The definition of police reform


An excerpt from Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall, a radical glossary of the vocabulary of policing that redefines the very way we understand law enforcement. A revised and expanded edition comes out in June.

Police reform comprises a vast complex of institu- tions and agencies across the political spectrum that share a narrative of police as an essential if occasionally flawed institution that requires total respect but occasional tinkering. When crises in police legiti- macy strike—often in the aftermath of dramatic and popular protests against spectacular or long-standing patterns of racialized police violence against the poor—the various actors and agencies of police reform mobilize. These include think tanks, such as the Police Executive Research Forum, scores of criminology and criminal justice departments at institutions of higher education, various federal research divisions, such as the National Institute of Justice and the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice, and prominent law and consulting firms that hire former police chiefs. These police reformists convene special commissions where they conduct investigations (and come to similar conclusions) and propose solutions (which rarely differ) in “commission reports.”

The organizing principle of police reform is the idea that the institution of police is perfectible. This notion of perfectibility depicts police, whether good or bad today, as absolutely essential and always on a path of improvement tomorrow. Perfectibility includes concepts such as accountability, police oversight, and professionalization. These are police reform’s key terms, but they are not terms that call the police institution into question. To hold police accountable is to assume that police as an institution is necessary and required in the first place. Likewise police oversight refuses to examine the police outside a justified/unjustified binary. The problem is not the police but a public that requires a better understanding of the police project. Police reform, then, is mostly about reforming the public’s view of the legitimacy of police.

Reformists want us to know that we may see the problem as inhering in police, but in reality the problem is with us, with our loss of faith. The public misunderstands police and thus misunderstands the problem. The problem is not police violence, which is systemic and institutional, but rather police brutality, which is temporary and individual. The problem is not police in general, but a few bad apples. The problem is not institutional, in other words, but situational. Reform, as the primary driver of this eternal pursuit of improvement, is always calibrated to restore our faith in police by reminding us of their essential goodness and the very temporari ness of any problem. New professionalization standards are proposed and described at “coffee with a cop” meetings around town. New use of force policies are written in consultation with police experts and paid consultants and then presented at “community–police forums” to great fanfare. Existing police oversight mechanisms are overhauled and premiered at ribbon-cutting ceremonies held with community stakeholders. All of this heralds a new era in police–community relations.

Reformists always claim that their reform measures herald a new era for police. Reform will demarcate some break from the violence of the past. This is partly why police historians love to talk about police eras through the lens of reform, the effect of which is an ideological rescue of present police from past sins. The politics of police reform are animated by a particular vision of police history. The structure is familiar: in the past, the police were certainly corrupt and violent and racist, but eventually reformists arrived and instituted all sorts of professionalization standards, such as better technology and training and education, and these standards effectively solved the problem. Reformed police thus belong to a different era in policing. This history seeks to interrupt efforts by activists to draw a line from the racialized police violence of the past to the racialized police violence of the present.

But the reforms of one era become the problems of another. And reform is always followed by a new crisis. And each time new problems arise (which of course are really old problems): a cop is caught perjuring himself, for example (see testilying), or a cop shoots an unarmed man in the back, or an entire department engages in racialized policing (see CRASH) or violence against women (see NHI). When this happens the agents and institutions of reform mobilize again, as though for the first time, and with concerted, collective amnesia, they diagnose the problem as an unfortunate, temporary, and totally unexpected diversion from the path of police perfectibility. It is the diversion and our persistent lack of faith, not the beating or the lying or the killing, that represents the real intractable problem. Thus all problems are always temporary aberrations from the righteous path of policing, and only reform experts—most of whom are former cops—can truly understand and repair this problem. And for all these reasons reform always fails. Cops kill and lie and rape, even Officer Friendly. So the failure of reform to make police perfect is always depicted as a failure of the public to believe in police, not a failure of reform itself. This constitutes police reform’s built-in alibi.

One of the most insidious problems of police reform is how police departments that have been subjected to reform measures, usually by a federal consent decree, are actually rewarded for their misconduct. Reform is a windfall of more money from new grants to hire more cops and purchase more weaponry, technology, training and education.

Police reform often limits its proposals to the panacea of technology—what we might refer to as technological liberalism—as a way to resolve police misconduct or police brutality.1 Better equipment and better technology. Tasers instead of guns, drones and helicopters, lapel and dashboard cameras. These are the standard fixes that police reformists offer. Better equipment and better technology to go with better or more education, better and more efforts of understanding the public, more efficient administrative means to ensure accountability and oversight. Better recruitment practices and hiring standards. These  are the solutions of police reform. Yet what improvement can we honestly say has come from all of this?

