Democratic Change Still Works

Police reform can be achieved through the electoral process.

TIMOTHY A. CLARY / AFP / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

Amid the tumult following George Floyd’s killing by police, Urooj Rahman, a New York City housing lawyer, was arrested on charges that she lit a Molotov cocktail and tossed it into the back of an NYPD squad car. Shortly before the crime was committed, she told a journalist, “This shit won’t ever stop unless we fucking take it all down,” adding that “the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use.” The journalist said, “We’ve seen police cars on fire and objects thrown at police, fireworks and that kind of stuff. How do you feel about that?” Rahman replied, “This is the way that people show their anger and frustration. Because nothing else works.”

The next day, former President Barack Obama published a short essay on Medium titled “How to Make This Moment the Turning Point for Real Change.” After noting that the “overwhelming majority” of protesters were “peaceful, courageous, responsible, and inspiring,” he lamented “the small minority of folks who’ve resorted to violence in various forms.” Then he took aim at those who believe that “only protests and direct action can bring about change” in the criminal-justice system, and that “voting and participation in electoral politics” are a waste of time.

“I couldn’t disagree more,” he wrote. In his telling, peaceful protests are useful to raise public awareness and highlight injustice. “But eventually,” he argued, “aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices—and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”

Watching footage of unjust police killings is enraging and traumatizing. It’s also enraging that Americans paid so little attention to such killings before ubiquitous video forced them to confront the issue. No wonder some feel that achieving meaningful reform through the civic process is impossible (a feeling that is understandably heightened in communities where long voting lines, felony disenfranchisement laws, or gerrymandering make democratic organizing more difficult).

But Obama is right, and that feeling of impossibility, however understandable, is demonstrably incorrect. Just look at the mountain of evidence that change through the civic process is not only possible, but a recurring reality, and that it began long before Floyd’s death. A full accounting of recent policy improvements would be too lengthy for one article. Here is a partial review:

  • President Donald Trump signed the bipartisan FIRST STEP Act in 2018, reforming sentencing laws and reducing the number of people in federal custody; another federal law disallowed the detention of juveniles for offenses such as curfew violation, the possession of alcohol, and truancy.
  • The Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice has used consent decrees to implement institutional reforms in more than 75 police agencies since 2009. Such efforts are highly likely to resume if Joe Biden is elected.
  • States across the country have dramatically liberalized laws against marijuana in the past decade. Additional reforms to drug laws and sentencing enjoy broad popular support.
  • In 2019, sentencing-reform bills passed in California, Delaware, and Oklahoma. Expansions of voting rights for people convicted of crimes passed in Colorado, Nevada, Kentucky, and New Jersey. Nevada banned private prisons and California forbade their use for immigrant detention. And Florida legislators authorized Florida State University to assess the “racial and ethnic” ramifications of criminal-justice bills. “Racial impact statements are a tool for lawmakers to evaluate potential disparities of proposed legislation prior to adoption and implementation,” the Sentencing Project explains. “Nine states—Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, Oklahoma, and Vermont—introduced proposals in 2019 to require racial impact statements.”
  • A 2018 report by the National Conference of State Legislatures found that “the volume of law enforcement legislation considered since 2014 is greater than what has been seen at any time in recent memory,” adding that “in 2017 alone, over 1,500 bills were introduced in nearly every state and more than 260 were enacted into law. The overall theme of state legislative trends from 2014 to 2017 has been improving police-community relations in order to create safer communities and increase police effectiveness.”
  • A Vera Institute of Justice study found that in 2015 and 2016, 79 separate state laws enacted various police reforms, 31 of which established “provisions for police body-worn cameras.” Other “notable trends” included laws that limit police use of force, improve crisis intervention, protect citizens who film police, and decrease racial profiling.

Clearly, legislators at the federal and state levels were intensely interested in criminal-justice reform and improving policing before Floyd’s death galvanized many members of the public. As C. J. Ciaramella, who covers criminal-justice policy at Reason magazine, wrote in August 2019, “cross-partisan efforts are happening around the country—at the federal, state, and local levels—to change the way people interact with every facet of the criminal justice system, from initial police encounters to sentencing to prisoner re-entry back into society. Some of those efforts will fail. Others will be misguided or ineffectual. But the fact that policy makers are considering alternatives to the lock-’em-up mentality that dominated much of the latter half of the 20th century, and are working with their usual political opponents to make it happen, is a cause for optimism.”

Multiple analyses show recent declines in police killings. “Since the 2014 wave of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the number of black people killed by the police has gone down, according to data from Mapping Police Violence,” Matthew Yglesias wrote in June at Vox. “So has the number of unarmed people of all races killed by police. And the number of unarmed black people killed by law enforcement has seen a sharper decline.” The Los Angeles Times reported that Los Angeles Police Department killings hit a 30-year low in 2019. New York City statistics show staggering decreases in police shootings since the 1970s, and illustrate how much progress can be made over time with sustained civic effort. This progress occurred while the NYPD’s size and funding increased.

