Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, settle in for a moment. Let's have a brief conversation about the history of policing reform in our country. The key takeaway from this history, efforts to reform police are not new. Even a cursory review of the American story shows us just how often Americans have used issues of public safety and policing as a way to express the core values and address the changing realities of communities, politics, and even technology.
At the turn of the 20th century, policing reform was all about professionalization, innovations like beat patrolmen, and concepts like social control emerged. Nearly 100 years ago in 1928, Herbert Hoover established the first national commission to study crime and policing. The commission's report found "lawlessness" in law enforcement and directed attention towards police misconduct. In the 1960s, police action against civil rights demonstrators and against student anti-war protestors renewed scrutiny and calls for reform.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the 1990s, we saw the pendulum shift when the President Clinton crime bill defined police as the solution to public ills and funneled millions into local departments.
President Bill Clinton: People who admit crimes should be caught, convicted, and punished. This bill puts government on the side of those who abide by the law, not those who break it
Melissa Harris-Perry: High-profile police slayings of unarmed Black men and boys during the second term of President Obama pushed reform to the top of the agenda and led to the creation of the Presidential Task Force on 21st Century Policing, almost a century after Harvard Hoover's. Yet for all this history, push and pull, investment in and criticism of the police, it did feel to many observers like the summer of 2020 was a definitive turning point.
Lisa Bender: Our commitment is to end policing as we know it and to recreate systems of public safety that actually keep us safe.
Melissa Harris-Perry: After police officer, Derek Chauvin, murdered George Floyd, people across the country demanded racial justice and amplified a national movement to defund the police.
All: Take it to the streets. Defund the police now. No justice, no peace.
Melissa Harris-Perry: At that time, several large cities and counties promised to restructure local police budgets with plans to reinvest in community programs, but those promises have largely faded or reversed course completely. In late '20 and 2021, there were reports of rising homicide rates and violent crime. Many Republican lawmakers pointed to police reformers as the cause of this rising crime, and it sent many Democrats into a defensive crouch. During the past last year, many localities have reacted by increasing police budgets.
In Los Angeles, the city council voted in 2020 to shift 150 million from the LAPD budget to reinvest in communities of color but added 50 million in fiscal year 2022 with more proposed for 2023. In Austin, Texas, the city council cut the police budget by one-third amid protests back in 2020, but the Austin police department budget now stands at a record high. In New York City, then-mayor Bill de Blasio pledged in 2020 to shift $1 billion from the police department's $6 billion budget but increased the budget by 200 million for the fiscal year 2022.
In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, a majority of the city council pledged to dismantle the police department saying they would create a new department of public safety in its place. Last November, voters rejected the idea. During that November election, many voters across the country favored mayoral candidates who campaigned on public safety and described themselves as tough on crime.
Mayor Eric Adams: We need to fight crime. We need to make sure that we have the right supervision, but we also need to rebuild the trust between the good New Yorkers and our law enforcement community
Melissa Harris-Perry: During 2020, at least 30 states in Washington, DC passed laws that addressed police accountability, but it's difficult to ensure local police departments are following new guidelines because there is no mandatory federal database to house statistics. Meanwhile, the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act remain stalled in the Senate. The bill would HAve enacted sweeping federal police reform that would ban certain police techniques, including chokeholds and forms of potentially deadly force. It would have ended qualified immunity, a legal provision that makes it difficult to sue police officers for any wrongdoing. At President Biden's State of the Union Address in March, he opposed calls to defund the police.
President Joe Biden: We should all agree, the answer is not to defund the police, it's to fund the police.
President Joe Biden: Fund them.
Melissa Harris-Perry: New York Representative Ritchie Torres has joined The Takeaway back in February to help us make sense of this shifting rhetoric.
Representative Ritchie Torres: Most Americans, most Democrats favor reforming rather than abolishing or even defunding the police. I think what most people want is neither over-policing or under-policing, but better policing, right? More transparent and accountable policing. That's the theory behind the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, which would abolish qualified immunity, which has become a license to brutalize Black and brown lives with impunity. I'm a strong champion of criminal justice reform and police reform, but I would have concerns about arbitrary defunding to the extent that some have proposed
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and that's where we start on The Takeaway.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's talk with Phillip Atiba Goff. He's the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, and a professor of African American studies in psychology at Yale University. Phillip, it is so great to have you here.
Phillip Atiba Goff: Melissa, so glad to be reconnected.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Absolutely. Let me ask, it's been a while since we've talked, is the movement for police accountability over?
