Race, Police Brutality, and Police and Prison Reform

Starting in 2020, there has been a massive growth in support for calls to “Defund the Police” or at least reform police departments and reallocate/desegregate resources.

These are all the articles, podcasts, and books that I have come across related to this topic. The links below are from a diversity of voices and credible sources in order to gain an objective, well-informed perspective on these issues.


Other Resources

Policy Proposals, Budgets, Studies


  • Amnesty or Abolition: Felons, Illegals, and the Case for a New Abolition Movement (Dec 2011)
    • Provides history of immigration and policy in the U.S. and its relation to police and imprisonment practice
    • “The congressional project to restrict immigration thus took shape between the 1880s and 1920s as the United States, from northeastern manufacturing to southwestern agribusiness, was rapidly becoming one of the world’s most robust industrial economies. Despite numerical and categorical limitations, immigrant workers still arrived by the hundreds of thousands. Not all were qualified to legally enter the country. To evade immigration restrictions, they crossed the borders without inspection, used fraudulent documents to enter at ports of entry, overstayed visas, and violated conditions of legal residency.8 Immigration restrictions in an era of mass global migration, in other words, triggered the creation of “illegal immigration” as a new realm of social activity”
    • “In the 1893 Fong Yue Ting decision, the court held that the federal government’s right to expel foreigners was “absolute” and “unqualified“; therefore, immigrants, even lawful permanent residents, could be deported from the country at any time for any reason. This decision also established that “deportation is not a punishment for crime” but rather an administrative process of returning immigrants to the place where they belonged. Defining deportation as “an administrative process” was highly significant because much of the bill of Rights applies only to criminal punishment.”
    • “The [California] state prisoner population increased by nearly 500 percent between 1982 and 2000.”
    • “Like immigration control, mass incarceration is a zone of racial inequity. African Americans and Latinos, together, constitute 67 percent of the total [California] state-prison population, but the rate of incarceration is significantly higher for the former. As of 2005, African American men were incarcerated at a rate of 5,125 per 100,000 in the general state population, compared to 1,142 for Latinos, 770 for whites, and 474 for men of other races. by the mid-1990s, five times as many black men in California were in prison than were enrolled in public higher education. Among women, African Americans were incarcerated at a rate of 346 per 100,000 in the population, compared to 80 for whites, 62 for Latinas, and 27 for women of other races. Today, black women are among the fastest growing prison populations. Today, the United States holds over two million people behind bars. A total of seven million people—or 3.2 percent of the total adult population—are currently under some form of correctional supervision, and an estimated 50 million people have criminal records.”
  • History of Racism in America (Video, Phil Vischer of The Holy Post, June 2020)
  • American Police (Throughline Podcast, NPR; June 2020)

Interviews/Opinion Pieces

  • Conversations with Tyler – Rachel Harmon (podcast interview; June 2020)
    • “f you tell me that I have to complete every call in 90 seconds, and I face somebody who is holding a knife and clearly in a mental health crisis, I have two options. I can wait and talk and see if I can de-escalate the situation, or I can tase him and be done with it. And even a 67-year-old woman is going to respond to incentives about how she’s supposed to handle that situation. If you rush her, she’ll tase them.”
    • “One of the things is we just don’t have a lot of good research. We do have some research that suggests if you add officers to a department, public safety gets better, even if arrests don’t go up. So the presence of officers as a sentinel to discourage misconduct or to discourage crime actually works pretty well. But what we don’t know is whether adding those police officers also increases harm, and so we don’t know if doubling a police force actually makes things far worse or far better.”
    • “I think it’s clear that when we reduce police salaries a lot — as you see in some small departments and in poorer communities — then police quality goes down because you start getting officers with records of misconduct and the like, so we don’t want salaries to go too low. But I don’t know that if we doubled salaries or raised them 50 percent that we’d get radically higher-quality police officers. I’m open to it.

      We could have a Police for America program like we have a Teach for America program, and kids out of Harvard would then go police in big cities and small towns for three years. I’m open to trying almost anything as an alternative, but I don’t think we know that raising salaries is going to make things better in policing.”

    • “I look at everything the same way, which is, is it effective at producing the goals, which are public safety and public order? Is it beneficial in the sense that the costs don’t outweigh the benefits? Is it efficient in the sense that there’s no less harmful alternative? Is it fairly distributed?

      I think arrests, to a large degree, fail those tasks. For those reasons, I would like to reduce them because I think they impose harm where harm is unnecessary. I don’t accept the premise of the question that reducing arrests has caused bedlam.”

