Can Reformist Or Abolitionist Policies Solve Police Accountability?

 /  Nov. 10, 2020, 12:55 p.m.

Massachusetts State Police Insignia
Massachusetts State Police Insignia

After months of reviewing the Massachusetts State Police Department’s internal affairs files, the Boston Globe has discovered dozens of instances of fireable offenses and horrid misconduct that went unpunished. This has occurred as Massachusetts pushes for more police accountability in the wake of the summer of George Floyd. But recent reform legislation introduced in Congress to address calls for police accountability will not adequately address the problem of police violence. After two black men died by asphyxiation at the hands of an officer, sparking worldwide anger and nationwide calls for reforms, we need to start asking more fundamental questions. We need to reimagine the role of police by shifting responsibilities away from officers and to specialized organizations based on the needs of different communities.

Disappointing State-Level Reforms

I spoke with Shahriar, a member of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO) Strategy Team, an organization that focuses on holding government officials accountable to following through on “winnable action that is authentic to the demands of the people.” Most recently, he was a part of an effort pushing a wave of legislation introduced in the summer of 2020 that looks to improve police accountability by limiting qualified immunity and introducing a police decertification process. 

Among this wave was a bill sponsored by Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. Currently, Massachusetts does not license or certify their officers. If this bill goes through as is, in order to be an officer, you must be certified. If they were to break certain standards, the certification board can go through a process to decertify the officer. If decertified, they would not be able to work as a police officer in Massachusetts until they are certified again.

Another amendment challenges qualified immunity, one of the great barriers to police accountability. In order to find an officer liable for their actions, there needs to be a case from history, a precedent, that shows another officer has been held liable for the same charge. Any difference in the scenario or conduct for which an officer is being brought to court can be a reason to dismiss the case. This scares victims of police misconduct from spending the time and money to press charges against officers, meaning there are fewer precedents and thus makes it harder to find a previous case that matches to get past qualified immunity. It becomes a cycle that benefits officers' immunity to the law. 

In order to break this up, the legislation looks to hold police to the reasonable person standard. Officers would be tried like anyone else. To determine if they should be held liable for their actions, the court would simply ask whether or not their actions were in line with what the reasonable and careful person would do. If not, they can be deemed guilty. 

Shahriar was not optimistic about the prospects for effective reform. The version of the legislation that came out of the Massachusetts House of Representatives only half solved the issue of qualified immunity and certification, by tying them together. The police still have qualified immunity by default. The certification board, which has some police officers on it, would remove an officer’s qualified immunity when decertifying them. This discourages the board from pursuing decertification because there will be pressure from police associations and colleagues. These light reforms are watered down versions of the ones originally introduced. 

As for certification of police officers, the Massachusetts General Court has not put out the final versions so it may deviate further and further from the original vision. This legislation isn’t a step forward into the future for Massachusetts, but rather a sprint to catch up. 

Local Activists Cut Out of the Picture

I also spoke with a Boston activist named Jamarhl Crawford who is frustrated by the performative involvement he sees around him. “I’ve been doing this for over twenty years,” he said, “and I’ve never seen all these politicians and people who are suddenly champions of police reform before.” The politicians, organizations, and communities that are asking questions and looking into reforms are the same ones that ignored him for decades. The public only pays attention to police violence when it is impossible to ignore, and spends that short window catching up rather than making bold steps forward.

Crawford is one of the heads of Mass Police Reform (MPR), the latest installment in a series of projects to bring accountability to the police in lesser served neighborhoods of Boston. They have been pushing for bills that standardize data collection and police punishments processes. MPR wants to give people the ability to scrutinize their public servants in local oversight boards. 

But the data needed for these oversight boards is hard to come by. In 2015, the FBI launched the National Use of Force Data Collection project to give themselves and the public a sense of what was happening with regards to police violence. But only around 40 percent of precincts participated. If you want local data, you have to wrestle it from the hands of officers, who are largely not data scientists or computer science majors. Even if they are willing, the information is often neither accessible nor organized.

Transparency was also a concern for Nora Lester Murad of Defund Newton Police Department, a small group that focuses on re-imagining police in the city of Newton located in the suburbs of Boston. She spoke about how the lack of transparency with data and the legislative process at the local level locks activists out. Furthermore, Murad explained that “the fact that every town has a police department and police association chops up the power of activist forces. The police associations are politically connected and work together, giving them a competitive edge over communities.” 

How Far We’ve Come and Where to Go Next

After Eric Garner’s murder in 2014, the nation rallied around justice and police reform initiatives. We saw the expansion of body camera use and de-escalation training. But those reforms didn’t solve anything. The Washington Post used a citizen-run database for police killings and found that over the past half-decade, around 980 people were killed each year by police. That spiked to over 1,000 in 2019. Too many people are still dying to the police, minorities disproportionately so. 

With reforms having little success, where can we turn? Murad had an interesting response. “Reformist policies have not worked, abolitionist policies haven’t been tried,” she said. “Embedded in reform discussions is the assumption that policing is good, and that we just need to do it better. The abolitionist perspective starts with the idea that the system is flawed.”

During the last BLM wave, activists wanted body cameras and training, so we could potentially reign in the mistakes or bias a bit more. What we’ve learned is that, no matter how much training or restraints you put on some officers, they will continue to make mistakes or abuse positions. So instead of trying to mitigate their mistakes in those moments of police contact, let's reduce the number of moments. 

Reimagining Public Safety 

What is the role of the police? In our society, police officers are tasked with being jacks of all trades and masters of every single one. But the saying is “Jack of all trades, master of none” for a reason. 

So what are we comfortable with officers being responsible for? 

Are they needed for every emergency or community call? With all the different responsibilities they have, it might make more sense to hire people to fill those positions. It creates more jobs and frees up room for police to have more specific training and specialization

What happens if police partner with local organizations to take some of the load off? This facilitates specialization and allows officers to defer to experts in high-intensity situations. If we see that police make a situation more dangerous, we can remove them from the setting. 

What happens if we try having unarmed officers in some areas? In England nearly all officers are unarmed except for parliamentary guards and a special force equivalent to our SWAT team. They have fewer deaths at the hands of police officers, and the officers themselves advocate for being unarmed. Fewer weapons in situations where bias or escalation are involved limits deaths, and makes victims of that bias more comfortable with police presence. 

This is an experiment in reducing the size and scope of today’s traditional policing. I am not arguing that we should completely remove police from society. Some communities do not have the resources to create a more diverse 3-1-1 infrastructure. Pushing vague “defund” or “abolish” policies can make people channel their energy into poor implementation when communities are not ready, which may exaggerate the issues and turn that community off of re-imagining public security. For this to happen, every community needs to be invested in a new vision. This will require a tremendous amount of marketing, not just bold policy ideas and marching.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to Dick Elbers, and can be found here.

Douglas Williams


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