Phillip Atiba Goff: Never. It will never be over so long as we have policing and we've got Black folks in the United States. I think the window for radical change on a national scale, that window feels like it has closed, but that, by the way, should not be the most distressing thing. It opens and it closes at semi-regular intervals. Where we are right now is a place where we should be preparing for the next window being ready to push through as much as we can, and trying to get coalitions together so that we're doing that in a unified way.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about getting ready for the next possible window, I'm thinking about the news this weekend of a mass shooting in Sacramento, at least six dead, another dozen wounded. I'm wondering, in this moment, we have those high-profile incidents. Is that part of what leads to the call for this other window for more police funding?
Phillip Atiba Goff: Yes. One of the places that we were pre the public lynching of George Floyd, we were in a moment where folks were starting to coalesce around a set of reforms, harm reduction measures in the systems that we had, but we hadn't really reckoned with two things. One, the fact that if you allow police to be the first responders to major crises for which they could never be trained, if you allow police and punishment to be the response to a lack of investment, then you're going to end up with terrible outcomes in vulnerable communities.
The second thing we hadn't really reckoned with is what violence actually looks like in communities. God forbid, we should see an increase in violence for the first time in a couple of decades. Both of those untreated unaddressed issues came to the fore post-George Floyd in 2020, and now we're recalibrating.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dig in a little bit on that first point about police being first responders to crises that they could never be trained for because part of what I heard President Biden say in the context of his State of the Union Address was the reason they need more funding isn't because everything's okay, but because they can be trained to be the right kind of first responder.
Phillip Atiba Goff: Yes. For a lot of folks who are working in the space, either the boring scientists like me or the activists and organizers, that was incredibly dispiriting language because President Biden knows in the same way that law enforcement knows, you will never train someone who can be equally good at responding to someone in mental health crisis, and substance abuse, who is homeless, who is having child welfare issues and to respond to an active shooter. Someone who can do all of those things is a Rhodes scholar wrapped inside of a Navy SEAL, wrapped inside a state department person, wears a cap, and is allergic to kryptonite.
Those people do not exist outside of comic books, and we should stop pretending like we can train people to do that. Law enforcement knows that and has been screaming to high heaven for the last two decades, "Get us out of these places where you could never train us to do this, but you yell at us when we do it wrong." That sounds in a different way a lot like what activists have been calling for in the last two years, only law enforcement's been doing it for two decades.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of what you're speaking to you when you say we know this is you're speaking to data. You call yourself a boring scientist, but that question of data, of what we actually know, isn't that in fact quite opaque and obscured in the area of policing because we don't collect data?
Phillip Atiba Goff: Yes. I wish we would know more than we do. In 2017, there was a National Academy of Sciences consensus panel. This is where you get a bunch of very boring people with elbow patches on their jackets together, and we decide what does the science absolutely say and what do we not know for sure just yet? It was about does proactive policing, the idea of going out where we think the crime might happen, does that do anything to reduce crime, and does it do anything to exacerbate racial disparities? There was lots of data that said it had some good, short, and even some medium-term on crime.
It reduces crime, but we hadn't been even bothering to measure what it does to racial disparity such that there was all kinds of great historical precedent. There was suggestive data, mine among it, but very, very little that was conclusive and no scientific consensus on how bad it was for racial disparities. Just imagine spending decades studying policing and not having gotten to consensus that there even are racial disparities that are driven by policing. That's the state of the science because we haven't bothered to collect those data either nationally or as scientists, and so yes, in some places, we just don't know so there can't be a consensus.
That said, we absolutely know [chuckles] that policing just from a moral perspective, from a values perspective, and from a scientific perspective, you cannot train law enforcement to handle all of the things we've decided not to give money and resources to in vulnerable communities. There is nobody serious who thinks that you can, except when we start talking about making sure that budgets line up with where aspirations lead on the police side.
That's a place where, as a scientist, I can feel very confident because when you talk to people, that counts too. No one who I know who's in charge of a law enforcement agency, no one I know who's looking at data and budgets, and no one who I know who looks at the kinds of training that are available thinks you can train law enforcement to do every damn thing.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Phillip, what are some of those other things? What are the things that even police themselves have been saying they want to get out of the business of being first responders too?
Phillip Atiba Goff: It's situations of vulnerability where violence is not necessarily indicated. If someone's in the midst of a mental health crisis, it is not always the case that a badge and a gun is de-escalating and calming for somebody. In those cases, you want to train mental health responder. Sometimes those things turn violent or they started violent, that's why somebody called, in which case you can have response models where community mental health responders show up and then they call for police backup.
It's not that we're leaving people out there just to fend for themselves, but it doesn't make sense to have someone who got a day, maybe a week of critical incident training to go out and respond to someone who's thinking about ending their life or who is in the midst of a crisis. In the same way, substance use and abuse and counseling, law enforcement sometimes has deep experience with that, but oftentimes can't be trained to do it when someone is unhoused and often has some substance abuse and mental health issues all at the same time. Those are all things that people get trained to do. It is a full-time gig with credentials, often you take college courses for it, you get degrees in it.
