“Progressive” police reform

Understanding the progressive reform agenda starts by understanding the language

Originally published on the Force Science Institute websiteRepublished here with permission.

By Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM

Although policing remains one of America’s most trusted professions, we expect that reform efforts will continue to accelerate in the coming months.

Making sense of “progressive” reform proposals by viewing them through the stated goals and priorities of their advocates.
Making sense of “progressive” reform proposals by viewing them through the stated goals and priorities of their advocates. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Ordinarily, police professionals play a central role in efforts to improve public safety. Unfortunately, an increasing number of officers and senior leaders are reporting that their experience is discounted, their advice is ignored, or they are excluded from the discussions because “they are the problem.”

If traditional public safety, officer safety, or crime reduction were the focus of current reform efforts, it would be difficult to explain the exclusion of police experts. However, where civic leaders embrace “progressive reforms,” such as “equity,” “social justice” and the “dismantling of systemic racism,” it is no longer obvious that the training, education and experience of police officers will play a central role.

Still, if we hope to participate and influence police-reform efforts, we should recognize where “progressive reform” differs from traditional efforts to improve public safety. In this article, we hope to make sense of the “progressive” reform proposals by viewing them through the stated goals and priorities of their advocates.

Progressive reform and equity

Understanding the progressive reform agenda starts by understanding their language. The foundation of progressive reform is the demand for “equity” in the criminal justice system.

Equity is not equality of treatment or equality of opportunity. Equity is equality of outcome.

To progressive activists, equity envisions eliminating “racial disparities” in all aspects of the criminal justice system. To determine whether a racial disparity exists, researchers compare a racial group’s representation in the overall population with their representation in a specific aspect of the criminal justice system. If, for example, a racial group represents 6% of the population but makes up 40% of the arrests, a racial disparity exists.

“Equity” is not limited to incidents of racial discrimination. Even where racially diverse individuals are treated equally, if equal treatment results in unequal outcomes (“disparate outcomes”), then equity demands the system be reformed.

When you use population percentages as the benchmark, racial disparities exist in nearly every aspect of the criminal justice system. This reality enables proponents of “equity” to justify reform proposals without considering their impact on public safety, officer safety, or crime reduction – so long as the proposals are intended to eliminate a racial disparity.

From disparity to systemic racism

Racial disparity throughout the criminal justice system is obvious. What isn’t obvious is how the disparity is created or what to do about it. Unfortunately, merely asking these questions in the context of progressive reform can be “problematic.”

This is because, for many progressive reform advocates, the cause of racial disparity is beyond debate. For them, disparities in stops, arrests, incarceration and use of force are the natural consequence of “systemic racism.”

In this context, “systemic racism” is the result of overt acts of racists, implicit racial bias, a lack of privilege and cultural insensitivity – including the failure to consider “disparate impacts” that otherwise equal treatment and neutral laws can have on racial groups.

Critics of the “systemic racism” theory might argue that criminal conduct, dysfunctional associations, or myriad other economic and criminological alternatives might better explain racial disparities. However, to many progressive reform activists, proposing alternatives to the “systemic racism” theory is itself evidence of systemic racism and privilege.

The big switch: Police as oppressors

Flowing from the “systemic racism” theory is the belief that racial disparity is largely the result of undisciplined, untrained and racist police. Through this lens, the police are viewed as the “oppressors” against whom reform measures must be enacted if we are to hold them “accountable.”

To those who believe that the police are oppressors, and therefore illegitimate, any use of force may be characterized as “police brutality.” Even lawful force might be condemned as a result of officers too eager to resort to force, unwilling to respect the dignity of the individual, and unwilling to value the sanctity of life.

Recasting the police as oppressors transforms criminals into the “victims” of this oppression. As “victims,” criminals are more easily excused for their crimes. They have reduced “agency,” meaning they have little control over their thoughts, feelings, or actions.

Under this progressive view, criminals do not simply choose to commit crimes. Rather, the legacy of slavery, enduring systemic racism, and racist officers have trapped them in a cycle of oppression that impedes legitimate economic and educational opportunities.

Under these conditions, some believe that crime is inevitable. In response, it makes sense that progressive prosecutors, civic leaders, and judges might prioritize rehabilitation, education, and social services (e.g. financial assistance, housing assistance, counseling) over-incarceration, restitution, and punishment.

How progressive reform makes sense

Once you understand that progressive reform advocates believe “systemic racism causes crime,” progressive reform proposals begin to make sense.

If your goal is to reduce the economic impact that an arrest will have on a suspect, then it makes sense to eliminate bail, eliminate fines and limit the number of arrestable offenses.

If you believe that police are racist, abusive and corrupt, then it makes sense to mandate body cameras and enact policies that prevent pretext car stops, restrict consent searches, and limit investigatory stops.

If you believe that the police profession is illegitimate and untrustworthy, then it makes sense to construct and empower layers of civilian oversight.

If you believe that the police are shooting too many people during foot chases, it makes sense to prohibit foot chases. 

If you believe that the police cause violence (or simply don’t do enough to avoid it), then it makes sense to enact “elevated” use-of-force policies that restrict constitutional and otherwise reasonable use of force, – shifting responsibility from the suspect to the officer.

For next time: Getting officers to stop causing suspects to attack them  

For those who have been struggling to imagine how progressive reform proposals will improve public safety or reduce crime, it may be helpful to realize that those traditional law enforcement priorities were never intended as the near-term goals of progressive reform activists.

In the next issue of Force Science News, we’ll continue to look at progressive police-reform.

We’ll discuss officer “accountability” and consider how “elevated” use of force guidelines have left officers struggling to understand “necessary,” “proportional” and “minimum” force standards.

Finally, we’ll look at expanded “officer-created jeopardy” and other efforts to get officers to stop causing suspects to attack them.

NEXT: A police advocate’s simple suggestion: Walk a simulated mile in a cop’s shoes

About the author

With nearly 30 years in the criminal justice profession, Lewis “Von” Kliem, MCJ, JD, LLM, worked as a civilian police officer, attorney, educator and author. Von is the executive editor of Force Science News and co-owner of Von Kliem Consulting, LLC, where he trains and consults on constitutional policing, use of force analysis, crisis communications and trauma-informed interviewing.  

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