elected official pledges to do better, to fix the problem, to reform the police. And the rage turns into a simmer as we wait for the cycle to inevitably begin again.
Last week, Minneapolis police officers shot and killed 22-year-old Amir Locke, a Black man who his parents say was asleep on a couch, while serving a no-knock warrant. Locke was not listed on the warrant and he legally possessed the gun on his person.
Locke’s tragic death comes at a time when the appetite for police reform has been put on the back burner by elected officials, maybe because there was a lull in the visibility of police violence. (Make no mistake about the frequency. According to a Washington Post database, 1,052 people were shot and killed by police in 2021.)
After several high-profile law enforcement killings in 2020, including that of George Floyd, cities across the country hopped back on the reform train. The death of Breonna Taylor, a 27-year-old awakened and killed by police serving a no-knock warrant, sparked a slew of reform laws, including limiting the use of no-knock warrants.
Minneapolis was one such city that declared it would make policing safer for the public. In November 2020, the city announced new restrictions on no-knock warrants but did not ban them.
It’s a great example of something heralded as police reform that has yielded very little of the desired results.
Now, more than a year later, Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey has halted no-knock warrants while they are under review by the city and police. But it’s still not actually a moratorium. Under the new policy, police officers can use no-knock warrants if there is an “imminent threat of harm” and the police chief has signed off on them.
The special carve-out that allows police to decide whether danger lurks right around the corner is the type of circumstance that will lead to another senseless death like Locke’s. Mayors of major cities may tout these policy changes but, in reality, they are just more of the same: Police policing themselves.
In Washington, D.C., Karon Hylton-Brown was killed in a fatal crash in October 2020 after Metropolitan Police Department officers pursued the 20-year-old on a motor scooter. The officers said they suspected Hylton-Brown was armed, but the chase violated the city’s no-chase policy. The officers involved have been indicted.
When New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo killed Eric Garner by putting him in a chokehold in 2014, the move had already been banned way back in 1993 after NYPD officers choked a 21-year-old man to death while his hands were handcuffed behind his back. So why did Pantaleo use it to subdue Garner for the crime of selling loose cigarettes? A report from The City found police officers were still using the banned chokehold even after Garner’s death.
Then in 2020, after Floyd’s death, the New York State Assembly passed a new law making “aggravated strangulation” a new crime.
These types of mealy-mouthed reforms leave the vast majority of the power in the hands of the police, who still decide what constitutes danger or fear. They can easily claim they were in fear of their lives when they burst into that Minneapolis apartment and saw a 22-year-old Black man with a gun.
The leeway that police officers have in deciding to use deadly force allows them to deflect claims of excessive force or violating policy. It’s much easier for an officer to claim that Locke was a threat than it is for Locke to claim the same, despite the police’s poor record of treating Black people like humans.
For now, Mayor Frey has enlisted the help of DeRay Mckesson. The activist first came to prominence in Ferguson, Missouri, during the protests sparked by the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014. Mckesson hasn’t been without fierce critics from the right and left, and during the George Floyd protests, his push to implement new policies to help curb police violence was ridiculed after critics pointed out that many of the policies were already in place and yet the deaths still continued.
Progressive police reform has failed to provide anything more than empty promises and deadly cycles of violence. Perhaps the problem is that law enforcement was designed to operate this way; too many liberal politicians and activists are trying to fix something that’s not broken.
In the end, I am sure the Minneapolis Police Department will pledge to do better. Maybe the police officers involved will face punishment. Or maybe not. But eventually, the news cycle will begrudgingly move on, and his loved ones will be left to mourn. But then the clock will restart. And it won’t be long before there is another dead Black person and yet more promises to reform the police.