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What it will take to reform policing, according to 3 experts

Judy Woodruff discusses the history and trends of policing in America — and what reform should look like — with DeRay Mckesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero, Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center and Georgetown University law Professor Rosa Brooks, who, five years ago, became a reserve police officer in Washington D.C. to better understand the profession.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The three cities we profiled tonight, Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Louisville, have been on the knife's edge when it comes to policing and broader racial inequities.

    But there are many places in America grappling with similar questions.

    We look at all this now with three guests.

    DeRay McKesson is co-founder of Campaign Zero, an organization aimed at ending police violence. Margaret Huang is president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization. And Rosa Brooks is a Georgetown University law professor who five years ago became a reserve police officer in Washington, D.C., to try to better understand the profession. Brooks writes of that experience in her new book, "Tangled Up in Blue."

    And I want to thank you all for being here with us. We appreciate it.

    And, DeRay McKesson, to you first.

    This country has been dealing with race and all of the issues around it from its very beginning. How does the death of George Floyd fit into that complicated history?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    You know, in so many ways, we have been here before. One conviction doesn't change the demand for justice.

    And remember that the police kill, on average, 1,100 people a year, and the highest number of convictions for this set of officers ever in a given year is 11. So, when you look at the numbers, the numbers continue to be bad. The police killed more people in 2020 than every single year of data we have except for 2018.

    And, already in 2021, the police have killed over 400 people. So, I do think that the death of George Floyd was an awakening, a reawakening for a lot of people, and helped them understand that this is systemic, this is not just in one city, but this is happening all over the country.

    Now the next step is, how do we make sure that we get results that actually make the problem go away?

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Huang, as somebody who looks at human rights broadly and focuses very much on racial injustice, what do you think the country's learned since the death of George Floyd and the reaction to it?

  • Margaret Huang:

    Judy, the system of policing that we have in this country actually started at the beginning of the founding of our country as a slave patrol system.

    Police officers were created to track down slaves and to bring them back to their owners in the Deep South. And it's why today we still see remnants of the origins of that system in the way that police are trained and the way that police are responding to situations on the ground.

    That's why it's so important that we reckon with the racial history of our country, that we understand how white supremacy undergirds all of our institutions and our structures of governance and law enforcement.

    If we don't reckon with that, we're not going to be able to move forward.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Rosa Brooks, you're a — you teach law. That's your career. But you did take time out to study policing. You became a reserve police officer, as we said, and spent time on the beat.

    What did you learn about policing in that period? You said at one point you learned how hard it is to be a cop. What did that mean?

  • Rosa Brooks:

    Policing the American City": We pile so many contradictory tasks on police right now, in part because we have essentially in most parts of the United States eviscerated other social services.

    So, at the moment, we are expecting police to enforce civil traffic regulations, to be mediators, to be social workers, to be medics, to do all kinds of things that really do not and should not require an armed response.

    And a lot of those situations end up being really fraught, and for all the reasons that DeRay and Margaret have already highlighted. The more you have contacts and enforcement contacts between armed police and members of the public, the more possibility you have for things to go badly, fatally wrong.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And given that, DeRay, what are some things that would make a difference in this country?

    I mean, your organization looks at it every day. What would make the most difference, and what do you see in states that are already moving to try to make changes?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    You know, one of the biggest misconceptions is that people like, the police are above the law.

    And you're like, they're actually not above the law, I would say. It's that they actually just have their own set of laws. Like, that's a part of the problem, that it's just a completely different standard for the police.

    So, we look across the country. There are 20 states that have what we call a police officer bill of rights that are state-level protections that essentially protect the police from accountability.

    So, like, in California, the law says that any investigation of an officer that lasts more than a year can never result in discipline, regardless of the outcome. That doesn't make sense.

    In Louisiana, the law says that officers who engage in misconduct get 30 days before they can even be asked any question. Maryland is actually the first state that ever had one of those laws and, importantly, this year, the first state to repeal such a law.

    So, there is progress happening. There is hope. The use of force policies matter. Restricting no-knock raids matter. Police unions have a lot of power. And breaking that power, so that we don't inhibit rules around accountability, is actually a really big deal. So, those are some of the things.

    And the George Floyd Act, there are some good things that are in it. And I know that Cory Booker's team and a host of other people are working on revisions. So I think that the next set that we see will have even more of the demands that have risen up from community over the past year.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Margaret Huang, as you listen to this, as you listen to the remedies that are out there, whether they are enacted or not, which ones do you see making the most difference?

  • Margaret Huang:

    Judy, I think one of the most important things to do is to actually acknowledge the history of the Confederacy and to put it away for once — once and for all.

    In this country, there are still more than 1,700 symbols of the Confederacy monuments, statues, buildings named after Confederate generals. These, every day, are a signal to people of color, and particularly to Black people in this country, that they're still not equal.

    And if we're going to make this change happen, we have to eliminate the symbols that perpetuate the undergirding structural racism that is around.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Rosa Brooks, connect that to what you see inside the police, and how they think about what their job is every single day in this country.

  • Rosa Brooks:

    I think police are confused. They're as confused as the rest of us.

    A lot of people join policing because they want to help people. They often were crime victims themselves or close to someone who is a crime victim. But the job makes them quite cynical, in part because you're seeing people often in the worst moments of their lives. They're angry. They're distressed, et cetera.

    It can lead police officers to feel like there's nothing much good in humanity. And that's — that cynicism, I think, is a reason that suicide kills more police officers each year than every other cause combined.

