Public Outrage Hasn’t Improved Policing

Plus: A theory of tech giants

Riot police at a 2020 protest
Ismail Ferdous / Agence VU / Red​ux

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

What is the best way forward for Americans who want to improve policing and the criminal-justice system?

Send your responses to or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Earlier this month, a Black man named Keenan Darnell Anderson died at a Southern California hospital hours after he was repeatedly Tasered by LAPD officers as they attempted to arrest him following a traffic accident. In video footage where he alternately seems to be asking for help and confusedly resisting arrest, “the officers tell Anderson that if he does not stop resisting, they will Taser him,” MSNBC reported. “The video shows one officer, who appears to be Black, placing his elbow on Anderson's neck to pin him to the ground. At one point, Anderson yells, ‘They’re trying to George Floyd me.’” The story continues, “Police Chief Michel Moore said Anderson had committed a felony hit-and-run and tried to ‘get into another person's car without their permission.’”

I have no idea how to apportion blame in this particular death, but in an opinion article, also at MSNBC, Ja’han Jones contrasted “the widespread public outrage over Floyd’s death” and the dearth of attention paid to the death in Los Angeles. “What are we to make of this difference?” he wrote. “Has the public gotten busier since then? Crueler? More fickle? More tolerant of violence? More futile in our response to it? Where are the black Instagram squares, the corporate news releases claiming to stand for racial justice, the social media posts about white folks listening and learning about their privilege?” But Jones neglects to acknowledge that none of those responses did anything to lessen the number of police killings.

A subsequent Slate article titled “What Happened to the National Outrage Over Police Killings?” offered variations on the same theme. Its author, Shirin Ali, began by asserting that “an ongoing analysis by The Washington Post found Black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white Americans—and in 2022, police killed the highest number of people on record.” That’s misleading, as the criminologist Peter Moskos pointed out: There were more police killings in 2022 than any year in the Washington Post database of fatal police shootings, but the newspaper has only been keeping track since 2015.

There is evidence to suggest police killings are much lower today than in the past. Moskos has found historical data on 18 major cities showing a 69 percent drop in police shootings since the early- to mid-1970s. Police in New York City and Los Angeles both shoot fewer people than they did then, even though the cities’ populations are now much bigger.

Nevertheless, police in America still kill far more people than in other liberal democracies. The Yale professor Phillip Goff, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, told Slate that although periodic reforms to American policing have improved it over the decades, police reform has also been stymied. The culprit, in his telling, is “people who think the best way to manage vulnerable Black communities is to lock them up or commit acts of violence whenever they are in a place where they shouldn’t be, where they violate a law that was made to give them opportunities to lock the folks up.”

Reading both articles, I was struck not so much by what was said as by what was neglected: hugely significant factors that are obviously influencing how Americans respond to police shootings compared with how they responded in 2013, when protesters marked the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; or during ensuing years, as #BlackLivesMatter began growing from a hashtag into an international movement; or in 2020, when Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in America and abroad.

What happened to the national outrage over police killings? It has been muted, in part, by a spike in gun homicides that dwarfs police killings in the number of Black lives that it has destroyed. The outrage has also been muted, in part, by trepidation after the weeks in 2020 when several anti-racist protests were marred by incidents of arson, vandalism, and looting, resulting in as much as $2 billion in damage and as many as  19 people killed. If history is any guide, affected neighborhoods will suffer for decades, disproportionately harming Black and brown communities and businesses.

And although it has always been hard to disentangle the exact relationship between the hearteningly widespread, decentralized activist movement Black Lives Matter and the coalition of groups called the Movement for Black Lives, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, the Black Lives Matter PAC, and more, outrage is more muted now in part because of infighting among some prominent activists within these groups. Several individuals have come under scathing criticism from some of the very families they purported to champion, or are doing who-knows-what-exactly (some bought luxury real estate) with an unprecedented windfall of grassroots contributions.

