After months of protests organized around the refrain “defund the police,” Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden offered up a different slogan.
“Most cops are good,” the former vice president proclaimed at the Democratic National Convention last week, “but the fact is the bad ones have to be identified and prosecuted and out, period.”
Just a few days later, a thousand miles apart from each other, police officers shot two Black men in the back, apparently for walking away. Trayford Pellerin, whom police tased before shooting 10 times, died in Lafayette, Louisiana; Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as his children watched, is reportedly paralyzed. The fallout took a familiar shape: Videos emerged, people took to the streets, and protests erupted (sometimes literally—several businesses and the Department of Corrections building were set on fire in Kenosha). Police met their critics with tear gas, smoke grenades, and violence. The officers caught on video were placed on leave; investigations are ongoing into both cases.
“This calls for an immediate, full and transparent investigation and the officers must be held accountable,” Biden said in a statement on Blake’s shooting Monday.
It was a reasonable enough reaction, as a reaction. But it underscored Biden’s—and his party’s—utter lack of a plan for fixing the American system of policing so these shootings wouldn’t happen in the first place.
Biden’s approach to policing, as he articulated at the convention, is built on an old and reassuring political cliché—that there are good cops and bad ones, and abusive policing can be solved by separating out the bad from the good. The assumption behind this is that the tools and policies that will end police misconduct already exist, and it’s just a matter of properly applying what we know will work. Body cameras will capture the actions of bad officers who can then, in theory, be investigated and punished. Training programs are designed to make individual officers aware of their own biases so they stop doing racially discriminatory things. Stricter use-of-force policies make it clearer when someone crosses a line, and encourage police to find alternatives to escalating violence. Federal consent decrees can focus on finding what individual police departments are doing wrong and fixing them.
Central to Biden’s plan is the concept of community policing—the idea that putting more officers on foot patrol in heavily policed communities will help build trust on both sides. As he wrote in a USA Today op-ed in June:
I’ve long been a firm believer in the power of community policing—getting cops out of their cruisers and building relationships with the people and the communities they are there to serve and protect. That’s why I’m proposing an additional $300 million to reinvigorate community policing in our country. Every single police department should have the money it needs to institute real reforms like adopting a national use of force standard, buying body cameras and recruiting more diverse police officers.
Community policing is the opposite philosophy of defunding the police; it floods Black and brown neighborhoods with police officers. In its best iteration, which focuses on building relationships, it expands the role of police officers to encompass social work, mental health treatment, and other jobs that defund advocates argue should be handled by specially trained, unarmed professionals.
It wouldn’t necessarily hurt to make the police forces that shot Blake and Pellerin sit through more hours of training to help officers learn that unleashing a hail of bullets on people walking away from them is inappropriate. But even if you believe training and policy reforms can fix abuse, adding more police in the name of community policing would just mean even more officers would need to be retrained and reformed.
As it happens, both Kenosha and Lafayette have already embraced community policing and been paid well for it. Kenosha received a $100,000 grant from the Justice Department to institute community policing in 2018 and, after George Floyd was killed, pledged to increase de-escalation training and build stronger relationships with the community. In 2017, Lafayette received $1.2 million from the DOJ to spend on community policing after creating a new community relations committee.
It’s possible a Biden administration would be more discerning with federal funds or would condition the money on certain reforms. But Biden has not yet articulated any standards or benchmarks for what success would look like. And at this point, even Biden could not say with a straight face that police violence is a problem isolated to Kenosha or Lafayette.
The shootings over the weekend were no anomaly. They were embedded in routine policework. Only one out of 100 of the largest city police forces in the United States did not kill someone between January 2013 and December 2019, according to data analysis by Mapping Police Violence, a research collaborative founded by Black Lives Matter organizers. There have only been 12 days this year when police did not kill someone.
The departments that shot Jacob Blake and Trayford Pellerin should be thoroughly scrutinized.* But it’s also important to recognize that these shootings are not just discrete events by discrete wrongdoers who can easily be isolated and punished. Piecemeal reforms like requiring body cameras or bias trainings simply can’t address the enormity of the epidemic we’re facing. In the years since the Obama administration lavished funding on police departments for community policing, body cameras, and other reforms, the rate of police shootings nationwide has remained steady.
The argument over whether individual cops are good or bad people, whether “most cops are good” or all cops are bastards, obscures the nature of policing. It’s likely that many—even most!—cops are decent people who got into the job to make a difference and support their families. Because defunding police departments has long been a politically toxic proposal even as other public services are cut to the bone, policing has become one of the few remaining middle-class jobs programs.
But the profession of policing is, by definition, violent. Police exist to enforce a social order. Officially, that order is called “the law”—catching and separating “criminals” from “law-abiding citizens.” But in America, that order has always been organized around keeping Black people and poor people in check, while ignoring other kinds of lawbreakers in corporate boardrooms and white enclaves. As many others have pointed out, modern policing was born out of slave patrols in the South and controlling immigrant workers in the North. Now, the lengths to which law enforcement groups will go to maintain that order are becoming clearer as opposition grows.
Since the resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests began in June, police and their supporters in government all over the country have brazenly manipulated the law against their critics. New York officers ambushed and surrounded the home of a Black Lives Matter activist and disappeared a protester into an unmarked van. Texas police officers have devoted the summer to hunting down protesters, charging them with crimes, and announcing their arrests to the public. Local police in Virginia brought felony charges against the first Black leader of the state Senate shortly before she planned to vote on criminal justice reform legislation, because she attended a protest where a Confederate monument was defaced. When her daughter, a city vice mayor, called for the police chief’s resignation, they brought criminal charges against her, too. Last week, Tennessee’s governor signed a law turning certain types of protest into felonies that strip people of their voting rights. And all the while, police continually threaten to abandon their jobs if they face further criticism.
In isolation, each of these actions could be viewed as a symptom of a few rogue officers or a few corrupt departments. Taken together, they start to look a lot like a project to consolidate power and quash dissent.
The increasing boldness of this project will require equally bold antidotes. Patchwork proposals and yet more funding will do nothing—even modest reforms like banning chokeholds are being met with open defiance by police organizations. As long as political leaders insist that problems in policing are exceptional, distinct instances of bad apples, it will be impossible to meaningfully assess how far the rot goes. Calls for investigations don’t convince anyone anymore. This is why hundreds of people in the streets want to defund the police. This is why they keep showing up, even as they are tear-gassed and beaten. This is why they’re burning it all down.
After Biden proclaimed that most cops are good, he paused and turned to speak with Gwen Carr, whose son, Eric Garner, was choked to death by police and ignited a movement, to ask her what she thought should be done.
“When my son was murdered, there was a big uprising, but then it settled down,” she said. “We can’t let things settle down.”
Correction, Aug. 26, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Jacob Blake was killed. He is still alive.