Place  /  Argument

Police Reform Doesn’t Work

A century of failed liberal attempts at policing reform in Minneapolis suggests that none of the city’s current proposals will prevent another George Floyd.

The violence of the MPD is, of course, part of a national story. As scholars such as Elizabeth Hinton, Stuart Schrader, and Naomi Murakawa have shown, modern, militarized U.S. policing arose collectively out of postwar liberalism: though its precise manifestation has varied regionally, all U.S. policing relies on a rationale of “security” as a pretext for regulating the behavior of poor people and communities of color that were the intended recipients of social reforms since the 1960s. Out of this has arisen everything from punitive “tough-on-crime” policies—historically popular across the political spectrum—to “preemptive” policing initiatives such as Broken Windows and Stop and Frisk.

Unfortunately, our collective notion of what would constitute ideal police reform has its roots in this same context of postwar liberalism, in which private responsibility and collective securitization remain the ultimate goods that are sought. Since World War II, liberals have emphasized regulating individual behavior to correct the inequalities that police often reinforce—the sanctity of Black communities contingent on the ability of the police to “restore peace.”

In the specific case of Minneapolis, for example, the failure to curtail police brutality—despite numerous waves of well-intentioned liberal reform efforts beginning as early as the 1920s—derives precisely from the limitations of those who sought transformative racial justice, not because of the efforts of reactionaries to undermine those reforms. At many points in the postwar history of Minneapolis, police reform efforts were led by the very progressives who had helped militarize the MPD in the first place.

This was in no small part a result of progressive ideological commitments about the origins of racist policing. Believing that racist policing was mainly caused by what we’d now call implicit bias, Minneapolis progressives sought to remake the psychology of white police officers, compelling cops to interrogate their biases—all while encouraging greater presences of police officers in Black communities and while downplaying systemic and overt racism. Minneapolis progressives thus approached police reform with the premise that policing could be made more effective, more precise—and that better, not less, policing was essential to racial justice and improved race relations.

This legacy still overshadows police reform in Minneapolis, and the recounting of this history that follows—of how so many good-faith efforts failed catastrophically—should leave us deeply skeptical about the enterprise of police reform in its entirety. If Minneapolis and the nation are to escape the shadow of failed decades of police reform, they must reckon with this history. And they likely need to jettison the rubric of police reform and seek out more promising ways of conceptualizing the path toward racial justice and a society free from violence.