Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Beyond Reform

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, June 6, 2020 --  

Countries around the world have disbanded incorrigible police forces. It's time for cities across America to do the same.

When Los Angeles police were caught on camera brutally beating Rodney King after a traffic stop, an outraged public demanded justice.  But the officers' subsequent acquittal sparked protests around the city. Fury over police impunity for targeting black men degraded into rioting that killed dozens and burned large sections of Los Angeles.

That was 1992.  Calls for reform to correct institutional racism and police brutality were made against police departments around the country.  Yet 28 years on, these incidents are still happening.  The recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers has sparked a new wave of protests worldwide.

Nobody can argue that the police don't know better.  Although many of today's beat cops were either not yet born or were too young to remember the Rodney King incident, their senior commanders most certainly remember it.  Either they didn't learn the lesson, or simply chose to continue business as usual.

The fact that police departments have failed to reform themselves over the last three decades proves that they are incapable of reforming.   After weeks of mass protests against the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police, the City Council rightly expressed Its intent to disband the city's widely maligned force.1

Radical as it sounds, disbanding police forces is possible and  has been successfully done around the world.

In Lima and Mexico City, bribe-seeking traffic cops have been replaced over the past two decades as new all female forces under the theory that women are less inclined to extort money.  After making the change, public opinion in Lima finds women better suited than men to traffic enforcement.2

A far more draconian change took place 16 years ago in  the Republic of Georgia in the Caucasus.  After the Rose revolution, the new government abolished the country's much hated and corrupt police force starting in July 2004 and built a new one from scratch.  Half of the 30,000 strong traffic police force was fired on the first day. But they didn't stop there -- the remaining police units were eliminated over subsequent months.3

Meanwhile, a new force was quickly recruited and trained.  Despite serious problems of rushed and insufficient training that continued for years, public trust in the new force still improved dramatically.

It's not just foreign countries that can make these changes.  Here in the United States, the city if Camden,  New Jersey laid off its entire force in May 2013 and replaced it with a new county police force.4  The primary motivation was to cut high costs by busting the union rather than fighting brutality.  But the fact that the troubled city was able to replace a dysfunctional force for any reason shows that it is indeed possible to do in America.

Can Minneapolis do something similar?  Despite the city council's noble intent, it is far from clear they will be successful.  The County Sheriff has said he has "no appetite" to help the city enforce laws if the police department is disbanded.5 Such resistance from neighboring departments is hardly surprising given the strong tradition of police to stick together.  The implicit threat is that if a city dares to confront the police, neighboring departments might stand by and do nothing in the case of trouble.

Indeed the "thin blue line" of unbreakable police solidarity is by far the biggest impediment to reform.  Cops stick together at all costs, often looking the other way at fellow officers' violent malfeasance rather than speak up for the sake of justice.  The fraternal culture demands loyalty at all costs, the public be damned.

Just as in Camden, the difficult task facing Minneapolis and other cities will probably require union busting.  Police unions are a unredeemable pillar of the culture of impunity.  They make it impossible to effectively  enforce laws against brutal cops.  But taking on unions is difficult under any circumstances, let alone one where the union members are a heavily-armed group.

Make no mistake: most cops are good people who just want to do their jobs and help others.  But the fact that a significant minority are racist,  abusive bullies give the whole lot a bad name and destroys police credibility with citizens.  Rebuilding police departments from scratch will allow re-hiring vetted cops under a framework of strong oversight and rules inhospitable to the violent bullies.

It's been 29 years since the Rodney King incident, yet America is has failed to address these same problems.    The time for radical change is not just here -- it's nearly three decades overdue.

Related Web Columns:

Injustice Revealed, December 9, 2014

Armed Gangs
The Source of Police Brutality
, July 14, 1998


1. New York Times, Minneapolis Will Dismantle Its Police Force, Council Members Pledge, June 7, 2020

2. Amercias Quarterly, Madame Officer, August 9, 2011

3. Center for Public Impact, Seizing the Moment: Rebuilding Georgia’s Police, March 30, 2016

4. Governing,Why Camden, N.J., the Murder Capital of the Country, Disbanded Its Police Force, June 2014

5. Fox 9, Anoka Co. Sheriff Has 'No Appetite' to Help Minneapolis if it Abolishes Police Department, June 8, 2020