There is a widely held and little examined stereotype among many that the GOP is pro-police and Dems are anti-police: this is entirely wrong, of course.

I have a take on that cheap trope that could prove useful: as a former criminal prosecutor, I have what I believe to be a realistic viewpoint on police, having worked with them on a daily basis for years. It’s very much more nuanced than much of our public debates reflect, but it starts with an appreciation that police are just citizens who undertake a difficult job to better the safety of our society and families. They work within bureaucratic systems and legal contexts that shape their behavior and values, just like the rest of us. Most are excellent public servants with normal human flaws in judgment, perception, and character. A small minority are otherwise, and that frequently makes headlines, leading to a false availability heuristic on the part of some that paints all police in largely a negative light. It doesn’t frequently make news when an officer does their job well, after all.

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In order to reform a storied (literally, have you seen how many police shows and movies there are?) profession and institution as policing, with its roughly two centuries of practice, law, and custom is a daunting task that will not be accomplished overnight, nor by just one or two tweaks to that context. It will require goodwill and openness to charge by all stakeholders, especially our police departments and personnel.

Let’s begin by looking at the position of our two major political alignments, at least as I view them.

What the GOP is actually in favor of – which appeals greatly to many police unions, unfortunately – is unleashing the police to discriminate, tolerate the biases in our justice system, and allow police to remain mostly unaccountable for the indefensible use of excessive force against our citizens. The GOP seems to want police agencies and personnel to have no additional oversight or accountability; and that certainly appeals to police unions – who want as much control of the oversight and discipline of their officers as possible, naturally, but also to bad cops who are doing their job unprofessionally, incompetently, or merely in a bigoted and reckless manner, resorting frequently to use of excessive force and regularly abusing their authority.

Our status quo – or even loosening our current controls – appeals to the GOP – in my view – because much of their current political agenda is to continue to marginalize and discriminate against some of our citizens (the poor, the colored, the youth, the queer, the mentally ill, etc…) to further their agenda of keeping America a fundamentally racist nation that systemically advantages and prioritizes the safety of white citizens over all others: one way to ensure continued social control is through enabling policing practices that promote systemic discrimination and disadvantage, and to justify it as being in the public interest.

Democrats are in favor of increasing actual public safety for everyone – as measured not by dubious proxies such as drugs seized, people arrested, years served, or the number of people arrested – but by actual measures of quality of life and security that don’t always correlate with those proxies. We support police unions on worker safety, good wages, and ample resources to do their vital work. But we recognize that systemically reforming policing must occur to reduce the negative effects on the safety of all our citizens, too many of whom are too often disproportionately policed, harassed, and subjected to unwarranted and excessive police violence, including – all too frequently – lethal police violence.

To Democrats, the continuance of the status quo is absolutely unacceptable. While few would dispute that the use of force is regrettably necessary and proper in policing, Democrats want to systematize and institutionalize practices that make policing less violent and less discriminatory: training for conflict de-escalation, limiting the use of force, ensuring the highest standards of professionalism, removing from overworked police departments the burdens of much of the straight-up social work they have to do by default, and – in the regrettable cases where the use of force is necessary – making sure that it is applied sparingly, carefully, expertly, and with adequate independent oversight and greater accountability (this is by no means an exhaustive list of aims and reforms, of course – that would take a whole book of its own).

These differing goals and views are often ungenerously derided in the phrases: “uncuff the police,” and “defund the police“. Neither is an accurate reflection of actual goals, in my view.

I don’t pretend that I can fairly represent the GOP agenda, but steel-maning their stated police policy aims to my best ability, I think that “let the police do their jobs without outside interference, as only they have the expertise to judge what is required to ensure public order and safety,” is a presentation maybe conservatives wouldn’t object to. It’s also – in my view – utterly wrong. We all have valid opinions and contributions to make to societal order and safety, and our safety is a function of much more than street crime alone. Maybe one of our conservative readers could suggest a better – brief – statement of the conservative view.