Those of us who still want to improve policing need to face reality: Probing why Americans are reacting differently to the most recent death of a Black man after an encounter with police, without at least grappling with all that went wrong in recent years, is doomed to fail.

Long before Black Lives Matter’s ascent, I was among those inveighing against policing injustices and America’s catastrophic War on Drugs, and trying and failing to significantly reduce police misconduct. Black Lives Matter arose in part because most of us who came before it largely failed. When it did, I hoped it would succeed spectacularly in reducing police killings and agreed with at least its premise that the issue warranted attention.

But it is now clear that the Black Lives Matter approach has largely failed too.

Despite an awareness-raising campaign as successful as any in my lifetime, untold millions of dollars in donations, and a position of influence within the progressive criminal-justice-reform coalition, there are just as many police killings as before Black Lives Matter began. Politically, a powerful faction inside the movement sought to elect more radical progressives; Donald Trump and Joe Biden won the next presidential elections. That same faction sought to “defund the police”; police budgets are now rising, and “defund” is unpopular with majorities of every racial group.

Whether or not you think those reforms should have prevailed, they did not. If impact matters more than intent, the criminal-justice-reform movement needs an alternative to Black Lives Matter that has better prospects for actually improving real lives. Today, almost every American is aware of police killings as an issue. Awareness has been raised, and returns are diminished.

I wish I knew the best way forward. I lament the breakup of the constructive alliance of libertarians, progressives, and religious conservatives who cooperated during the Obama Administration to achieve some worthy criminal-justice reforms, and I continue to be impressed with the ethos Jill Leovy sketched out in the book Ghettoside, offering one strategy that would (in my estimation) dramatically increase equity in American policing. (I also urge everyone to revisit this newsletter’s previous installments on the death penalty, which highlight the powerful abolitionist arguments of my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig, and the war on drugs, which keeps imposing staggering costs while failing to prevent pandemic opioid deaths.)

This week’s question is “What is the best way forward for Americans who want to improve the criminal-justice system?” I hope to air perspectives as diverse as the country, and perhaps plant seeds that grow into constructive new approaches.

Civilian Oversight and Its Discontents

At the Marshall Project, Jamiles Lartey describes the political battle in many municipalities over police-oversight boards, and argues that police unions frequently try to undermine their mission:

Resistance to oversight boards comes primarily from pro-law enforcement groups, especially police unions, who often make concerted efforts to dilute the power of the boards. Law enforcement voices frequently argue that civilians, by definition, don’t have the right knowledge to evaluate police actions. “It would be akin to putting a plumber in charge of the investigation of airplane crashes,” said Jim Pasco, executive director of the national Fraternal Order of Police, told the Washington Post in 2021. When they can’t stop these oversight agencies, or weaken their powers, police unions sometimes seek to have allies placed in vacant board positions. In Chicago, where proponents recently won passage of a new oversight structure, WBEZ reported this week that the largest local police union is spending money “in an attempt to extend the union’s power into a domain created specifically to oversee the officers who make up the union’s membership.”

It’s common for negotiations about oversight bodies to include debate on whether people with close ties to the police (like former officers or family members of officers) are eligible to serve.

On the other side of the spectrum, some police abolitionists push back against these boards, arguing that they work “against deeper change.” It’s also not uncommon for community activists who initially back oversight boards to turn against them over time, frustrated by a lack of results. That’s how things are playing out in Dallas, where activists and board members are both expressing frustration with a board that had its powers expanded after the 2018 killing of Botham Jean by then-officer Amber Guyger. One board member told Bolts Magazine that their efforts were being “stonewalled,” “marginalized” and “put in a corner” by the department’s non-cooperation. The political wrangling about oversight boards is only one way that police departments and unions push back on accountability. In Boston, which rolled out its own independent watchdog body in 2021 (to mixed reviews), Mayor Michelle Wu is currently locked in a battle over the police union contract, and her desire to strengthen the disciplinary process for officer misconduct.