A FiveThirtyEight analysis complicates that picture somewhat. Police shootings dropped in cities including Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Chicago, and Denver after the adoption of reforms intended to have that effect. But according to the site, those decreases were offset by increases in police killings in more suburban and rural areas. The author concluded: “It seems that solutions that can reduce police killings exist, in other words—the issue may be whether an area has the political will to enact them.” Political organizing in suburbs could remedy that problem. Street protests, much less violence, in cities will not.

The significant progress that preceded 2020 doesn’t mean that peaceful protests following Floyd’s killing were unnecessary or ineffective. The 8 Can’t Wait project, run by veterans of the Black Lives Matter movement, reports that since June, more than 270 municipalities have restricted their use-of-force policies, a step that seems to correlate with lower rates of deadly violence. The Marshall Project reported that in the three weeks after Floyd’s death, 16 state legislatures introduced, amended, or passed 159 bills and resolutions related to policing.

But there is simply no way to square the actions of elected officials or public-opinion data with the belief that the country does not care about police abuses or that positive change cannot be effected through the legislative process.

Could America do better? Of course. According to the UC San Diego professor Zoltan L. Hajnal, the author of America’s Uneven Democracy: Race, Turnout, and Representation in City Politics, “only 27 percent of eligible voters vote in the typical municipal election.” If Americans who desire police reform turn out to vote in large numbers, just as they turned up on the streets this summer, they could elect better local prosecutors and county sheriffs. Voter-registration drives; door-to-door canvassing; urging local officials to adopt discrete, incremental reforms; and holding them accountable at the ballot box are less romantic and cathartic than taking to the streets. And such work is tedious. But the democratic process is the surest way to effect positive change––and unlike looting and rioting, it is not immoral.

Martin Luther King Jr. understood that “riots are socially destructive and self-defeating,” and that the use of violence “is immoral,” because violence “seeks to humiliate,” it “thrives on hatred,” it “destroys community,” and it “creates bitterness in the survivors and brutality in the destroyers.”

While denouncing riots, he also made sure to note that “in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard.” In 2020, however, reformers are absolutely not unheard. Following a decade of police reforms, and reduced police killings in cities, police abuses are covered as prominently as any injustice in America. This summer, major sports leagues, Fortune 500 corporations, and institutions of higher education have all explicitly affirmed that “Black lives matter”––not because they are especially courageous institutions, but because agreement is so widespread. In early July, before the most recent protests, Gallup asked Americans whether U.S. policing needs to change. A staggering 94 percent of respondents said yes, just 6 percent said no, and 58 percent of Americans declared that “major changes” are necessary.

I am among those who believe that “major changes” are necessary––that drug prohibition should end, that no-knock raids should end, that independent investigators should probe all police shootings, that many communities should unbundle parts of their policing portfolios, and much more. So I’ve paid close attention in recent days as the police shooting of Jacob Blake reopened the perennial divide between radicals who want to destroy the system, and liberals who want to work within it. Parts of Kenosha, Wisconsin, were devastated by riots. In Madison, the state capital, marchers chanted “This is not a riot; this is a revolution!” Protesters in Oakland, California, chanted “Burn it down!” while lighting fires.

Meanwhile, Blake’s mother condemned the violence and destruction. “My family and I are very hurt and quite frankly disgusted,” she said. “As his mother, please, don’t burn up property and cause havoc and tear your own homes down in my son’s name. People shouldn’t do it anyway. But to use my child or any other mother or father’s child, our tragedy, to react in that manner, is not acceptable.”

And Obama’s preferred approach gained a prominent group of adherents: the NBA and its players. After Blake was shot and following a brief strike, the NBA players’ union issued a joint statement with the league: together, they would form a new “social justice coalition.” Going forward, it will focus on increasing access to voting, promoting civic engagement, and advocating for criminal-justice reform. In this way, the athletes are keeping alive a great American tradition of democratic pressure. Before his death in July, in the early days of the George Floyd protests, the civil-rights icon John Lewis addressed “the rioters here in Atlanta and across the country.” He said: “I see you, and I hear you. I know your pain, your rage, your sense of despair and hopelessness. Justice has, indeed, been denied for far too long.” But, he said, “rioting, looting, and burning is not the way. Organize. Demonstrate. Sit-in. Stand-up. Vote. Be constructive, not destructive. History has proven time and again that non-violent, peaceful protest is the way to achieve the justice and equality that we all deserve.”

If Americans follow that advice and dedicate half as much energy to working within the electoral system as they have on this year’s protests, then the gains of the next five years may well dwarf those of the past 30.