Have Americans Lost Interest in Real Police Reform?

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Johanna Wald

Johanna Wald

It’s been five years since an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by police on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., triggering a wave of protests and nationwide efforts—including a federal task force—to address the legacy of frayed relations between police and communities. But the recurring stories about police shootings of civilians across the country since then have made it obvious that the central issue of American law enforcement has not been tackled.

These incidents arise from widespread, systemic problems—not the actions by individual “rogue” cops.

Media reporting has clouded the point. For example, during just one week in June 2019, a video depicting police officers in Phoenix terrorizing a black family with young children went viral; protests erupted in Memphis, Tenn., after a black man was shot and killed by police; a video surfaced of a Michigan police officer punching a handcuffed teenage girl in the back of a police car; and the shooting by a white officer of an African-American man in South Bend, Ind., broke the surging momentum of presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

Nat Kendall-Taylor

Nat Kendall-Taylor

The intense media attention paid to such incidents, in fact, has had a counter-intuitive effect. Support for comprehensive reform of the policing profession is “fading—particularly among whites, according to Bonnie Kristian, a commentator in This Week, who observed that “cases which once would (and should) have provoked national controversy were increasingly met with desensitization and indifference outside of local protests.”

This seems consistent with evidence that Americans see police shootings as a local problem rather than a systemic one. According to one poll, 57 percent of white Americans and 26 percent of black Americans “continue to see each incident as isolated and to resist the notion that it is indicative of systemic, not individual, problems.”

However, there is strong evidence, if one cares to look for it, that the problem extends beyond individual “rogue” cops or troubled police departments. An investigation by California’s Center for Investigative Reporting, published last month, found that 400 law enforcement officers across the country were members of white-power, anti-Islamic, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.

Thus far, police reform has not figured prominently in the 2020 election campaign.

Only two of the 23 Democratic presidential hopefuls—Julian Castro and Buttigieg—have presented detailed policy proposals for police reform. And the strength and focus of Buttigieg’s proposal, part of a “Douglass Plan” to “dismantle racist structures and systems,” was arguably a response to the anger of the South Bend African-American community following the shooting. In one of the first Democratic debate’s most widely quoted moments, when Buttigieg was asked why he had failed to live up to promises to diversify South Bend’s police department, he admitted, “I couldn’t get it done.”

How do we explain the lack of public demand for systemic policing reform, even as media coverage continues to remind us of the need for it?

Research conducted by our organization, the FrameWorks Institute, on how to more effectively communicate about justice issues provides some clues. Our research found that Americans overwhelmingly blame individual “rotten eggs” for most problems in the justice system.

We concluded:

If a story frames the issue in terms of a problematic individual—i.e. a “rational actor”—then the public won’t reason their way to systems-level solutions. … They will, in other words, focus on the person who committed the infraction rather than the structural issues that contributed to it. 

For much of the public, the “rational actor” frame, reinforced by a media narrative that also focuses on individuals and their decisions, cues up one—and only one—solution: Punish the wrongdoer.

We can see this in much of the policing discourse, where “justice” is equated with stepped-up prosecutions of police officers.

For example, one recent CNN story read:

In recent years, fatal shootings of unarmed black men across the United States have sparked outrage and concerns over police use of lethal force. Despite several high-profile cases and increased video evidence, convictions have been rare.

The limitations of this narrow “punish the officer” frame are apparent in the aftermath of the public release of an excruciating video of the above-mentioned case of police brutality against a black family in Phoenix. The police chief apologized, but insisted that “this incident is not representative of the majority of Phoenix police officers who serve this city.”

The victimized couple went before the media to demand the officers be fired. Sample Twitter responses followed suit, with many calling for the police officers to “lose their badges, lose their jobs, attend mandatory therapy, get fired, and do a little time themselves.”

Lost in this individually directed anger is the fact that, in 2018, the Phoenix Police Department shot more people (44) than any other police department in the country, including Los Angeles (33), New York (23), Philadelphia (12) and Dallas (4) The exclusive focus on the actions of the individual officers let the system off the hook altogether.

Addressing the Fatalism of “What Can We Do?”

When the rational actor frame cues up the need for punishment of an individual and that punishment doesn’t happen, then another common public response kicks in: fatalism.

Fatalism occurs when individuals are left with a powerful sense that little can be done to address the problem. Fatalism leaves people to wonder, “What can I do?” At an issue level, they reason that if the problem is bad people, “there isn’t much chance that this issue can be addressed.”

It is easy to see how “fatalism” dampens public support for police reform. By now, we can predict the chain of events that follow a video showing extreme and unnecessary police violence, usually committed by a white officer, against an unarmed individual—usually black. The public release of the video is followed by denials and justifications from the police agency and union, and community protests demanding that the officers involved either be fired, criminally charged, or both.