Continuing the DEI Conversation

In our last installment, I promised to run additional reader responses to the Question of the Week about diversity training and associated initiatives within organizations. Today’s collection explores how readers feel about the intersection of corporate Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) goals and hiring practices.

Andy feels frustrated by a lack of specificity about what is expected of him––and a climate where open conversation and debate seems too risky to engage in:

In my company, we have a VP of Diversity, who has made a couple of presentations about how we “need” to be more diverse. But what does that look like? I’m in software. I’m a manager who has 10 people reporting to me. Five are white men (one an Orthodox Jew––how does he fit in?). One is an Asian man, one is an Asian woman, two are Indian women, and one is an Indian man. One of the Indian women is my highest-paid employee, deservedly. So, how much work do I have to do in order to make my team diverse?

So instead, we focus on “underrepresented,” which means women, Black, and Hispanic. Maybe gay or trans. How many "groups" do we put on the underrepresented list? Which ones? By the way, the other development manager working with me is a Black man, and our testing and product managers are Hispanic men. I’ve hired maybe 20 employees over my career. The majority are Indian, then Asian, men. My last few openings, I’ve had women recruiters, which, research says, is supposed to tilt the candidates toward women. Not working, I guess. Or maybe it’s actually reflective of the pool? Of course, there isn’t much room for discourse. I’m debating whether I should post this article in our “random” Slack channel. Will I just get in trouble?

Jack hypothesizes that diversity work is less appealing when resources are scarce:

I took the all-day diversity class as a middle manager. The company was going through downsizing, which creates a zero-sum mentality that is not a good companion to confessions of moral turpitude, the holy grail of the day. Then the multimillion-dollar fee charged by the consultant came up, igniting two-way hostility.  A total fiasco. I concluded that movies would do a better job helping people internalize the diversity concepts.

D. believes that, for some positions, job candidates from historically underrepresented groups should get hired over white candidates for the sake of diversity, as opposed to a policy of strict nondiscrimination. But he is frustrated by his perception that his employer won’t admit that preference:

I am a card-carrying liberal teaching at a Canadian university. All members of hiring committees are mandated to do periodic equity training in order to sit on the committee, so I’ve done this at least twice. My experience is that the training is as good or as bad as the trainers: my second time was competent, boring, professional; it explained Canadian law and provincial law and university policies, and gave a few decent tips on how to balance the three when they are in conflict, which is pretty often.

But the first time was so insulting to our intelligence. What I most remember is the trainer’s complete ignorance of, or refusal to be honest about, affirmative action (which I support, by the way). The message was you must hire the best candidate, but make sure the best candidate is from an equity-deserving group. Our question: “Can we advertise that for diversity reasons we are only looking for, say, an Indigenous person to teach Indigenous studies?” The answer: “No, you can’t do that.” Our question: “So we have to accept applications from people who in reality have no chance of making the short list?” Their answer: “Hire the best person,” but with the implication that it would be a bad outcome to have a non-Indigenous instructor of Indigenous studies. I actually support the idea of diversity-oriented searches to address historical exclusion and present underrepresentation. Again, I’m a liberal.  But I don’t support lying in job ads.  

It’s the exact equivalent, in reverse, of the NFL mandate to give no-chance-in-hell interviews to minority head-coach candidates. So is the problem the training, or is it Canadian law, which refuses to call diversity preference or compensatory preference by its name, and just calls it “equity”? I’m not sure, but the English language weeps either way. To be clear, though, my awful experience was years back, and the second time, the trainers were pretty honest with us about the contradictions between laws at various levels.

Paul argues that the current approach to DEI generates a backlash from people who feel discriminated against:

I am a Ph.D. candidate at a flagship state university in the Midwest, and recently, a call was put out for scholarships and research funding. At the beginning of the application was the caveat that “priority will be given to underrepresented groups.” Although I am a military veteran, a “nontraditional” student (i.e. middle aged), and come from a rural and “underprivileged” background (whatever that means), I am quite persuaded that none of these “underrepresented” categories is what they meant. And that’s the problem.  

