In the wake of the brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on Memorial Day, millions of protesters have sparked a full-fledged nationwide movement for police reform in America. Based upon the rhetoric of some of the protesters and a recent New York Times editorial calling for defunding the police, it appears the movement is now in some danger of turning radical.
We need rational police reforms but not radical reforms. Some reforms, such as community policing, must be pursued at the local level through sustained commitment. Others, such as civil rights laws, must be done at the national level. The states could and should do more but probably will not.
It’s ironic this tragedy occurred in Minneapolis. It was the young progressive mayor of Minneapolis, Hubert H. Humphrey, who brought the civil rights movement out into the open politically with a passionate speech to the 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. In that speech, Humphrey implored Democrats to “get out of the shadow of states’ rights and walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.” In response, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond led a walkout of Southern Dixiecrats from the convention hall.
We really need to be more careful about judging all or most police officers by the acts of a few; of judging all or most white people by the acts of a few white people. Both opinion polls and the protests by millions of Americans of all colors show cultural white racism is not our problem here. Our problem is political power structures that do not reflect the values of the American people.
As Rev. Al Sharpton quoted from Ephesians 6:12 at George Floyd’s funeral, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
Waco’s newly chosen city manager Bradley Ford and Police Chief Ryan Holt, lately doubling as an assistant city manager, say the Waco Police Department adopted all of the policies called for by the national 8 Can’t Wait campaign a long time ago. That’s likely because Waco began community policing nearly 30 years ago. I was mayor at the time, and I believe it has been good for Waco.
As a political science student at University of Texas at Arlington a half-century ago, I came to admire the policing practices of Dallas Police Chief Frank Dyson. I attended multiple campus forums where Chief Dyson spoke to UTA students. In those days, Chief Dyson was known as a “progressive” police chief. He later served as police chief in Austin for nine years. During the mid-1980s he retired to the Waco suburb of Robinson. He lived there for 33 years, passing away three years ago.
During the 1980s the Waco Police Department struggled with internal conflicts as well as conflicts with the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office. In both cases, these led to federal lawsuits and huge judgments. While I was running for mayor in 1990, a Waco federal court jury issued a $1.4 million judgment against the City of Waco for violating the rights of a Waco police officer. That got the attention of the people of Waco. I believe we had what is still the largest city election turnout in Waco history that year. It was probably the main reason I was elected.
I contacted Chief Reuben Greenberg in Charleston, South Carolina, to learn more about Charleston’s progressive policing programs and practices. I had learned about this progressive police chief from watching the television show “60 Minutes.” He was a black chief in what had been one of the leading cities of the Confederacy. He graciously spent time discussing matters with me and how Charleston’s policing policies might play out locally.
The City of Waco hired a consulting firm to do a nationwide search and recommend candidates for a new police chief. That firm gave the city a list of three or four candidates. Among them was Gil Miller, an assistant police chief in Austin. I wanted to hire Miller because he had experience working under Chief Dyson. City Manager John Harrison recommended Miller to the City Council to become police chief. That recommendation was confirmed unanimously. Chief Miller formally launched community policing in Waco in 1991.
At the time, we actually preferred the term neighborhood policing as the program meshed well with Councilwoman LaNelle McNamara’s program of creating neighborhood associations throughout the city. The point of community policing is to connect individual police officers with individual neighborhoods. We believed this would create mutually beneficial relationships between police officers and neighborhood leaders, merchants and ordinary citizens. We had police officers patrolling some neighborhoods on bicycles, some even on foot. Community policing gives police officers more interaction with the good people of a community. The very presence of police officers in some places can be an effective deterrent to crime. We tried to increase minority hiring so that all the children of Waco would have a better chance of growing up knowing a police officer who looked like them. We also gave police officers a good pay raise.
Over the three decades since, the Waco crime rate, particularly the murder rate, has gone down significantly. In 1989 there were 29 murders in Waco; in 2018 there were three.
Some people make fun of the idea of police officers functioning as social workers. But I believe that’s part of good community policing. What if every child in America could grow up knowing a police officer like Officer Clemmons of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood? The Neighborhood of Make-Believe could become real for our children.
For some reason, community policing has never really caught on nationally the way it should have. I believe community policing is a good start toward police reform. But more needs to be done. However, defunding police departments is not a part of the solution.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity has long been an obstacle to holding state and local governments responsible for abuses of power and civil rights violations. It presents an issue of states’ rights versus human rights. It was created by conservative judges and is not in the Constitution. We need a federal law to end it. I believe we need a new civil rights law that would make state and local governments strictly liable for monetary damages for violations of any person’s civil rights. This would also include state and county election officials who politically conspire to deny or impede any citizen’s right to vote as happened in Georgia this month.
I believe a few large court judgments would get the attention of the people the same way they did in Waco 30 years ago. Civil rights lawyers would be able to hold states, counties and cities accountable for civil rights violations and be reasonably compensated for doing so. If cities had to pay such judgments or higher liability insurance premiums for civil rights violations, every city in the country would find a way to significantly reduce abuses of power and other civil rights violations by police officers as well as other government officials.
The federal government should create several advanced police-training academies modeled after the FBI Academy. Such a program should be funded and operated by the federal government at no charge to the cities who use it. These APTAs could do appropriate background checks and psychological profiling. They could teach de-escalation, proportional use of force and avoidance of dangerous no-win confrontations.
We also need to end the “war on drugs.” It constitutes a war on the poor and minorities. It was the war on drugs that led to militarization of police departments, dangerous raids, other questionable police practices and mass incarceration. America now has more of its own citizens incarcerated than any other country.
The war on drugs is more about institutional racism than it is about crime. We must treat drug addiction more as a medical issue, less as a legal issue. Drug treatment facilities would be both cheaper and more effective than imprisoning people for most drug crimes. We also must end private prisons for profit. We must end the practice of rewarding police departments by awarding them helicopters, planes and other vehicles seized in drug raids.
More than anything else right now, America needs political power structures that reflect the true values of the American people. That, after all, is what democracy is all about. That means fair elections that reflect the will of the people. If our political power structures reflected the goodness of the American people, we would not have people marching in the streets today. In the words of former President Jimmy Carter, we would have a government as good as the American people.