|Suzanne Ghais a mediator, facilitator, trainer, and author with thirty years in the fields of conflict resolution and international peacebuilding and peacemaking. She is particularly good at helping groups with strong differences reach agreements and work together. Suzanne first published this article on her own blog on July 16 and she sent it to us after reading our August 27th Newsletter. It is very relevant to our discussions on this blog, so I asked Suzanne if we could reprint it here, and she willingly agreed. We encourage others with thoughts on this issue or others related to the current U.S. polarization and escalation to send us your thoughts!|
Like everyone else who watched it, I was horrified and sickened to watch police kill George Floyd in an act that could only be called murder. I’ve been crushed to see the steady stream of videos of police killing Black men (and sometimes Black women or children, and sometimes White people) with dubious justification. I’ve been exhilarated to see mass, multiracial protests calling for the lives of Black people to be treated with the same respect accorded to others, and I’m hopeful that the mass nonviolent action will bring about meaningful change both in tackling racism (both individual and systemic) and reforming policing.
As a longtime conflict resolution practitioner, however, I see an element of the unrest that troubles me. I see police forces and many communities in a spiral of conflict escalation. There are elements of both “sides”—and I’m oversimplifying of course, because there are thousands of local police forces in the United States and at least as many communities—that are caught in a pattern of mutual demonization.
First, on the police side: police too often view the communities they patrol as the enemy. Some police training seems to cast the job of policing in highly militaristic terms. The supplying of military weaponry and training to local police forces doesn’t help, nor does Israeli training, nor do police unions. There is a huge variation among those thousands of local police forces, but the overall pattern is that American police are far more violent than their counterparts in other wealthy countries. Even a non-Latino White American has 26 times more chance of being killed by police gunfire as a German, and for Black Americans, it’s three times higher than for Whites. No surprise, then, that police struggle to gain the trust of the communities they are sworn to serve.
|People are naturally angry, yes, and the social contract is broken, but hatred and violence (or excusing others’ violence) towards police will only reinforce their perception of citizens as the enemy. Nonviolent activism, to be sure, may take almost superhuman restraint but is ultimately more effective.|
n the other side of this strained relationship, hate-mongering towards police has reached a fever pitch in recent weeks. The popular hashtag “#ACAB” stands for “all cops are bastards.” While the recent protests have been overwhelmingly peaceful and the much-publicized throwing of projectiles at police was small-scale, what concerns me more is the number of people I’ve come across lately justifying that violence. People are naturally angry, yes, and the social contract is broken, but hatred and violence (or excusing others’ violence) towards police will only reinforce their perception of citizens as the enemy. Nonviolent activism, to be sure, may take almost superhuman restraint but is ultimately more effective.
The recent calls to “defund the police” are symptomatic of this hatred. Granted, the actual meaning of this phrase can range from shifting funding from policing to much-needed social services to total abolition of police forces. The former approach could make sense if done carefully and case by case (although arguably American police should get more training, which would take more funds). The latter—abolition of police—is misguided. This movement may have the benefit of making serious police reforms seem like the moderate option, but a nation without police will not be more peaceful.
We need police, as the next school shooting will tragically remind us. Yes, there is at least one impressive example of a peaceful volunteer security force, but we’re kidding ourselves to believe everyone would self-police this way. Instead, security would become, like health care and so much else, a luxury the wealthy can afford but others cannot: we’d have private security firms operating around upscale neighborhoods and large businesses, while the poor would fall victim—even more than they already are—to gangs, militias, and vigilantes of the sort that killed Ahmaud Arbery and Trayvon Martin. At best, we might see some well-meaning and well-armed but undisciplined neighborhood self-defense groups. The common thread: total lack of accountability.
|The presence of weapons is itself not a cause of conflict (it’s true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”), but the more weapons, the more numerous and severe the casualties. Indeed, the more guns in a community, the more fatal shootings by police. Gun reform must go hand-in-hand with police reform.|
Speaking of arms, another feature of the escalating American police-community conflict is an arms race. If American police are notoriously trigger-happy, surely this is a contributor to the problem—for police, it’s shoot or be shot. The presence of weapons is itself not a cause of conflict (it’s true that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”), but the more weapons, the more numerous and severe the casualties. Indeed, the more guns in a community, the more fatal shootings by police. Gun reform must go hand-in-hand with police reform.
We’re still left with the reality that some, especially African-Americans, have reason to feel more threatened by police than protected. This must change. Constructive engagement on police reform can bring about true public safety for people of all races and economic levels. There are lots of experts and writings on police reform (much of it abroad, like this). I won’t attempt to prescribe the specific reforms (many popular ones are ill-supported by evidence). I will, however, identify some key characteristics of a process to reform policing, community by community, in a way that not just improves policing but (re)builds trust:
Effective police reform processes will be locally specific, evidence based, inclusive, conesnsus based, and transparent.
Locally specific: Every community is different, every police-community relationship is different, and some police forces do far better than others, so the best solutions will and should differ.
- Evidence based: The decentralized nature of US policing is an asset here—it offers a vast source of data on what works and what doesn’t. The federal government could help fund much-needed research to determine what reforms actually work, and creative ideas should be welcome.
- Inclusive: A decision-making process should deeply engage stakeholder groups, including municipal governments, state and federal officials, police leadership, police unions, and organized community groups representing racial/ethnic groups, public health, mental health, domestic violence, etc. There should also be multiple modes of public participation.
- Consensus based: Change will be most sustainable when these key stakeholders buy in to the reforms.
- Transparent: There should be plenty of sunshine on the decision-making process and outcome—no back-room deals.
While it may be frustrating that the federal government can’t solve our policing problems in one stroke, the necessarily local nature of police reform is an opportunity: the individual, engaged citizen can have an enormous impact. Such local engagement will make the difference between a “moment” that passes and the start of meaningful change.