This summer, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, calls to defund or abolish police departments rose up in cities across the United States. The response from the political center and center-right was swift: the best way forward was not to respond to police misconduct by cutting budgets, but instead to enact varying degrees of police reform. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which House Democrats passed in June, skirted the issue of defunding or abolition, prioritizing instead more expansive accountability for police misconduct through reform measures like limiting qualified immunity as a defense to liability in a civil action against a law-enforcement officer, banning chokeholds, and ending racial profiling. Senate Republicans claimed that bill went too far and countered with a plan for far more modest and less enforceable reform measures. Neither legislative package has gone anywhere since the summer, and both appear to have been largely forgotten in Washington, DC, in the chaos of election season.
This despite the fact that the policing crisis has not gone away. To take the case of one American city, we might look to Chicago, which spends more than 1.8 billion dollars on its police force in an average year. That price tag includes the official budgetary allotment to the Chicago Police Department (CPD) from the city, as well as bond money the city borrows to pay for the exorbitant costs of police-brutality settlements. Despite city officials’ heavy investments in policing, by many measures, the CPD is not good at making the city safer. Last year, for instance, the department made no arrests in 78 percent of the city’s first-degree homicide cases. Over the past decade, it has made no arrests in 80–90 percent of sexual assault and abuse cases. And on top of that, each year on average over the past three decades, Chicagoans officially log about eight thousand misconduct allegations against CPD officers, for everything from bribery to use of force. The vast majority result in no disciplinary action against accused offending officers, leading to widespread assertions that the police are not accountable to the citizenry they supposedly serve.
In what other context would citizens and policy makers tolerate such a miserable return on such a major investment? What other publicly funded institution could cost so much, prove so inefficient, and have elected public officials across all layers of government and most of the political spectrum suggest that the best way to fix it is through mild, modest, and, in many cases, unenforceable reform?
The inconvenient truth of police history in the United States is that police departments were not designed to keep a generic public safe.
The case against reformist approaches to America’s policing crisis is obvious to me as a historian of policing. American police have been reformed over and over again throughout the course of their existence. In the past, they were reformed in response to corruption, ineffectiveness, politicization, and more. In part because police themselves have ensured that such would be the case, these reforms have never successfully held police accountable to the larger public they supposedly serve, or lessened the disproportionate burden of police harassment and violence on communities that are poor, immigrant, or nonwhite. Instead, they have offered police departments more tools, more policies, and, importantly, more power and enhanced credibility in the broader public consciousness.
To know the history of American policing, from departments’ origins to past efforts to reform them, is to reckon with the fact that something more than reform is needed if we are truly to confront and solve the policing crisis in this country.
Orlando Wilson was superintendent of the Chicago Police Department for most of the 1960s, and he was the most earnest and important reformer the department has ever had. One of the country’s leading criminologists, a dean at the University of California, Berkeley, and a dedicated technocrat, Wilson was hired in early 1960 to clean up a seemingly hopelessly corrupt Chicago Police Department in the wake of yet another embarrassing public scandal. And upon his arrival in Chicago, he began trying to do just that, working to fix the department largely through the implementation of reforms intended to make the CPD more efficient and accountable.
He immediately confronted a conundrum, however, in that his own officers would accept only certain types of reform. In particular, they embraced measures that expanded their power (for example, the formal implementation of stop-and-frisk) while rejecting any reforms that threatened it. It was, for instance, Wilson who tried to establish an Internal Investigations Division for the first time in the department’s history. That attempt was met with rebellion from the department’s rank and file, led by the Chicago Patrolmen’s Association, which worked tirelessly to try to get Wilson fired in retaliation. His Internal Investigations Division did get implemented despite officers’ outcry, but it was never effective: most police didn’t buy into its legitimacy, critics within and outside the department dismissed it as an “eyewash” reform that officers needn’t really fear, and it has remained essentially toothless ever since.1 Reforms that police didn’t want, in other words, didn’t work.
The major problem with reform experiments like Wilson’s is that they incorrectly interpret the core essence of policing itself. There is a broad misconception among most of the American public, including among police themselves, that the reason police departments exist is to promote general well-being and public safety. If that were true, then reforming police would mean simply bringing them into better alignment with their fundamental purpose.