In modern academic circles, DEI initiatives engage in a good deal of coy linguistic posturing that is intended to signal “justice” but that actually sows confusion and resentment. It is well understood on campus that racial and sexual identities trump all other aspects of background and character, and that the commanding heights of student and faculty ambitions are occupied by a class of technocrats engaged in setting historical injustices straight. They do so, paradoxically, by engaging in precisely the kind of arbitrary and capricious discrimination that caused the historical injustices in the first place. And one daren’t lift so much as an eyebrow of critical inquiry (“Can we have a list of the groups to be favored and why?”) without risking professional sanction and social animus.

And even if these DEI programs were models of carefully and individually tailored merit-apportioning, it would hardly matter, since the general perception is quite the opposite. Like the Irish who “need not apply,” talented and ambitious men and women (if they are the wrong identity) quietly skulk to the sidelines to wait for the madness to end.

They don’t even look one another in the face.

Mike has concluded that it’s a waste of time for him to apply for jobs at an employer that is emphasizing certain kinds of DEI initiatives:

I was part of a layoff last week with nearly a universal demographic makeup: straight, white-looking men. The company was already 60 percent female. I have an MBA and a bunch of technical certifications. I look at data and can do analysis. Before I even respond to an inbound request from a prospective employer, I look at the DEI targets. If those targets require significant headcount growth or layoffs to meet goals based on historical trends … I will not apply or interview. I will point my POC and female friends their way.

It’s purely a numbers game.

The leaders are telling me they don’t want people like me … so they don’t get people like me. The shift from meritocracy to equity is going to cause businesses not focused on DEI to gain an advantage in the long term. I’m not less talented than I used to be; I am just the wrong race—and DEI is clear that being white makes me lower quality. There was one company I did accept an inbound with. They put their DEI targets against proportional talent metrics, and they wanted to promote proportionally. It was more work and didn’t look as good as the aggressive virtue signal, but I know if I land there, I just have to execute to win. TLDR: As a white male, when I see DEI, I know it normally means “We don’t want you, we don’t like you, and we will promote or hire literally anyone else if we can.”

James feels discarded by organizations with what he sees as an insufficient commitment to diversity and inclusion:

In my experience, as a visibly queer, Indigenous person in various leadership roles over the past decade, all that is being fulfilled by many diversity efforts––classes, webinars, newsletters, certification programs, and the like––is the documentation of completion rather than the work that should and must be done in order to actually effect change.

The people we should be listening to are Asian women, Black women, Indigenous women, queer women, and femmes of color—they are often at the bottom of the wage pool, subjected to microaggressions and outright discrimination. I’ve had a nonprofit leader ask me why we needed “another DEI class” when she had a certificate from just two or three years ago; I’ve had an instructor who touts a certification of excellence granted by some national institution or other using slurs and derogatory language about Indigenous people like it’s industry jargon. Because it is: Microaggressions; belittling remarks based on race, gender, identity, presentation, hair, makeup, clothes, body type; and the expectation of willingness to step into a stereotype are what we see. The closest thing many of us come to “inclusion” is that we’re all discarded in equal measure.

In an essay that takes aim at TikTok, Cory Doctorow puts forth a general theory of tech giants:

Here is how platforms die: First, they are good to their users; then they abuse their users to make things better for their business customers; finally, they abuse those business customers to claw back all the value for themselves. Then, they die … This is enshittification: Surpluses are first directed to users; then, once they're locked in, surpluses go to suppliers; then once they're locked in, the surplus is handed to shareholders and the platform becomes a useless pile of shit. From mobile app stores to Steam, from Facebook to Twitter, this is the enshittification lifecycle.

That’s all for this week––see you on Monday.

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