    I think, also, police officers, like the rest of America, are really struggling. And, in Washington, D.C., for instance, where we do have a majority-Black police department, where some of the types of reforms and changes that DeRay was talking about have improved the department significantly in the last 20 years, we have a lot of officers who are really, I think, struggling, because they want to be doing things that are good, but they recognize that they're caught up in a system that in all kinds of ways does perpetuate racial injustice.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, DeRay, coming back to you on that point, what message do you want to send to police — individual police officers about how they see their job and how they treat all Americans?

  • DeRay McKesson:

    Yes, I — in some ways, I don't think this is really an issue about the individuals.

    I'm mindful that the individuals do make choices, right? So, when the police say this is hard, it's like, you choose to kill somebody. You choose to harm people. Like, that's a choice.

    But I'm also mindful that we need to move away from policing as a response to all crisis — all crises or conflicts in communities, right? So, when I hear people say police now, I just swap that out with the phrase person with a gun, because that's really what people mean.

    And it's like, do you need a person with a gun to respond to somebody with suicidal ideation? You don't. Do you need a person with a gun to be the person that tells you that you don't have your tail light on? Like, you don't, right?

    The police actually are the first people to tell us that they're doing too much, they're not social workers, they're not — they're the first. And the moment that we agree with them and say, cool, let's move away from policing and go to preventative work or social services or other interventions in conflict that are not people with guns, then they freak out.

    And I think that we actually just have to normalize this understanding that there are a host of ways to deal with conflict that are not calling people with guns, which is what the police are.

  • Rosa Brooks:

    And the one place where I would disagree slightly with DeRay is, I think it is possible to enlist police officers themselves in being part of that change, because I think, when you shift the conversation from, we just want to take away your resources, but leave you doing exactly the same things you're doing now, which makes officers go out, ow, whoa, that doesn't work, and change that conversation to what do you do now that you don't think you ought to be doing, that you're not good at?

    What do you do now that is not effective, because there aren't other city services that can — that can be there and be supportive of what you do? You get a really different conversation.

    And I think it is possible to move away from the conversation that leaves cops feeling defensive and towards one that leaves them feeling like, yes, that's a good point. If we shrink the kinds of things we do, we could actually — we could actually have less money and we could be more effective.

    So I don't think it's impossible.

    That said, I very much think it's right it's not really about individual officers. Police don't exist in a vacuum. They reflect all the problems of our broader society.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    And the only thing — the only thing I would push a little bit is a reminder that shrinking the role and the footprint is also shrinking the number of officers, right?

    And I don't — the data doesn't show that that means more crime. And we actually might be intervening and responding to things before crimes happen, which is actually a cool thing, right, that our work can't be rooted in only responding to bad things. Our work has to actually be rooted in making sure that the bad things don't happen in the first place.

    So, when you think about the effects of poverty, we think about, like, how communities are designed in ways to create conflict, these are policy choices. Homelessness is a policy choice. Poverty is a policy choice. We could actually set people up with a whole different set of options on the front end, so that we don't deal with these back end effects.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Rosa Brooks, how do we restore trust between police and the communities they are there to serve?

  • Rosa Brooks:

    It is not an uncomplicated story.

    You know that, when you look at public polling on confidence in policing, it's very uneven, but it's not rock-bottom. Even in low-income communities of color, there are still plenty of people who do want to work with police. They don't necessarily want fewer police. They want better and different and more responsive policing.

    So I think it will happen. I do — just wanted to return to something interesting that DeRay said. One of the fascinating things about the COVID pandemic is that crime did not go up. Homicides went up in a number of American cities, but overall crime actually went down.

    And that's interesting both because it was during a period of extreme economic hardship for many Americans and it was during a period in which police in many municipalities, not all, but many, adopted a deliberate policy of reducing the types of situations, the number of situations to which armed officers were sent, simply because every interaction created a risk of infection for both the officers and everybody else involved.

    And the sky did not fall. So, we just — we're just coming out of a forced natural experiment in what happens if you reduce the amount of policing for minor things in many communities. And, so far, the results suggest that you don't necessarily get more crime, that you can do that and nothing terrible will happen, which, in itself, I think is a really hopeful indicator for those who think we should be doing a whole lot less policing and, frankly, criminalizing many fewer minor misdeeds.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And something else that has come up…

  • DeRay McKesson:

    Yes, but…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But go ahead, DeRay.

  • DeRay McKesson:

    I just want to say, you know what did stay constant during the pandemic, though, was police killings.

    The police killed more people last year than they did in every other year we have data for except for 2018. People weren't even outside.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Margaret Huang, this question of restoring trust, to the extent it was there, how do you rebuild, how do you recreate trust between the police and the communities they're are serving?

  • Margaret Huang:

    Actions always speak louder than words.

    What we need to see is actually a transformation in the way policing departments respond in communities. And I think we have some interesting models that are now being adopted across the country. And we have a lot of interesting conversations happening about how police can show up differently in communities.

    What we need to see is buy-in from the police, but also from the elected officials who oversee them. And we need to see buy-in from communities. Communities have to have a stake in the direction we're going in, and communities need to be consulted on how we do this well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's a time of many, many hard questions that we're all trying to address.

    And we want to thank the three of you for joining us for this special program.

    DeRay McKesson, Margaret Huang, Rosa Brooks, thank you. Thank you, each one of you.

  • Margaret Huang:

    Thank you, Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whatever comes from efforts to improve relations between Black Americans and the police and race relations overall in this country, the murder of George Floyd was a historic marker.

    It galvanized and mobilized many here and around the world to say, no more. It ignited countless public debates about policy and millions of private conversations about attitudes.

    And it reminds us that what sets this nation apart is the constant striving to do better. In order to form that more perfect union laid out in our Constitution, we have no choice but to keep working, keep talking, keep striving toward better policing, more engaged communities that make the safety and well-being of all Americans the priority of all of us.

    I'm Judy Woodruff. Thank you for watching.

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