The inconvenient truth of police history in the United States, however, is that police departments were not designed to keep a generic public safe. Rather, they were meant to serve the needs of capital and to uphold racial and ethnic hierarchies. To put it differently, police were designed with power and control in mind, not generalized public safety.
Consider again the example of Chicago. Like most cities, it didn’t have a police department prior to the mid-1800s. When the city finally established one, in 1853, it was because some Chicago business owners demanded it and agreed to help fund it.2 They didn’t do this because Chicago was a cesspool of criminal behavior, and they certainly weren’t pursuing an abstract interest in protecting the general population. Rather, the CPD was organized to control the supposedly undesirable behavior of immigrant groups (Irish and German affinities for drinking being among the gravest concerns of these early police boosters). Shortly thereafter, it was widely used to repress workers and break strikes as the local labor movement grew more assertive. The major point of policing, in other words, was to control immigrant groups and the working class.
As a result, the people who were policed hated the CPD. Throughout the second half of the 1800s, one violent conflict after another erupted between the department and city residents, all of them precipitated or exacerbated by police violence against immigrants and the working class: the Lager Beer Riot of 1855; the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; the Haymarket Affair of 1886. Time after time, citizens (most of whom were European immigrants who today would simply be seen as “white”) faced police repression and rebelled against it. Perhaps ironically, it was in these moments of violence that people in positions of power—who had remained somewhat skeptical of the police in its formative years—came to appreciate the CPD and understand its utility. They saw people who needed to be controlled and a police force that was becoming fairly good at controlling them, largely through violence. By the early 20th century, the department was firmly established as a central (albeit dysfunctional) presence in Chicago’s urban fabric.
Chicago had its own particularities in terms of the early functions of the police, but it reflected the essential fact of what police were designed to do. As historian Sally Hadden’s research on the antebellum South shows, the first proto-police were slave patrols, which were authorized to surveil African American populations and arrest those who committed the “crime” of trying to steal themselves to freedom.3 The overlap between slave patrols and the police was significant. Meanwhile, Kelly Lytle Hernández has noted in City of Inmates that in the early years of the Los Angeles Police Department, the police were heavily preoccupied with controlling that city’s large number of transient workers and thus disproportionately performed the function of arresting people for victimless offenses like homelessness.4
You don’t have to squint much to see the binding thread running through these assorted departmental-genesis stories. Police were expected to protect the capital of wealthy elites, whether that meant arresting the human property of Southern slaveholders or rounding up radical labor organizers and crushing worker militancy. And they were supposed to surveil and control populations who were marginalized by virtue of their positions on the laddered hierarchies of class, race, and ethnicity. At the end of the day, a generic interest in promoting public safety did not rank high on their reasons for existing.
This history poses a fundamental challenge for anyone advocating police reform, because it forces the question of what such advocates hope to reform police into. If the reformers’ vision is one of restoration—of bringing police back into alignment with a mission from which they’ve strayed—they misunderstand the foundational premise of US policing. Indeed, if one of the primary problems with policing in 2020 is that those who bear its greatest burdens are Black, Latinx, Native, immigrant, and poor communities, a fair argument can be made that, in fact, the system operates more or less as designed. American police have always targeted specific groups for surveillance, control, and punishment, even as those targeted have varied and shifted over time. (The CPD’s early focus on European immigrants, for instance, gave way to a heavily discriminatory focus on African Americans when Black Southerners began moving there en masse in the early and mid-20th century.) What would reform look like if the institution itself is the problem?
The other core issue with pushing a reform vision is that police, simply put, do not want to be reformed, and have always fought, rejected, or ignored reforms that threaten their power. Recent attempts at reform of officers’ behavior through body-camera mandates illustrate this challenge. In practice, officers routinely turn cameras off, and departments and municipalities are often loath to divulge the cameras’ content. Another example unfolded in October 2020, when the CPD announced that it was accepting only 5 of 155 recommended reforms to the department’s use-of-force policies laid out by a working group empaneled by the city during the summer; members of the working group have since labeled the whole affair a “sham.”
