Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

In the 10 months since the killing of George Floyd, has policing in America changed at all? We need to rethink what it means to protect and serve the well-being of citizens.

I know Minneapolis well.

I am not from there, but my wife is from just across the river in St. Paul. We still Zoom-attend Shabbat services at a Minneapolis synagogue at which we are members, and whose rabbi married us. I have in-laws and many friends in Minneapolis-St. Paul. So, we followed the news there closer than most after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd last May.

It was both a matter of national and personal importance: regardless of being a person who studied policing and felt that these events were important, I feared friends were being teargassed by cops, run over by semitrailer drivers, or attacked by white supremacists, let alone having their homes attacked by either police or protestors. And there was also a pandemic going on.

As part of the Urban Edge’s ongoing “COVID-19 and Cities” series, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research is examining the urban landscape a year after the pandemic began. These stories take a look back and ahead to what will be different in the years to come. 

On June 7 of last year, in reaction to those protests, Minneapolis City Council members pledged to dismantle the local police department. This seemed important: the leadership (though not the mayor) at the center of a major U.S. metropolitan area appeared to say “we don’t need police.” Floyd’s killing, and the following protests, made clear the extent of the rage, and the council members appeared to be answering the will of their polity.

Today, the Minneapolis Police Department still exists, and appears to be facing no existential threat of being disbanded. In December 2020, Minneapolis cut $8 million from the MPD budget, leaving the department with $179 million in funding. City Council members hedged on their promise, citing technicalities and procedural minutiae in the city charter. The idea of abolishing the department proved less popular than the initial rallies made it appear — a reality borne out nationwide and in Houston, George Floyd’s hometown.

Police abolition remains unpopular. Abolition became a talking point in the presidential debates, but neither candidate endorsed it. Austin pledged to cut a significant share of their police budget, but that’s happening slowly. Most cuts to police departments have been in the “single digit” millions, and restricted to major cities like Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, or Baltimore. I have yet to hear of suburbs disbanding the police. Defunding may affect police staff levels and morale, but these cuts do not represent a significant chunk of police budgets. And there was a pandemic going on, which probably meant that budget cuts were inevitable.

Today, the Minneapolis Police Department still exists, and appears to be facing no existential threat of being disbanded.

A point I have made elsewhere in this blog and in our Kinder Institute report on police oversight, and something I seem to bring up in any conversation about police, is that there are 18,000 police departments in the United States. No other country in the world comes close to that. The United Kingdom has around 50. New Zealand has one. Brazil appears to be a very, very distant second to the U.S., having around 1,300 police forces. Texas alone has more than that — around 2,800.

Reform of these 18,000 agencies — which can act more or less without supervision — won’t happen with cities, but at the state house. These 18,000 agencies receive their powers from state governments. Even if Minneapolis decides to dismantle their department — which is doubtful — most suburbs of Minneapolis-St. Paul certainly will not. If Houston — as is proposed — diverts some money from the “traditional” police into various police alternatives like those I discussed in a prior post, it remains to be seen if suburbs will take similar action. The statehouse (and the meet-and-confer table) is the site of most of the action, a point repeated in the Kinder Institute report on police oversight.

There are 18,000 police departments in the United States. No other country in the world comes close to that.

And there is a pandemic going on. Texas had mask mandates and restaurant occupancy limits, which, despite many complaints, were never enforced that strictly. We had no affair as high profile as France’s Michel Zecler, a Black man who the Paris police viciously beat for not wearing a mask. The sushi restaurant by my apartment was full most nights, even before the governor’s recent reopening order. Police clobbered no one.

I hoped that COVID-19 would lead people to consider what role the police could have played. Early police theorists like Adam Smith (of “invisible hand” fame) imagine the police largely as an agency to support public health. “Police” is the state exercising its sovereign will in order to advance the salus populi, the health of the people. This point comes up often in William Blackstone’s writing on police, which was influential to the constitution’s framers.