The police department, and/or the district attorney, pledges to investigate. Sometimes a grand jury is convened.

Then, either the individual officer is cleared by the investigation, not indicted by the grand jury, or the officer is indicted, then acquitted, or—rarely— convicted but given a lenient sentence. Later, we may hear about a financial settlement to the family, paid for by public funds, not the police department.

This recurring pattern reinforces the worst of the stories we tell ourselves about police and the potential for change: they are out of control and racist. But because they are protected by a biased criminal justice system determined to uphold the current power structure, they are able, literally, to get away with murder.

Fatalism is clearly present in the reaction of one South Bend community member who stated: Ain’t nothing gonna change for us. Ain’t nothing gonna change for us after Mayor Pete’s gone, either.”

Fatalism explains why few were surprised when, earlier this month, the Justice Department announced that no civil rights charges would be brought against Daniel Pantaleo, the white New York City police officer who put Eric Garner in a chokehold five years ago that likely brought on his death.

What would it take to get the public from where it currently is—focused on disciplining “rogue cops” and chronically disappointed, angered and hopeless when that does not happen—to a view of reform as systemic, urgent for the public good, and achievable?

FrameWorksThere are ways of explaining and framing these issues that can make public thinking more receptive to solutions that move beyond the individual case.

Some of these approaches to framing and storytelling are already being used. The following four organizations are making important efforts to reframe the police conversation in ways that move it from an individual “trouble” to a systemic “issue.”

        • Campaign Zero (offshoot of Black Lives Matter) lists 10 strategies that can provide broader solutions to police violence and abuse, ranging from ending “broken windows policing” to the establishment of independent prosecutions of police use-of-force incidents. The work clearly points to the systemic aspects at the root of our policing problems and avoids individualistic frames.
        • Strategies for Youth advocates, among other things, for training police officers in adolescent development, trauma, and de-escalation. (Full Disclosure; one of us consults for Strategies for Youth.) Strategies for Youth is careful in providing solutions that force people to look beyond corrupt individuals at the deeper issues and problems that underlie police violence.
        • Color of Change has advocated for a comprehensive public national database that tracks stops, arrests and use of force, and for federal officials to identify patterns of misconduct and address policies incentivizing police brutality. This work paints a picture that forces us to see larger patterns and makes it hard to fall back on “bad cops” as the answer to our current problems.
        • The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) calls for better use of data and litigation, toward the ultimate goal of reversing “the longstanding adversarial relationship between police and communities.” Like the examples above, the ACLU is reframing the conversation by consistently communicating at the systems level and avoiding frames that cue people’s individualistic.

Within these approaches lie the seeds of a different story about police violence and reform, one which emphasizes pragmatism, greater accountability, a shared vision for communities, working for the common good, and achievable measures of success.

While such a framework does not preclude criminal charges against individual police officers, it does not view that action as the sole, or even primary, solution to police abuse.

Change the Frame, Change Understanding

 A recent analysis by Josh Marshall in Talking Points Memo of a video of a police shooting provides a further example of how we might shift the focus from the individual culpability of the officer (who, in this case, was prosecuted) to addressing the need for effective training in implicit bias.

In the video, a white police officer stops a black driver and asks him for his license and registration. The man does as instructed, reaching into his car to retrieve these, when the officer shoots him multiple times.

During the remainder of the video, the two men are in dialogue, with the man asking, genuinely bewildered, why the police officer shot him, and the police officer seems increasingly nonplussed by what he has done. Marshall wrote that this video “is a remarkable example of how the presumption of dangerousness drives violent police conduct towards people of color.”

The officer’s behavior, he noted, reflected an instinctive reaction to see “black people through a prism of threat and fear.”

Implicit bias training is now included in recruit training in law enforcement agencies such as the New York Police Department. This training recognizes how deeply embedded, but often unconscious, racial bias affects judgment and decision-making. This approach is an example of the kind of reframing strategies that help focus our attention on the root causes and myriad achievable remedies for police violence.

Greater attention to these strategies may also push the media to focus less on individual culpability and more on the field’s underlying structural weaknesses.

Ultimately, fundamental changes in police behavior are only possible when our political leaders, driven by evolving public opinion, take seriously solutions that focus on transforming systems, rather than solely on punishing individuals.

Johanna Wald is a writer and researcher whose work has been published in The Marshall Project, Slate Magazine, Education Week, the Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and the Crime Report. Nat Kendall-Taylor is a psychological anthropologist and the CEO of the FrameWorks Institute. He leads a team that studies how people think about social issues and how frames can expand the public discussion.