As our country cries out in mourning and pursuit of justice for George Floyd and the other black lives taken by police, many are looking for practical, policy-based solutions. Black researchers and activists have worked for decades to stop police violence. If we listen to and support their work, we can prevent police violence, especially against communities of color.
White leaders often treat police violence as an individualized problem, suggesting body cameras and bias training in hopes of solving the problem of the “bad cop.” But systemic police violence is not an individual problem, and evidence shows that body cameras and trainings do not limit police violence. The problem is not with individual officers, but instead with the system of modern American law enforcement itself.
This means that individual communities and the state of Maine can use evidence-based policy approaches to reduce police violence, especially against black, brown, and indigenous citizens.
First, shifting funding to community organizations is the most effective way to reduce police violence. Decades of careful research across more than 250 U.S. cities shows that community nonprofits focusing on crime and community life are vital to reducing crime and violence. For example, researchers estimate that every 10 such organizations in a city of about 100,000 residents is associated with a 9 percent reduction in murder rates and a 4 percent reduction in property crime. City and state governments can shift funding from policing to community organizations, such as Racial Equity & Justice and the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine in the Bangor area, to reduce crime and save lives.
Second, along with shifting funding, clear and explicit use of force policies may reduce police violence. In an analysis of eight different use of force policies (e.g., requiring specific de-escalation practices and verbal warnings, prohibiting choke and strangleholds, requiring intervention by bystanding officers to stop peers from using excessive force) each one was associated with a 15 percent reduction in killings by police and a reduction in police being assaulted or killed themselves. Although some departments with clear policies still had extremely high rates of police violence, departments with the clearest policies had the lowest levels of violence on average. Police departments, and city and state governments, should use this model for an evidence-based use of force policy that could save both citizen and police lives.
Finally, preventing militarization of local police may reduce police violence. The U.S. Department of Defense 1033 program makes excess military weapons and equipment available to local law enforcement agencies. Systematic studies show that departments that receive more military equipment have more black, brown and indigenous civilian casualties and other kinds of police violence than those with less. Police departments and city and state governments can prohibit the use of the 1033 program and stop militarization in order to save lives.
Although it’s easy to feel helpless in the wake of so much suffering, there are specific policy options that will help reduce police violence. Maine’s elected leaders — both at the state and municipal level — should be joined by law enforcement agencies at all levels to work toward these changes. Yet, Maine’s law enforcement agencies are testifying in opposition to some of these very policy proposals in the state Legislature. Law enforcement members must become our partners in enacting policies based on research that can reduce the systematic application of police violence on black, brown and indigenous Americans.
Charlotte Warren represents District 84 in the Maine House of Representatives and is the House chair of Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network.