I moved quickly from COVID-19 to invoking the U.S. Constitution. But there is an important link between the everyday “boys in blue” police we see on the street, and the broader “state police power” that was invoked by the Constitution’s framers and is still alive in U.S. jurisprudence. Both of these “police” are supposed to act decisively to serve the well-being of citizens. The democratic state is both a slowly deliberating legislature/executive/court and a policing patria potentate — a household head who can rule decisively in order to care for its citizens.

I hoped that COVID-19 would lead people to consider what role the police could have played.

This past year, under COVID-19, I wish we had a more caring state, one that particularly extended its care to non-white people who died at far higher rate because of the disease. I think about a state that in March 2020 acknowledged the pandemic emergency and employed armies of suddenly unemployed hospitality workers in a sort of “COVID-19 WPA.” Unemployed people could work in contact tracing, emergency aid delivery and managing emergency lodgings so that infected people could successfully quarantine from others in their household (I credit my friend Michael R.J. Koscielniak for this idea). This could have led to faster re-openings coupled with less death, less anguish and fewer evicted service industry workers. The $3,200 I have received is nice, but it certainly hasn’t prevented the U.S. from being the global leader in COVID-19 deaths.

In sum, I wish we had more police, but police of a different kind. Because the federal government refused — or wasn’t able — to invoke its broad power, the states (where the police power technically lies) were left to handle the response. But state and local departments of health and other bureaucracies do not have resources. People mocked the state of New York for using EventBrite as its vaccine signup, but in their position, I would have 100% done the same thing.

When I was working in a large metro center’s city planning department in 2014, we were mandated to use Internet Explorer 5 because that was all our computers could handle. Without effective IT infrastructure these important public-sector agencies can’t do high-quality disease modeling, public communications or vaccine rollouts. We work with what we have, and 40 straight years of consistent public sector bureaucracy defunding means that those on the frontline of the response — state and local bureaucrats, including the police — worked with a handicap. A kneecapped runner can’t win a footrace.

Huge problems like COVID-19, let alone energy blackouts, climate catastrophes (both hot and cold), opioid abuse, mass eviction and infrastructure degradation require concerted coordination between local, state and federal governments. Sometimes emergencies happen, which is why the state needs resources to exercise its police power decisively.

In sum, I wish we had more police, but police of a different kind.

So, I want to conclude by returning to Minneapolis and police abolition, as the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin, the man charged in George Floyd’s killing, gets underway this month. I have many close friends in Minneapolis, including Mike.

Mike lives very close to George Floyd Square. After Floyd’s killing, and the pro-abolition, anti-racist-policing protests, Mike (who is white) joined a local patrol led by non-white neighbors. The patrol supports de-policing and tries to be emergency first responders so that the MPD are not the first on the scene when people of color are in crises. On patrol, Mike intervenes mostly in mental health and drug crises. He’s not playing cowboy: his patrol doesn’t carry guns and avoids violent situations (which, as police researchers remind us, are very rare in actual police work). Mike’s group has a dispatch system and works late into the night. Mike tells me he puts in around 30 hours a week, on top of his 9-to-5. Everyone’s a volunteer.

I doubt Mike’s work is sustainable, and he seems to agree. Expecting volunteers to do 30 hours of unpaid work with people in deep crises seems a fast track to burnout. People supported mutual aid as a response to the winter storm that paralyzed Houston and most of Texas in February, but that is not a constant and sustainable support. A well-funded state response could provide something more permanent, which would require coordination across multiple levels of government. But, I doubt this will come soon: the governor of Texas and mayor of Houston never even spoke during the week of the power outages, a sad fact that still bothers me a month after the storm.

Beyond killing thousands, COVID-19 seems to have sewn mass stress: alcoholism and suicide are on the rise. All of this would seem partially avoidable if the state acted effectively, which would entail exercising its police power in more creative ways and being a more caring steward of its people.

I sincerely wonder what next year will bring. We all seem a bit tired.