The Case for Police Reform Is Much Bigger Than Michael Brown

There are clearer, more persuasive illustrations of law-enforcement misbehavior and the need to rein it in.

As a longtime proponent of sweeping reforms to the criminal-justice system, I'm extremely apprehensive of the impulse to treat the killing of Michael Brown as a focal rallying point, even granting that the case has mobilized people and attention. His death is a perfect illustration of the need for dashboard cameras on every patrol vehicle and lapel cameras on every police officer in America. The way officials in Ferguson reacted to the protests over his death did illustrate the alarming militarization of U.S. police agencies. But when it comes to the problem of police officers using excessive force, including lethal force, against people they encounter, there are scores of cases that better illustrate the problem.

Why not start shifting focus to them?

The peaceful protestors taking to America's streets to demand reforms deserve gratitude. They correctly discern that excessive force is common in this country, that it disproportionately affects minority groups, and that addressing that problem is urgent. That's more than can be said for most Americans, who would ignore police abuse even more than they already do if not for the efforts of community organizers, activists, and regular people who turn out in numbers to say, "This must stop."

But even protesters who want to highlight the specific problem of white police officers shooting black men—even those who want to do so by saying "don't shoot" while raising their arms in the air—needn't rely on a murky incident with conflicting eyewitness testimony where there's a chance that the unknowable truth would exonerate the officer. Instead, they can show skeptics this video from Columbia, South Carolina:

When I want to persuade a skeptic that police can misbehave so badly that it's hard to believe until one sees it, that is the incident I thrust before them. Given an hour of their time, I could fill it with other incidents on YouTube, almost all of which were totally ignored by most of the commentators who are now flaunting their outrage at anyone evaluating evidence in Ferguson differently than they do. This alienates potential allies and converts on the larger issue of police abuse ... for what?

If someone read through St. Louis County grand-jury testimony and came to the earnest conclusion that Officer Darren Wilson and the physical evidence and witnesses who corroborated his account were more credible than the physical evidence and witnesses that contradicted him, there should be no beef with them. I urge them to support police reforms anyway. I do not fear that the case for doing so has been diminished. I ask, "Do you think police were justified in this case?" with a link leading here:

Or here:

In a sharp column at Time, John McWhorter begins by urging everyone looking at Ferguson to sincerely grapple with "a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt," a sense he regards as justified. He believes that feeling caused Michael Brown to ignore Wilson when told to get out of the street at the beginning of the incident that killed him.

Whether that's correct is immaterial to what follows.

"What America owes communities like Ferguson—and black America in general—is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide," he writes. "As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, 'Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.' This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life."

Over the summer, I noted an incident that might help a skeptic to understand that belief. It concerns a black man tased while trying to pick his daughter up from school:

McWhorter goes on to say that while he is "someone who has written in ardent sympathy with the Ferguson protests ... I’m not sure that what happened to Michael Brown—and the indictment that did not happen to Officer Darren Wilson—is going to be useful as a rallying cry about police brutality and racism in America." He explains:

Based on the evidence known to us now, a common take will be that the incident proceeded thusly: Brown stole from a convenience store, Wilson tried to stop him based on his description. Brown refused to stop and physically assaulted Wilson in his car, Wilson shot Brown in self-defense. Brown ran about 150 ft. from the car. He then ran 25 ft. back toward Wilson, likely trying to indicate surrender. Wilson thought Brown was trying to reinitiate the assault and fired further, which killed Brown. This was a hideous misunderstanding. And yes, if the guy lurching back toward Wilson had been white, just maybe he wouldn’t have fired those last shots. But can we really know that surely enough to enlighten a nation? We are told that this tragic sequence of actions shows that America “devalues black bodies,” as a common phrasing has it.

But I fear the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson.

One need only read outside the bubble of center-left journalism to see that McWhorter is right. Some are reacting to the debate over the Brown shooting by going deep in the weeds to try proving the grand jury wrong. For those who feel called to that project, I wish you luck. But I think an alternative approach is more likely to end in useful reforms. It'd continue to highlight the disproportionate harms that police abuses do in minority communities and the racism endemic in policies like Stop and Frisk, which has subjected countless minorities to encounters like this one:

But the approach I'd counsel would also drop the conceit that police abuse only affects minority groups. Consider this cartoon commenting on a black 12-year-old shot by a police officer who mistook the BB gun he was carrying for a deadly weapon:

The implicit suggestion that the armed protest on that Nevada ranch awhile back would've gone much differently if the participants hadn't have been mostly white is well taken. But the notion that white people have nothing to fear from police is nonsense. The examples are endless. A Georgia police officer with a questionable safety record shot and killed a 17-year-old white teen when he opened the door holding a Wii controller. Long Beach police killed a white guy holding the nozzle of a garden hose.

Sometimes white people are shot without any object in hand. Around the same time police in Ferguson killed Michael Brown, a Utah officer shot and killed an unarmed white guy outside a convenience store. Here's the video:

The local district attorney ruled that justified.

One needn't deny the disproportionate harm police abuse does in minority communities to see that it's inaccurate to say that police abuse of whites isn't a problem, too. Racism is far from the only factor here, and eliding that fact is surely counterproductive for reformers. Whites would be obligated to help reduce police abuse even if they were never subject to it, but the cold political reality is that people of every race have a purely selfish incentive to rein in law enforcement—even white people, whether they're being assaulted by police with pepper spray or high-powered pepper plume or tasers ... or literally beaten to death.

So what specific reforms are needed? Too many to list them all in this article. But here are a few measures, beyond video cameras, that would improve policing:

  • Decisions about when to charge officers should be made by independent prosecutors, not regular district attorneys, who rely on police to testify in most of the cases they bring. That gives these district attorneys a perverse incentive to refrain from aggressively prosecuting misconduct.
  • Police unions should be able to negotiate salary, benefits, and nothing else. Firing an abusive police officer should be easy.
  • All police departments should have strong civilian oversight.
  • The War on Drugs should end.
  • Most military-grade police equipment should be returned to the federal government or destroyed.
  • Civil asset forfeiture should be reformed.
  • No-knock raids should stop in almost all cases.

The movement that grew in the wake of Brown's death will need to pursue concrete, specific goals like these if their anger and outrage is to serve any purpose. Supporters with constructive criticism might improve the odds of success. The present course probably isn't sufficient, despite the rhetorical support it enjoys.