The great accomplishment of police reform is only an improvement if we consider the term a reference to the capacity of police to sanitize and legitimate their violence. Police reform is not simply about making police better, but about making police violence more efficient and more “civilized.” Tear gas provides one such example. The police use of tear gas was deemed a significant reform measure for police violence during the 1960s and 1970s. Commissions at the time saw in tear gas a more hygienic and less lethal form of policing protests and large crowds. Tear gas was the progressive, liberal technology that would limit the use of force, while still helping police to administer “good order.” Unlike the bullet that punctured flesh or the nightstick that cracked skulls, tear gas provided police with a weapon that seemed less violent. The use of tear gas, which is depicted as among police reform’s great accomplishments, is banned by international law as a form of chemical warfare. It kills and causes long-lasting and significant health and environmental effects. The Taser and the police K-9 dog are other such examples. They demonstrate the ways that reform solutions are not real solutions at all, but rather serve to rework the mode and means of violence while keeping violence intact. This is what police reform has given us.

Since the 1960s, police reform has also sought to make the police more diverse and multicultural, or colorblind. If only we could make police more representative of racial, ethnic, and gender demographics, then we could significantly reduce if not eradicate police violence, the reformists’ logic goes. A liberal multicultural argument has seized police reform, in which police are encouraged to hire more Black and Brown people and more women to make the police less brutally racist and misogynist. Women, in particular, must be a part of reform efforts because female cops, it is argued, provide a unique skill set and overall different personality than the white male cop. This argument ignores the long history of violence against Black and Brown men and women in places such as Memphis, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC, which long have had a significant number, if not majority, of Black and Brown cops and even chiefs. As Robin Kelley points out, “It is a rare cop, even among Blacks and Latinos, who sees his or her primary task as working for, or being employed by, poor urban communities of color. Instead, the police work for the state or the city, and their job is to keep an entire criminalized population in check, to contain the chaos of the ghetto within its walls, and to make sure the most unruly subjects stay in line. They operate in a permanent state of war.”1

Police reform does not confront police, but rather attempts to co-opt the communities that hold animosity towards police. It is their rage and resent- ment that reform seeks to resolve. Reform is not motivated by a desire to see a world without police violence; rather, it is driven by a fear of a world without police. Reform’s rhetoric of progress, order and security, tied as it is to the view of police as the defense of civilization, gives reform both its powerful political authority and its alibi when none of its policies pay off. And so reform seeks to restore the legitimacy of police by destroying the legitimacy of protest against police.

This is not to say that everything under the heading of police reform should simply be dismissed. Not all reforms are created equal. Ruth Wilson Gilmore distinguishes between “reformist reforms” and “non-reformist reforms.” The former refers to those reforms that actually bolster and strengthen what one is challenging. “Non-reformist reforms” are “systemic changes that do not extend the life or breadth of deadly forces such as prisons.”2 Is the goal of reform to expand the police powers or constrain them? The abolitionist Mariame Kaba, for example, asks “Are the proposed reforms allocating more money to the police? If yes, then you should oppose them.” She goes on: “Are the proposed reforms advocating for MORE police and policing (under euphemistic terms like ‘community policing’ run out of regular police districts)? If yes, then you should oppose them.” If reforms offer technical solutions to police violence, we should oppose them, because it just “means more money to the police. Said technology is more likely to be turned against the public than it is to be used against cops.” Finally, she reminds us that “violence is endemic to US policing itself. There are some nice individual people who work in police departments. I’ve met some of them.” But this “is not a problem of individually terrible officers rather it is a problem of a corrupt and oppressive policing system built on controlling & managing the marginalized while protecting property.”3

Instead of these reformist reforms, Kaba identifies several “non-reformist reforms” that make sense to support and advocate for, such as: reparations to the victims of police violence (and their families), requirements for officers to be held personally liable to cover the costs of violence and death claims, divestment from police agencies and the redirection of those funds to social programs, proposals to disarm the police as well as dissolve local police departments, greater transparency, and the authority of oversight committees to have the power to investigate, discipline, and fire both officers and administrators. These measures do not eliminate police violence. The abolition of the police is the only reform that eliminates police violence, but these non-reformist reforms do strip power from police and refuse reforms that seek only to make police into a more acceptable force.

Non-reformist reform is premised on the idea that police in its current form—an armed institution of the state that uses violence and coercion to impose bourgeois order—is an indisputable good. It offers the forever-unfulfilled promise of fixing police as a way to defend the order of things and, more importantly, to put a lid on any abolitionist dreams of a world without police. Police reform is the sine qua non of police legitimacy. Without reform there is no police.5

1    Wilson, Christopher P., Cop Knowledge: Police Power and Cultural Narrative in Twentieth-Century America, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

2    Kelley, Robin, “Slangin Rocks, Palestinian Style,” in Nelson, Jill, ed., Police Brutality: An Anthology, W. W. Norton & Company, 2001, 49.

3    Gilmore, Ruth Wilson and Craig Gilmore, “Restating the Obvious,” in Sorkin, Michael, ed., Indefensible Space: The Architecture of the National Insecurity State, Routledge, 2008, 145.

4    Kaba, Mariame, “Police ‘Reforms’ You Should Always Oppose,” Truthout, December 7, 2014.

5    Vitale, Alex S., The End of Policing, Verso Books, 2017; Schrader, Stuart, “The Liberal Solution to Police Violence: Restoring Trust Will Ensure More Obedience,” The Indypendent, June 30, 2015.