When I was two years old, I choked on a chip. My parents, in a moment of panic, dialed 911 and a police officer arrived to help.
In 2010, when my family in India tried, and failed, to call my dad to tell him that my grandpa died—the police showed up at our door to inform us.
As I reflect on these memories, one question persists: why did the police show up? When I think of a police officer’s job, I think of de-escalating violent conflicts and stopping robberies, not showing up to a stranger’s door to help a choking toddler. But in truth, this could not be further from reality.
Responding to violence is a miniscule fraction of a police officer’s job. In New Haven, only 4.4% of all calls to police officers involve violence. If this is the case, do we truly need an armed force to deal with the majority of conflicts police officers handle? That key question is at the core of the police abolition movement. Reformers and activists propose that we de-fund police departments currently responsible for a wide array of problems, and invest in professionals specifically
trained to handle certain situations.
“Defund the Police” is central to the wide-scale protests against police brutality that have taken place since George Floyd’s murder last year. However, this tenet is notably absent from the George Floyd Policing Act that the US House of Representatives is proposing to pass. In fact, the legislation goes directly against what the police abolition movement stands for.
One of the bill’s proposals calls for anti-bias training to combat implicit racism and racial profiling—a reform that abolitionists know will fail to prompt change because of the all-encompassing nature of a police officer’s job. When forced to tackle a wide range of problems, generic training will not prevent racist actions of police officers. Rather, splitting up police officers’ jobs and re- allocatting certain responsibilities to smaller groups of trained professionals, such as mental health workers and social workers, allows the person best suited for specific conflicts to be the first responders.
Research conducted by the New York Police Department (NYPD) proves the ineffectual results of increased training, showing that while anti/implicit-bias training makes officers more aware of their biases, it has no effect on their actual behaviors while on duty. In the survey, police officers were asked to react to a sentence using one of five options: strongly agree, somewhat agree, neutral, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree. When asked to respond to the phrase, “Implicit biases may lead officers to be over vigilant—that is, to act aggressively when someone is not a threat,” prior to training, 36% of officers either strongly agreed or somewhat agreed. Post-training, 54% of officers strongly or somewhat agreed. This uptick confirms that anti-bias training does enhance police officers’ understanding of implicit biases and their effect. But this greater understanding did not correlate to a decrease in racial profiling while on duty. In the same survey, the NYPD collected data on racial disparities in various enforcement behaviors before and after training. Of all Stop-and-Frisks in New York, prior to training, 58% stopped were Black and another 31% were Hispanic. After training, 60% stopped were Black and 31% were Hispanic. This is in stark contrast to the demographics of New York, which is 24% Black and 29% Hispanic, proving that, regardless of training, implicit bias persists.
In addition, the bill fails to recognize that the police force is historically rooted in racism towards people of color and white supremacy—another reason abolitionists cite for defunding the police. A root cause of this racism is ambiguity in policing-related legislation, which can often be exploited to uphold oppression. In the George Floyd Policing Act, one such ambiguous provision involves the creation of a public database on police misconduct. While the goal of this database is to more efficiently and publicly keep track of misconduct, the lack of clear central oversight will likely lead to an incomplete database. The database’s success hinges on state and local governments cooperating with the federal government to actually report instances of misconduct. We have seen throughout history, with policies like Stop-and-Frisk, that police departments exploit the lack of federal oversight to uphold white supremacy. Assuming that local police departments will in fact report misconduct is a fatal flaw within the George Floyd Policing Act and one that will continue to let white supremacy fly under the radar.
To me, this legislation does not symbolize change. Rather, it reflects our politicians’ inability to commit to the long-term change that many of the people they represent are calling for. Over and over again, our politicians take a stance that hovers around neutrality—a straddle between the status quo and reform—putting our policing system in an eternal deadlock. This apolitical approach of wanting to bring about change, but not too much change, is futile.
There are a lot of uncertainties moving forward regarding policing, many of which I don’t know how to answer. What I do know is that the current system is not working, and attempting to solve these systemic issues with pandering, evasive reforms will not do anything. Mitigating the issues will take rethinking and dismantling our entire policing system, and listening to the police abolitionists leading the fight against police brutality.
We still have a long way to go. Right now, the fear many hold towards the police is so deeply rooted that it hinders our ability to stand up for reform. The crusade against police brutality and racism does not end here. The George Floyd Policing Act is barely a start. Taking a passive stance against racism in policing can no longer be tolerated—something I hope our politicians will soon understand.