This is a curated selection of highlights from Crime Story Daily this week.
On the criminal justice policy front: This week, protests erupted across all 50 states in response to the death of George Floyd, turning a national spotlight on police brutality, systemic racism, and the excesses of American law enforcement. A piece from The Atlantic broadly outlines the policy interventions – at the federal, state, and local levels – needed to reform policing, increase accountability and transparency, and limit brutality and discrimination. A piece from The Nation calls on lawmakers to significantly reduce police budgets and redirect resources into community-based initiatives. A New York Times editorial highlights “qualified immunity,” the obscure legal doctrine that makes it practically impossible to prosecute law enforcement defendants for misconduct or abuse. And a piece from the New Republic emphasizes the role of police labor unions in limiting accountability and obstructing efforts at reform.
As protests continued throughout the week, officials at the national, state, and local levels began to implement some of these reforms. The Washington Post reports that all four officers involved in Floyd’s death are now facing felony murder charges and a possible prison sentence of up to 40 years. The New York Times reports that earlier this week, Democrats and Republicans in Congress began a new push to cut off police access to military-style gear. Their efforts focus on scaling back a ‘90s-era Pentagon program that transfers surplus military equipment and weaponry to local law enforcement departments. Politico reports that on Tuesday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced several initiatives designed to increase trust between police and the communities they serve, including an expansion of the state’s use-of-force database and a proposed licensing program for law enforcement. The Appeal reports that in New York, state legislators have pledged to decline campaign donations from police and corrections officers; and a coalition of current and former prosecutors in California is calling on the state bar association to ban law enforcement unions from funding DA campaigns. City Pages reports from Minneapolis, where city officials are considering even the most radical solutions, including a proposal to disband the police department entirely and “start fresh” with a community-oriented, nonviolent approach to public safety. And finally, the Los Angeles Times reports that on Wednesday, city officials announced plans to cut the LAPD’s budget by up to $150 million. The money, along with an additional $100 million in other cuts, will be reinvested into healthcare and education programs for the city’s black community.
In muckraker/watchdog reporting: This week, cities around the country saw repeated violent clashes between protesters and police. In some cases, conflicts were escalated by looting or property destruction; in most, peaceful demonstrations were met with excessive, seemingly unprovoked violence from police. A piece from Slate highlights several particularly egregious examples. And The Atlantic emphasizes the increasing militarization of American law enforcement. In many American cities, police officers are wearing body armor and carrying riot gear, driving heavily armored vehicles, firing rubber bullets and spraying tear gas – a chemical weapon banned in warfare – at protesters, bystanders, and journalists. Militarization is also reflected in fear-based, warrior-style training that primes law enforcement officers to view the people and communities they police as enemy combatants – and to treat them accordingly. When civilian police officers are trained and equipped like soldiers, they inevitably act more like soldiers: agencies that use military equipment kill civilians at much higher rates than those that don’t. One study, from 2017, showed a 129% increase in civilian deaths.
In complex crime storytelling: A piece from The Atlantic examines the “double standard” of the American riot. Since the American Revolution, riots and violent rhetoric have been markers of patriotism, embodied in phrases like “live free or die.” But historically, black rebellion has never been coupled with allegiance to American democracy; from the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter, black protest has been characterized as distinctly unpatriotic, a threat to American liberty rather than an expansion of it. The piece questions this double standard and interrogates the meaning of patriotism in a country where some rights and privileges – including the “privilege” of protest and resistance – are extended to white people but explicitly denied people of color. And New York Magazine explores the long and troubled history of “law-and-order” politics. The piece traces the origins of “law and order” rhetoric back to the Jim Crow era, when maintaining white supremacy – and violently suppressing racial change – was the explicit goal of law enforcement and a mandatory obligation of elected officials. By the end of the 20th century, the phrase “law and order,” long associated with racism and repression, had largely dropped out of the American political lexicon. But law-and-order politics have been revived in the era of President Trump, who, in a speech from the Rose Garden earlier this week, proclaimed himself “your president of law and order.”
And in culture/true crime: A piece from New York Magazine focuses on police procedurals. From prestige dramas like The Wire to reality shows like Live PD, law enforcement has become a ubiquitous fixture of the American TV landscape. While these shows differ in subject and scope, all share a fundamental ideology: the cops are the protagonists. For decades, TV procedurals have shaped public perceptions of American law enforcement, training us to frame issues of crime and justice from a “cop’s-eye” point of view while desensitizing us to real-life police violence. And a 2017 piece for The New Yorker by Jelani Cobb centers on the short film Conditioned Response. The film focuses on David Grossman, a former Army Ranger whose wildly popular police-training seminars embrace the “warrior cop” mentality. Rather than training officers for de-escalation, Grossman pushes them to be more comfortable with the use of deadly force, framing law enforcement not as a matter of public safety but as a literal – if asymmetrical – war on crime. The six-minute film juxtaposes footage from one of Grossman’s classes with stark, brutal images of police brutality – including the 2016 shooting of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer who attended Grossman’s seminars.