Communities across our nation are facing simultaneous public safety crises. Crime is rising in ways that leave many people feeling more unsafe than they have in a very long time. Police killings of unarmed civilians continue at a frightening rate. The solution to both crises is for public officials to take the same three steps: get smarter about the policy choices they face, have the courage to do what works, and implement public safety strategies that make us all safer.
As we face the daunting challenges of making transformative change, let us remember that establishing justice is the first purpose of the US Constitution. Ensuring domestic tranquility is the second. Achieving each of these goals has been a struggle from the very beginning of the American experiment.
Years before the Constitution was written, Americans’ resolve to resist the King’s authoritarian rule was heightened by the Boston Massacre. In that confrontation, Crispus Attucks, a Black man with Native American ancestry, was the first person shot and killed by the British soldiers who were charged with enforcing the monarchy’s dictates.
Unfortunately, the kind of heavy-handed authoritarianism that the founders rebelled against 250 years ago persists in the culture of modern American police forces, a variation on the familiar contradiction between the noble ideals of our nation’s founding documents and the immoral treatment of Native Americans and enslaved people.
In fact, modern policing has deep roots in the slave patrols that used brutality as a means of control, as well as in law enforcement complicity in the terror used to enforce segregation and subjugation under Jim Crow.
This system of authoritarian policing that we have inherited is not aligned with our national ideals, and it is not working to keep our communities safe. We must rethink and restructure our public safety systems, hold these systems responsible for the damage they have done, get rid of authoritarian policing, and find new ways, systems, and people that reimagine public safety as justice and tranquility for all.
The problem of authoritarian policing is even broader than recent headlines would suggest. To put it simply, there are two truths about authoritarian policing that do not contradict each other.
One truth is that Black Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color continue to pay a disproportionate price under authoritarian policing. Black people are more than twice as likely as White people to be shot and killed by police officers. Moreover, the problem of racial profiling is experienced broadly by communities of color throughout the United States.
A second truth is that people of color are not the only victims of authoritarian policing. As with so many other issues, such as lending practices that sent us into the recession in 2008, Black and Brown communities are the canaries in a much larger American coal mine. The mistreatment faced by immigrants of color today echoes the treatment of southern and eastern European, Jewish, and Irish Catholic immigrants a century ago. People with disabilities are at more at risk from police violence. The LGBTQ community has its own history of being targeted for police violence. And it is worth noting that White people make up the second largest group in our prisons, disproportionately those with low income, and that they also make up a majority of people killed by police each year.
Four years before George Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, a White man named Tony Timpa called Dallas police to ask for help during a mental health crisis. He was handcuffed and zip-tied and killed by an officer who pressed his knee into Timpa’s back for 14 minutes while Timpa cried, “You’re gonna kill me!” He was right.
The bottom line is that every community is put at risk by authoritarian policing that promotes and tolerates an aggressive “warrior” mentality among law enforcement officers and by political systems that resist accountability for those who abuse their power. Implementing successful police reforms will not only make Black and Brown communities safer; it will make everyone safer.
Authoritarian policing is compounded by our communities’ over-reliance on the police. Over the decades we have added additional burdens to our police officers that distract them from their primary purpose. Overreliance on the police ultimately leaves all of us underserved and less safe.
But what kind of policy changes will move us in the direction of safety and justice for all? How do we deliver transformative reform while keeping communities safe from violence? These are the questions addressed by this report.
The research and recommendations offered by People For the American Way in this report challenge the false narrative that public safety reform is incompatible with effective crime fighting. We offer models for system change that can enhance public safety for all.
All Safe: Transforming Public Safety draws on the expertise of criminologists and prosecutors as well as the on-the-ground experience of members of People For the American Way’s Young Elected Officials network and religious leaders in the African American Ministers Leadership Council.
The information presented in this report includes research on barriers to holding police accountable, data on the use of force and the rationales law enforcement lean on to justify it, current standards and practices in policing, and demographic data on the victims of police violence. The report further analyzes the policing landscape in 20 Key Metro Areas in the United States, along with research on effective and promising models and best practices.
Most of the research for this report was updated as of early 2022; newer developments in data or policy may not be reflected.
We provide concrete policy recommendations to guide public officials in ensuring public safety and tackling the systemic problem of police violence in their communities. We focus on policy recommendations in four key areas:
Restructuring the systems of public safety to ensure communities’ underlying safety and social needs are met;
Holding unfit officers responsible and accountable for their actions;
Removing unfit officers from the job, particularly those with a demonstrated history of violence, aggression, or other misconduct from police departments; and
Recruiting well-trained public safety personnel committed to serving and protecting their communities.
While we recognize that policy change alone cannot begin to repair the fractures and breakdown of the public’s trust in law enforcement, these concrete actions provide a roadmap for public officials seeking to enhance public safety and take meaningful action against police violence in their communities.