Can Policing Be Reformed?

Can policing simply be reformed? Some like Bernie Sanders believe so, but so far, meaningful reforms have been few and far between. (Photo Credit: Renoir Gaither/Flickr/Public Domain)

Bernie Sanders is my guy. I will always feel indebted to him for inspiring me to become more educated and involved as a student of politics, and he continues to show leadership as one of the most progressive members of the Senate. That said, Bernie is not always right, and one of the areas in which he falters is racialized issues, in particular, policing in the United States.

Daunte Wright’s recent killing (I’ll leave it up to you to call it a “murder” or “manslaughter,” or opine as to whether the distinction even matters) at the hands of now-former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter has re-intensified calls not only for justice for the victim in this case, but a reimagining of policing in communities across the country. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), a noted ally of Bernie’s during the 2020 presidential election primaries, took to Twitter in the wake of Wright’s death to post about the role of policing in the U.S. from both a current and historical perspective. She wrote:

It wasn’t an accident. Policing in our country is inherently and intentionally racist.

Daunte Wright was met with aggression and violence. I am done with those who condone government-funded murder.

No more policing, incarceration, and militarization. It can’t be reformed.

Tlaib’s sentiments are strong ones, and are understandable regardless of the circumstances, though especially so given the pervasiveness of black Americans and other Americans of color being killed disproportionately by police, not to mention the geographical proximity of this incident to George Floyd’s murder which sparked the fervent protests and activist energy that dominated headlines in 2020. Not done on the topic, Tlaib tweeted again with a longer thread supporting her position. She tweeted:

We continue to see death after death at the hands of police officers with no meaningful accountability for the officers or departments involved.

We’ve seen [money] pumped into training and half-measures, only to see the killing of Daunte Wright mere miles from the Derek Chauvin trial justified as a “mistaken” use of a gun instead of a taser. If you can’t distinguish between a gun and a taser. If you can’t distinguish between a gun and a taser, you shouldn’t be carrying either.

I understand that many are concerned about public safety, but it is clear that more investment in police, incarceration, and criminalization will not deliver that safety.

Instead, we should be investing more resources into our community to tackle poverty, education inequities, and to increase job opportunities. We should be expanding the use of mental health and social work professionals to respond to disputes before they escalate.

Data and research supports this. We need to reimagine how we approach public safety and the opportunity for every person to thrive.

The only way we will all have safe communities is to invest in our people, not double down on failed overpolicing and criminalization.

As you might imagine, not everyone agreed with Tlaib’s stances (you yourself might balk at discussion of “defunding” and “abolishing” the police). One such dissenter was the aforementioned Bernie Sanders, who when asked whether he is in accord with his progressive comrade, responded flatly, “No, I don’t.” He elaborated, “I think that what we need to do is understand that there needs to be major, major police reform all across this country. We are tired of seeing the same thing, week after week and year after year. We do not want to see innocent African-Americans shot in cold blood.”

Putting aside the notion of whether Rashida Tlaib would say she is “done” with Bernie, his views, absent additional context, beckon explanation. How are we expected to reform policing without some degree of defunding or dismantling existing structures? Do we simply need to throw more money at the problem? That hasn’t worked with, for instance, the military/industrial complex or any number of alternative examples.

Obviously, race and demographics are relevant here. Tlaib is a 44-year-old woman of Palestinian descent who represents Michigan’s 13th congressional district, a majority of which the constituency is black. Bernie is a 79-year-old white dude who represents Vermont, a state that is predominantly non-Hispanic white. To say their experiences have been and continue to be very different is a bit of an understatement, even noting their broad agreement on a number of issues.

Discussion of defunding and abolishing policing is also fraught with political complications. For many, especially on the right and center-right, the mere suggestion of giving less to our embattled men and women in blue is near-sacrilegious. The police, for them, means safety and order. In a world that seems increasingly confusing and uncertain, to take anything away from those who pledge to protect and serve is a bridge too far and, even within the left, serves as a potential wedge issue.

In a highly-polarized political sphere replete with disingenuous talking points, misleading soundbites, and clickbait headlines that diminish the opportunity for deliberation with nuance, any matter is liable to become politicized and provoke negative knee-jerk reactions. Such is not a reason, however, to necessarily shy away from forcing a conversation about the role of policing in our communities, as contentious as it may be.

Approaching a year since George Floyd’s death at the hands of police, if progress has been made on making our societal order more just, clearly, more has to be done. Expectedly, this starts with the work of progressives in and out of government office, but this requires solidarity. For all the talk of wanting to reform policing, Bernie Sanders’s distancing of himself from Rashida Tlaib’s remarks is evidence of how far the left has to go if it is to build real power as a force for change. As Daunte Wright’s untimely passing indicates, we can’t afford to wait on this issue.


Meditating on deadly and discriminatory practices in policing, in many respects a relic of the slave patrols of the antebellum South, is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to confronting the inequities of systemic racism that pervade present-day America. Daunte Wright’s tragic death has garnered significant media attention—as it should. Every black person killed at the hands of police deserves to have their story told.

How many tales of abuse by cops go unrecounted, however? Extending the conversation to the milieu of criminal justice, how many African-Americans have faced injustice in the form of overzealous prosecution, half-hearted defenses of those accused, and/or harsh sentences based on statutory prescriptions for “law and order?” Within this sphere, we are liable to ingest but a fraction of the often-hostile environments created for people of color for the cases that go to trial, already a slim portion of criminal proceedings. If slavery was abolished, its legacy lives on in the terrorization and potential devastation of black communities by policing that violates constitutional principles (e.g. the Fourth Amendment) as well as courtroom and carceral procedures which prize expediency over human lives.

When we speak of police reform, these are the deeply-ingrained realities we must comprehend and tackle. Such is a big ask for a system in which rampant prejudice isn’t a flaw, but a built-in feature. Especially in situations where profit is to be made off the detention of individuals regardless of the level of offense or mitigating personal circumstances, the battle for recognition of those accused’s humanity is surely an uphill one.

So, can policing in the United States be reformed? It depends on who you ask, but failing to even be able to come to a consensus among progressives on this front dampens the ability to change public opinion in favor of solutions backed by science and to everyone’s benefit (i.e. economic upturn). That leftists like Bernie would so easily dismiss wholesale transformation of the current system suggests a lack of communication among progressives. Once again, the responsibility will fall upon activists to pick up the pieces.

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