Why on Earth are the same people we have to train to be responding to active shooters getting trained to deal with all of those systems? I got to say this too. Those are the other systems they don't want to have to be in crisis response to, but we wouldn't need to put them in crisis response mode if we gave folks resources, if we gave community resources to prevent the crisis in the first place. A lot of the fight is making sure communities have the resources upfront and they wouldn't have to call 911 when they're doing so right now. I wish we were talking more about that in our national conversation.
Melissa Harris-Perry: National conversations, ideas, theories, they matter. We were both professors. If they don't matter, we got to basically quit our jobs. On the other hand, I'm also just wondering about pure strategy. If there's going to be another billion in the police department, isn't it possible for progressive reformers to establish an arm of the police department which doesn't have any guns or badges, but simply is taking its resources from the police department but doing exactly the work that you just talked about? Is there any capacity in these more progressive cities that initially tried to reduce funding for the police to basically reallocate those funding and call it police funding?
Phillip Atiba Goff: There are definitely roots to do that. You're going to see a lot of folks who have been activists looking to shrink the footprint of law enforcement argue for exactly that. It works sometimes. You have what are called co-response models, which is through the police department, they send out folks who are not armed and they're trained to deal with these sorts of crises that are nonviolent.
The concern that folks have, and it's well-founded in history, is that once the money's flowing through law enforcement, they could just cut those programs. It's not just about standing the programs up but making sure that they are robust to changes in city government changes, in law enforcement executives so that you don't have it for two or three years and then the money just gets converted into tanks following that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There's a name I want to mention that's Breonna Taylor. It's been a little over two years since Breonna's death and the city of Louisville has banned no-knock warrants. The state of Kentucky has paused restrictions on its use, but it is still in use in other parts of the country. What steps have we seen to at least limit these no-knock warrants?
Phillip Atiba Goff: We have. No-knock warrants have been banned in a number of cities post the terrible Breonna Taylor incident. We've also seen the chance that the prohibition against no-knock warrants would get segmented out of the Justice and Policing Act at the federal level. It's still banning about because the consequences are when it goes wrong, it is disgusting. Before Breonna Taylor, we're talking multiple incidents of flash-bang grenades going off in babies' cribs and deforming infants when they got the wrong house. By the way, I don't know if you get the right house if that could ever be okay, but extra tragic when it was a clerical era that leads to that kind of intervention.
There are opportunities to ban chokeholds in a way that actually sticks. The problem, of course, is if we keep sending law enforcement to the places where we fail to send care, there are always going to be those moments, those "mistakes" where people are dying, where people are experiencing brutality from the state after they've failed to receive any care from it. That's not going to be sufficient post-George Floyd and post-Breonna Taylor and I'm glad for that. I'm glad that we've reached a point where communities are not going to accept that as an outcome where we have for centuries before.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Are you feeling hopeful?
Phillip Atiba Goff: I feel like optimism in the face of reality is a revolutionary act and you got to try and be a revolutionary every day. I don't think it's going to happen in the next 5 months, but I think the next 5, 10 years, we're going to get some wins and some wins we can be proud of.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Phillip Atiba Goff is the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale University. Thanks so much for being here.
Phillip Atiba Goff: So great to talk to you, Melissa.
Melissa Harris-Perry: If you have an opinion, call us at 877-869-8253. That's our number, 877-8-mytake.
Jen: Hi. This is Jen in Austin, Texas. This effort of the administration to give more money to police departments is offensive. It is a slap in the face to activists. We voted for Democrats because they pretended like they were on our side and instead they are doubling down.
Denise: Hi. This is Denise from Dallas, Texas. If they are planning on giving police more money, I hope it is in the vein of defund the police where they were going to disperse it to other organizations for mental health and have teams like that. If that is what they're doing, I'm all for it, but if it's just to arm the police with more weapons and such, then I don't care for that.
Carol: Hi. This is Carol from Philadelphia. Regarding the funding for the police, why not? We've got 13 billion for Ukraine and we've got unlimited funds for the Pentagon and unlimited funds for the police, but we have nothing to the people and nothing considering COVID. Biden is unsurprisingly even worse than Trump and America is on the decline.
John: Hi. My name is John. I'm in West Palm Beach, Florida. I'm all for increasing funding to the police departments, but I don't think it should happen without each department submitting a plan. Otherwise, who knows what's going to happen to that money?
Mark: Hey. It's Mark in Little Rock, Arkansas. I think pushing for extra funding for police is a knee-jerk reaction to many pervasive existing problems. How about more money and training and vetting for the policemen and women who are already on the job?
Erica Connor: Hello. My name is Erica Connor. It's just to try and terrorize the Black and brown community to give them more ammunition to kill us.
[00:20:22] [END OF AUDIO]
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