“Defund the police” has become a clarion call for protesters railing against brutality and systemic racism across the country, and especially in Atlanta.
The “city too busy to hate” has yet again become a flashpoint in the international conversation, as the police shooting death of Rayshard Brooks at an Atlanta Wendy’s restaurant last Friday has further invigorated the Black Lives Matter movement that has swept the country since George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis May 25.
But according to two law enforcement experts convened virtually by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta last week, protecting the very communities that have suffered most requires going beyond blanket slogans toward concrete, coordinated effort that will likely unfold over a generation.
Luis Moreno, a former ambassador to Jamaica who has helped train or even create police forces in places like Haiti, Peru, Iraq and Colombia, said the very words “defund the police” have become partisan and polarizing, potentially detracting from the very real and necessary conversation about reform and systemic racism.
Besides, doing a mass “defunding” would be a logistical nightmare in a country with 18,000 separate police forces, Mr. Moreno said during a conversation with council President Charles Shapiro.
“You need a rebooting of the police, or a restarting of the police,” he said, drawing on his global experience to call for a standardization of training and guidelines that can be certified at the federal level. Ironically, this is what the U.S. has offered when training other countries on how to do policing.
“What we had internationally was a certain standard in training in crowd control, in arrest techniques, in investigative techniques, in recruitment, in vetting,” he said.
Also necessary, in his view, is a national or at least somewhat centralized database of bad actors: Right now, a police officer that has been kicked out of one department can get a job “two counties over.”
Current levels of funding may be sufficient, but money should be reallocated rather than removed, and there should be greater accountability and a focus on demilitarizing police forces — Mr. Moreno noted that he once tried to help the Jamaican armed forces procure weapons but was crowded out of the market by the Chicago police.
Thaddeus Johnson, a criminology professor at Georgia State University and a former Memphis police officer, said it’s vital to understand the reasons black communities are feeling so angry right now, even as American society moves toward measured, thorough approaches to tackling the underlying inequities that he believes continue to necessitate an “armed guardianship.”
“When the Constitution was written about all men are created equal, they weren’t talking about us, so all the historical context — we just can’t ignore it. Think about the Jim Crow laws: For black people, police have been the heavy hand of that oppressive state, regardless of the actions of the individual officers.”
He recalled “dinnertime conversations” with his mother about interacting with police, being told to get home before midnight or keep his hands visible in any encounter. As an officer he lived in a “paradoxical reality,” enforcing the law while on duty but feeling upset when he saw a black person being arrested.
“I see police officers who look like me on the front lines of riots and they almost have tears in their eyes, because I know they’re torn,” he said.
Changing things will require a radical rethink around policing, incorporating ideas from around the country and world, both Dr. Johnson and Mr. Moreno said.
Dr. Johnson cited Camden, N.J., which didn’t exactly abolish its police force but reoriented it, including hiring 100 civilians to focus on assisting officers in communities.
Similarly, getting the people with the right skills means paying the salaries that requires, or funding the embedding of social services or NGOs into the police forces.
“I actually think we should invest into the salaries, to bring on the people that we want to bring on,” Dr. Johnson said.
Asked what it says that some 30 percent of the City of Atlanta budget goes to the Atlanta Police Department, Dr. Johnson said it’s less about the department itself and more about the kinds of problems that the force is being asked to deal with, as cops become de facto social workers or substance abuse counselors in some cases.
“It says more about the world that we live in and the responsibilities that we put on police officers that really shouldn’t be their responsibilities in the first place,” he said.
Both speakers agreed that more thought should be put into training and recruitment, ensuring that more minorities and women are brought in. Educational standards should be raised, with universities stepping up to help provide leadership training. All officers should learn how to de-escalate situations and confront their implicit racial bias. Incentive structures should also be re-evaluated, with officers being rewarded based on metrics besides arrests and ticket quotas.
Dr. Johnson also called for better care for officers, who are often overworked and fail to receive adequate mental health treatment even when they’re involved in a use-of-force situation. Some are being forced to defend their profession in an environment of increasing “acrimony.”
The irony is that all of these solutions will likely require more funding, not less, he said.
Mr. Moreno called for a “Marshall-type plan” that could take years to implement. That’s why it’s important that slogans don’t detract from longer-term cooperation. He drew a link between the persistence of coronavirus, despite the fact that some are beginning to “act like it doesn’t exist,” he said.
“I think this dialogue is beginning, and I think there is room for optimism. There has to be a continuous sounding of the alarm here. We can’t forget about this next week; we have to continue putting pressure on our political leaders. And this has to be a national dialogue,” Mr. Moreno said.
If efforts to built a security force in Haiti after years of abuses or to stand up a Colombian narcotics force have taught him anything, it’s that there might need to be a period of transition on the way toward the ideal.
“You need something in between the bad and the new. You’ve got to take the best of what’s there and make then some kind of temporary plan,” Mr. Moreno said.
Asked for examples on police forces doing it right, he cited the crowd control efforts of the Spanish police forces during the COVID-19 lockdowns, as well as moves by South Korea to reduce the use of riot gear, which has seemed to calm certain situations.
Dr. Johnson pointed to domestic police forces better utilizing technology, communicating with undocumented communities and appointing a special group of officers just out of high school to handle solely traffic-related incidents.
Both were hopeful that this was a real turning point in the conversation on American policing. While the vast majority of police interactions are peaceful, Dr. Johnson said the problem for many black people is that they see themselves disproportionately represented in those encounters that go south.
“This has been an awakening. I want to say that Derek Chauvin [the former officer charged with the murder of Mr. Floyd] actually exposed our ugly truths. And George Floyd really urged us into our moment of clarity, our moment of awakening. I feel really hopeful that not only the community but also our leaders on these both sides of the aisle are starting to see that this is much bigger than any partisan issue,” Dr. Johnson said.
Correction: A previous version of this story had Dr. Thaddeus Johnson’s name listed incorrectly as Dr. Smith.