Orlando Wilson’s efforts in 1960s Chicago provide yet another illustration of why reform won’t solve the crisis. Wilson’s reform agenda was broad. In addition to pushing accountability mechanisms like the Internal Investigations Division, he also modernized communications technology and paperwork methods, hired more officers of color to battle accusations of racist hiring practices, implemented “Officers Friendly” programs to convince children that police were their friends, and established Community Relations Workshops to facilitate dialogue between police and citizens.5 At the same time, Wilson drove a tough-on-crime agenda that included marking certain neighborhoods (almost all of them poor and Black) as requiring special “aggressive preventive patrol.” He commanded his officers to engage in the widespread use of stop-and-frisk in those neighborhoods and implemented arrest quotas for officers who worked those streets.6
The cumulative positive impacts of all these reforms were meager, and their negative ones significant. Because the Internal Investigations Division never functioned properly, officers were not made more accountable. They were made more powerful, however, especially those officers who worked in Black and Brown communities. The reforms in Wilson’s suite generally gave the appearance of meaningful change without doing much to shift the lived reality of those people who were the most policed. In that last sense, what happened in 1960s Chicago largely echoes what scholars have found in police-reform agendas elsewhere. As historian Max Felker-Kantor writes of 1970s Los Angeles, reform “largely focused on changing the community’s perception of law enforcement, not the daily operation or actions of the police. As a result, these approaches did little to alter the fundamental issue of whom the police served and how the police served them.”7 The history of police reform, in other words, is generally one of expanded police power and greater perceived legitimacy of the police. It is not one of police conduct being effectively regulated and constrained, at either the individual or the collective level.
To know the history of American policing is to reckon with the fact that something more than reform is needed if we are truly to confront and solve the policing crisis in this country.
This is why calls to defund the police and envision alternative forms of harm prevention, reduction, and repair (in other words, actual public safety) are necessary. Part of the reason policing in the United States is so expensive is that policy makers have given police so many different functions in society, from responding to mental-health crises to regulating homeless populations. In 2012, under former mayor Rahm Emanuel, the city of Chicago closed half of its mental health clinics (to say nothing of the shuttering of more than 50 public schools and other components of the public commons) while continuing to raise the CPD budget. With clinics closed, in many cases police took up the task of resolving mental-health crises for people without access to treatment, though police lack training in helping people in such situations and, statistics show, disproportionately resort to violence when responding to situations of mental-health crisis.
Why not take a chunk of the CPD’s budget and reinvest it in not only reopening the shuttered clinics but opening many more? Or perhaps go further: in Sweden, mental-health professionals are paid to work the streets and aid people in mental-health crises so that police don’t have to. Why not take after Finland and reallocate part of the police budget and reinvest it in housing and other resources for homeless people, rather than paying for the police to routinely arrest them on minor charges? Indeed, why not rethink everything? What if the city of Chicago took a massive chunk of the CPD’s budget and instituted a universal basic income for all households that live below the poverty line? What if hundreds of thousands of people were, through this mechanism, able to access basic resources as well as more things to nourish their lives? Logic would suggest that the supposed need for police, as police and politicians articulate it, would decline significantly. Indeed, if you spend any time inside wealthy suburban neighborhoods, where people’s material needs are generally met, you’ll note that the police are not a particularly active presence, except at the periphery, where they work to keep outsiders from entering.
Americans remain strangely attached to the idea that to meaningfully reduce police resources and reinvest them elsewhere, or even to get rid of police altogether, is unthinkable. Reform is the intellectual shoal on which seriously reimagining an equitable public safety for us all founders. What actually should be unthinkable is continuing to try to reform the police when we have nearly two centuries of history showing why they can’t be.
- Simon Balto, Occupied Territory: Policing Black Chicago from Red Summer to Black Power (University of North Carolina Press, 2019), p. 171. ↩
- Ibid., p. 16. For a detailed study of the rise of the CPD, see Sam Mitrani, The Rise of the Chicago Police Department: Class and Conflict, 1850–1894 (University of Illinois Press, 2014). ↩
- Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Harvard University Press, 2003). ↩
- Kelly Lytle Hernández, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771–1965 (University of North Carolina Press, 2017). ↩
- Balto, Occupied Territory, pp. 157, 158. ↩
- Ibid., p. 155. ↩
- Max Felker-Kantor, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD (University of North Carolina Press, 2018), p. 114. ↩