Likewise for Democrats, where I can be more authoritative, I think it is fairer to say “let’s leave aspects of community safety and order to unarmed and expertly trained people backed up by the authority and force of the police only if deemed necessary by those trained experts; and we need to adjust our public safety budgets to fully fund such efforts with the same enthusiasm and generosity that we do our police, courts, and jails.” Maybe someone like Kris Mayes, Julie McGunnigle, or Sheriffs Penzone and Nanos could do better.

Looking at the actual statements and policy trends in recent years can also be useful, and even counter-intuitive. Jessica Pishko at the Posse Comitatus substack made some great points recently regarding the actual policy outcomes and statements versus the Parties’ – but especially Republican – views of their own, and their opponents’, positions:

In 2016 and 2020, law enforcement unions largely backed Donald Trump for president – the first time such groups backed any presidential candidate. (In fact, police unions historically backed Democrats, if they backed anyone, because … unions.) Trump staked his ground as the “pro-police” candidate through symbolic gestures. There was the time he told police to stop being nice to people they arrest, suggesting that it was OK to hit people in the head. Trump told police he was “on their side 1000%” when he campaigned at police lodges. He used the myth that police were “under siege” to garner their votes. And they reciprocated. A study of police votes in 2016 found that Trump’s campaigning swung at least a few states in his favor just enough to help him win.

Of course, on the ledger, Democrats have done more for law enforcement than Trump ever did. It was Joe Biden who provided stump speeches touting the need to fund law enforcement. It was the Biden administration that added nearly $40 billion to the federal budget for law enforcement agencies. And it was Democrats who pushed the strongest against the 2020 uprisings where the call was to “defund the police.”

Trump was actually pretty bad for the police. He refuses to pay the bills for law enforcement used at his rowdy rallies and owes around two million dollars in total to at least a dozen cities. He gutted programs that gave money to law enforcement agencies and withheld federal funding from agencies that did not comply with his immigration priorities and directives. In 2020, law enforcement unions largely supported a Republican candidate who wanted to cut $500 million from law enforcement. In 2019, Trump cut 50% of the COPS hiring program.

Yet, police support for Trump was unwavering. The money didn’t matter – it was the rhetoric. Law enforcement on the whole appreciated a candidate who unabashedly toyed with white supremacy, toxic masculinity, and xenophobia. The fact that Trump committed crimes did not matter – cops commit crimes all the time, after all.”

It’s a harsh, but fair assessment of the actual policies of the Parties, versus the rhetoric and mischaracterizations of each. It is underappreciated that Democrats more frequently put our money where our mouths are.

One of the pain points for Democrats is that we are the party that actually rubs up the most against the day-to-day administration of policing in complex and diverse communities. We run most of the larger cities and counties of America where we manage and set policy for our largest police forces and our densest populations. This naturally creates a somewhat more conflictual relationship between Democrats and police agencies than Republicans generally enjoy. They tend to run more rural counties and smaller towns where density and diversity are lower, certain street crime rates are lower, and the complexities of governance are generally more tractable and informal. It is not determinative of our Parties’ relationships with policing in America, but it is a factor that is, in my view, underappreciated.

One of the worst results of the increasing polarization and rancor of our politics recently is it makes actual policy reform much more difficult. I can appreciate the conservative view that police have been our bulwark against crime and disorder for centuries and it’s best not to mess with what works.

I am not an abolitionist: nor are most liberals. I think we need police, we need courts, and we need jails. But I can also appreciate that the policing practices, laws, customs, culture, and laws tend to disfavor the rights and interests of some – mainly less the powerful and otherwise marginalized – over others – mainly the more powerful and systemically advantaged – and deep reform is needed to change those outcomes while actually enhancing the safety, order, and security that all our communities, families and citizens deserve. I think that most conservatives know of and deplore policing’s legacy of discrimination, the unequal application of our laws, and the negative impact of policing on many citizens in America. And I think most Americans would agree that we need to make ALL our citizens safer, instead of some being comforted and some being afflicted.

I believe and hope there is a place where we can and must meet to make compromises and difficult choices about the future of our law enforcement profession and our justice system. However, we must not thereby compromise the central values of our covenant: we must have all our people treated equally under the law; we must make manifest that we ALL have an equal right to safety and security; and, we must enhance our lives, liberty, and pursuit of happiness collectively, and not at the expense of some.

 

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