The Hankison Verdict and the Local and National Debate on Policing
On Feb. 2, police in Minneapolis, whose killing of George Floyd set off protests across the world, killed 22-year-old Amir Locke. They were executing a no-knock warrant, the kind that had been nationally condemned after Louisville police killed Breonna Taylor while using one.
On March 1, President Biden gave his State of the Union address. It did not include a strong call for police reform, as had his major address to the nation in 2021. It did not include an executive order on police reform, as had been rumored in the weeks before the speech, but was causing grumbling from police-affiliated groups. Locke’s name was not mentioned, as Floyd’s had been a year earlier. Instead, the president forcefully declared that America must “fund the police.” This was not a comment intended to change police funding. (America already has very well-funded police departments, most of which have seen increases, not cuts, in funding over the last two years. And police funding is generally done at the local and state level, so Biden has limited influence here.) His remarks were intended to rebuke the small-but-vocal group of left-leaning activists who have embraced the slogan “defund the police” and assure Americans (read white moderates and conservatives) that Biden is not with them.
On March 3, a jury found one-time former Louisville Metro Police Department officer Brett Hankison not guilty of all charges filed against him because of his actions on the night of the raid that resulted in Taylor’s killing. So while several of the officers involved in the raid have been forced out of Louisville's police department, the way Taylor died apparently was perfectly legal, if not justified, since none of them have been convicted of any criminal acts.
There are several things happening at once in America. Over the last two years, there have been more reforms than ever aimed at reining in aggressive policing practices. That’s good. But it’s not clear that the reforms, which tend to be fairly limited, are having much impact. Police killed at least 1,055 people in 2021, according to the Washington Post, more than the 1,021 in 2020 and the 999 in 2019. Officers who kill people and/or behave in overly-aggressive ways are rarely charged with crimes and if charged, are rarely convicted.
And the momentum for reforming policing has slowed. Biden throughout his career has followed more than lead on policy issues—and his switch from leaning into police reform in 2021 to barely discussing it in 2022 suggests that’s where the political winds are blowing. Republican politicians basically view the issue as white officers vs. black protestors and unsurprisingly have taken the officers’ side. (This framing is not particularly accurate or useful. The problem is more the structure and uses of policing, police leadership, and police unions, rather than individual officers. I know some great people who are or have served as police officers. And while black people are disproportionately killed by police, the plurality of victims of police killings are white.)
Democratic politicians basically embrace that same framing. So they are terrified that embracing aggressive policing changes will get them labeled as too pro-black and anti-white, a bad electoral position in a majority-white country. It’s now fairly clear that some of the anti-racist, pro-police reform fervor of 2020 from many rank and file Democratic voters may have been anti-Trump sentiment as much as anything else. And the mainstream media, in its attempts to seem neutral, has also stopped covering police abuses as aggressively as it did in 2020. We have seen an increase in murder rates, although they are nothing like the rates of the 1980 and 1990s. Media coverage has implied that the protests and the police reforms have caused this murder increase, despite almost no evidence that is true. Police unions have of course advanced this narrative (the reforms and protests are causing the murder increases) because they opposed the reforms and protests anyway.
What should be happening instead? It appears that five things are true, all at the same time:
There are crimes committed in America every day. Many of these are financial or white-collar crimes where the rich are ripping off the poor. And those tend not to make the 10 p.m. news like murders in West Louisville due. That said, in a nation awash with guns, we will have many violent crimes that result in people’s deaths. Republican judges and politicians won’t allow common-sense restrictions on gun ownership. So in this broader context, it’s hard to imagine that the America of today can exist without some armed police forces.
The police forces we have tend to treat people who are Black and Latino worse than white people, resist oversight and reform and act like they are a political constituency to be appeased as opposed to being employees of the citizens. So incremental police reforms often don’t work, in part because the police ignore them and are not sanctioned. Also, while many of these killings are justified because there are real threats to the officers’ lives, the 1000 police killings per year are essentially 1000 instances of the death penalty. (An officer of the state is killing a civilian.) But these are 1000 death penalties without trials, appeals, lawyers or judges.
The connection between crime prevention and policing isn’t perfectly clear. It is almost certainly the case that if every city in America had four times the police that they have now, they would have less crime. But it’s not clear if they would have four times less crime. We have crime surges and drops in America that aren’t usually tied to police spending.
Policing is now more than ever a partisan and ideological issue. Being fairly skeptical of policing is a left-wing Democratic view, supporting police reforms but emphasizing how much you respect police is the center-left Democratic position, being largely against policing changes is a Republican position. Real policing reforms will be hard to implement as long as 45 percent of voters nationally and about 40 percent in Louisville (Republicans) are being told by their party leaders that police reform is bad and puts black interests above white ones.
The case for real changes to policing has not been made fully even to Democratic voters. Phrases like “defund” and “abolish” police aren’t popular, even among Democrats and even black Democrats. That’s partly because the people behind these ideas don’t have the political power and ability to get the favorable media coverage of those who oppose their ideas (police leaders.) But it’s also because most adult Americans have grown up watching hundreds of hours of television depicting ‘good” police officers and prosecutors taking on “bad” and clearly guilty people. Also, many Americans live in areas where crime is a real, tangible problem. They fear both violent crime and police violence. The people working to reduce police violence probably are not doing a strong enough job addressing concerns about violent crime.
What does this all mean? My sense is that incremental police reforms (banning no-knock warrants, hiring more black officers) aren’t really going to work, at least in terms of limiting the worst police abuses. What the defund/abolish crowd has right, in my view, is that reducing the size, power and budget of the larger police apparatus is probably necessary to rein in these abuses. The defund framing has a political problem. It is almost certainly the case that framing these efforts as “divest/invest” (divesting from policing to investing in non-policing alternatives) or “re-imagining policing” (the phrasing used by former President Obama) would be more palatable than “defund” to most rank and file voters.
But I think the bigger barrier is substance. It would be really useful to have a prominent figure who embraces defund/abolish/divest/invest/reimagine articulate clearly and repeatedly how a city with a smaller police budget and more social services will have less crime—or at least not have more crime than before.
Thanks for reading. This is a newsletter on government and elections with a focus on the state of Kentucky and the city of Louisville. You can subscribe here.