“Defund the police!” “Abolish the police!”
These have been the mantras de jour across social media and at protests around the country, but if you ask five people what these imperatives mean, you will likely get five vastly different answers. However, for some, it is exactly what it sounds like – the abolition of the police – which ought to raise some eyebrows.
The truth is that we need law enforcement, but we need law enforcement to be better – much better, in some situations. After all, the horrid cases of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor exemplify law enforcement’s deadly shortcomings and have rightly become a rallying cry for protesters demanding positive change.
Even so, police of some form are here to stay because the world is not a peaceful utopian paradise, and it certainly will not become one if police become a thing of the past. Nevertheless, policing can – and must – be improved by adopting realistic and substantive reforms.
It could be easy for some Georgia policymakers to brush the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor cases aside as out-of-state aberrations, but Georgia has also witnessed similar atrocities. In 2006, relying upon bogus intel, Atlanta police conducted an illegal no-knock raid  on the house of a 92-year-old woman – Kathryn Johnston – allegedly in search of a drug dealer. They kicked in her door and – doubtlessly startled and believing that she was being burgled – she fired her gun. In response, the police riddled her with bullets. While she was bleeding on the floor, the police handcuffed her . She died. No drugs were found.
In another grievous incident, in 2014, Georgia law enforcement officers conducted another no-knock raid  – this time on a Habersham County home. During the process, they tossed a flash-bang grenade into the house. It landed in a crib holding a 19-month old toddler – Baby Bou Bou – severely injuring and permanently disfiguring the boy. The person the authorities were seeking wasn’t even in the house.
Sure, some might say that these are simply tragic mistakes, but these represent a small sampling of many more “tragic mistakes.” The fact is that police are given immense authority. However, without responsibility and accountability, this authority is simply a blank check to act with impunity. Unless embedded moral hazards are removed and dangerous tactics prohibited, such episodes will continue unabated.
Indeed, policymakers need to reform incentives to improve police behavior. As it stands, government officials, including law enforcement, enjoy the judge-made law known as qualified immunity. Essentially, it means that in many cases police cannot be held personally liable in civil court for their actions so long as they were performed under the guise of their profession. Without the threat of being held accountable in lawsuits, like other Americans are, police can violate otherwise protected constitutional rights and cause damages without fear of civil reprisals.
What’s more, in states like Georgia, there’s actually an incentive for police to hassle private citizens. That’s because, using civil asset forfeiture statutes, law enforcement departments can confiscate and permanently keep Georgians’ property – from homes, to cars, to cash – without ever making an arrest so long as the police claim to have cause to believe the property was somehow connected to a crime. When departments stand to profit and can legally strip Americans of their property, then there will be increased police interactions, which can turn deadly.
Eliminating these moral hazards can go far toward instituting a better, reimagined police force, but it won’t be enough by themselves. Policymakers need to consider other reforms, including revisiting the need for no-knock raids. As Americans have seen time and again, they encourage cavalier behavior and have caused great devastation.
Instead of maintaining the same dangerous status quo, police ought to pursue other, less risky methods of apprehending suspects, and they should also reprioritize their efforts on specific crimes. After all, the cases of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Kathryn Johnston, Baby Bou Bou, and countless others stemmed from the mere suspicion of nonviolent crimes. Refocusing on crimes where there is a victim will limit the instances in which police have the opportunity to use violent force, thereby protecting suspects and innocent bystanders.
Certainly, some will lambaste this as a piece of anti-police rhetoric, but that couldn’t be further from the truth – especially considering that my father was a long-time police officer. Further, I firmly believe that the overwhelming majority of police are fine men and women of integrity, but like in any crowd, there will always be a few bad seeds. In this case, they can take root, metastasize to others, and ultimately erode the integrity of the police force.
Americans absolutely need the police, but we also need law enforcement to be reoriented. Some of the best methods to begin their transformation are to institute incentives to better behavior, recalibrate police officers’ focus, and change the culture for the better.
Image credit: ArtOlympic
- “no-knock raid”: https://www.ajc.com/news/local/city-pay-slain-woman-family-million/GWqsgDArzmOhvpb7iPY6FI/
- “handcuffed her”: https://www.ajc.com/news/crime--law/remembering-kathryn-johnston-years-after-deadly-atlanta-police-raid/pXPW8i7zQakltq76YXc27N/
- “no-knock raid”: https://www.ajc.com/news/crime--law/new-65m-settlement-for-parents-georgia-toddler-injured-raid/fqRsNpwZnOsJxwZtbXVLZP/