  • The Challenge of Prison Abolition: A Conversation (written interview; Angela Y. Davis, Dylan Rodriguez)
    • “In fact, I think this is an entirely appropriate position to assume when dealing with a policing and jurisprudence system that inherently disallows the asking of such fundamental questions as: Why are some lives considered more disposable than others under the weight of police policy and criminal law? How have we arrived at a place where killing is valorized and defended when it is organized by the state — I’m thinking about the street lynchings of Diallo and Dorismond in New York City, the bombing of the MOVE organization in Philadelphia in 1985, the ongoing bombing of Iraqi civilians by the United States — yet viciously avenged (by the state) when committed by isolated individuals? Why have we come to associate community safety and personal security with the degree to which the state exercises violence through policing and criminal justice?”
    • “In order to imagine a world without prisons — or at least a social landscape no longer dominated by the prison — a new popular vocabulary will have to replace the current language, which articulates crime and punishment in such a way that we cannot think about a society without crime except as a society in which all the criminals are imprisoned. Thus, one of the first challenges is to be able to talk about the many ways in which punishment is linked to poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and other modes of dominance.”
    • “Since the invention of the prison as punishment in Western society during the late 1700s, criminal justice systems have so thoroughly depended on imprisonment that we have lost the ability to imagine other ways to solve the problem of “crime.” One of the interesting contributions of prison abolitionists has been to propose other paradigms of punishment or to suggest that we need to extricate ourselves from the assumption that punishment must be a necessary response to all violations of the law. Reconciliatory or restorative justice, for example, is presented by some abolitionists as an approach that has proved successful in non-Western societies — Native American societies, for example — and that can be tailored for use in urban contexts in cases that involve property and other offenses. The underlying idea is that in many cases, the reconciliation of offender and victim (including monetary compensation to the victim) is a much more progressive vision of justice than the social exile of the offender.
  • What Abolitionists Do (Jacobin; August 2017)
    • “Rather than juxtapose the fight for better conditions against the demand for eradicating institutions of state violence, abolitionists navigate this divide. For the better part of fifty years, abolitionists have led and participated in campaigns that have fought to reduce state violence and maximize people’s collective wellbeing.Abolitionists have worked to end solitary confinement and the death penalty, stop the construction of new prisons, eradicate cash bail, organized to free people from prison, opposed the expansion of punishment through hate crime laws and surveillance, pushed for universal health care, and developed alternative modes of conflict resolution that do not rely on the criminal punishment system.”
  • Is Prison Necessary? (NYT, Rachel Kushner; April 2019)
    • “Gilmore told them that in the unusual event that someone in Spain thinks he is going to solve a problem by killing another person, the response is that the person loses seven years of his life to think about what he has done, and to figure out how to live when released. “What this policy tells me,” she said, “is that where life is precious, life is precious.” Which is to say, she went on, in Spain people have decided that life has enough value that they are not going to behave in a punitive and violent and life-annihilating way toward people who hurt people. “And what this demonstrates is that for people trying to solve their everyday problems, behaving in a violent and life-annihilating way is not a solution.””
    • “Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they “mess up.””
    • By now it has become almost conventional wisdom to think that private prisons are the “real” problem with mass incarceration. But anyone seriously engaged with the subject knows that this is not the case. Even a cursory glance at numbers proves it: Ninety-two percent of people locked inside American prisons are held in publicly run, publicly funded facilities, and 99 percent of those in jail are in public jails. Every private prison could close tomorrow, and not a single person would go home.”
    • “Prisons are not a result of a desire by “bad” people, Gilmore says, to lock up poor people and people of color. “The state did not wake up one morning and say, ‘Let’s be mean to black people.’ All these other things had to happen that made it turn out like this. It didn’t have to turn out like this.” Her narrative involves a broad array of players and facts, some direct, some indirect, some coordinated, many not: for instance, farmers who leased or sold land to the state for the building of prisons; the very powerful correctional officers’ union, state policymakers, city governments, cycles of drought, economic crisis and huge deindustrialized urban centers; and the lives and fates of the descendants of those who migrated to Southern California for factory work during World War II and after.”
    • For Gilmore, and for a growing number of scholars and activists, the idea that prisons are filled with nonviolent offenders is particularly problematic. Less than one in five nationally are in prisons or jail for drug offenses, but this notion proliferated in the wake of the overwhelming popularity of Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow,” which focuses on the devastating effects of the war on drugs, cases that are primarily handled by the (relatively small) federal prison system… But a majority of people in state and federal prisons have been convicted of what are defined as violent offenses, which can include everything from possession of a gun to murder. This statistical reality can be uncomfortable for some people, but instead of grappling with it, many focus on the “relatively innocent,” as Gilmore calls them, the addicts or the falsely accused — never mind that they can only ever represent a small percentage of those in prison.”
  • Abolish the Police? (Chicago Reader, Maya Dukmasova; August 2016)
    • “The idea of police abolition can’t be understood separately from the wider prison abolition movement, the intellectual seeds of which were sown by radical feminists in the 60s and 70s, including academic and early Black Panther Party member Angela Davis. Davis was herself incarcerated for 16 months while on trial for allegedly aiding a violent 1970 takeover of a California courtroom that ended with the death of a judge. Davis was acquitted in 1972, and later joined the faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the 90s.Then and there a new movement for prison abolition began to gain traction, led in large part by queer women of color. In 1998 Davis coined the term prison industrial complex—a nod to the concept of the military-industrial complex popularized by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1961.”
    • [Mariame Kaba]: “For me prison abolition is two things: It’s the complete and utter dismantling of prison and policing and surveillance as they currently exist within our culture. And it’s also the building up of new ways of intersecting and new ways of relating with each other.”
    • “This is a peace circle—a style of community meeting practiced by indigenous peoples around the world (including some Native Americans) for centuries. The practice draws on the abolitionist notion that premodern methods of conflict resolution provide valuable alternatives to today’s overreliance on police and prisons. The organizers argue that plenty of cultures successfully addressed harm and practiced nonviolent conflict resolution before the invention of policing in
      the 1800s.”
    • “She and other organizers also point out that abolition on a larger scale is visible all around if one knows what to look for. Kaba says individually most of us practice abolition regularly, every time we address a conflict without involving the police. In many places community-wide abolition is also in plain sight.”
    • “”The closer you get to it, and the more you work on it, the more you realize that the system is not fixable the way it is,” says attorney Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has litigated civil rights lawsuits on behalf of Illinois prisoners for years. Mills knows Kaba and says her work has been influential in legal circles; after much heated discussion, prison abolition was adopted as a platform of the National Lawyers Guild last year”
  • Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police (Miriame Kama, June 2020)
    • “There is not a single era in United States history in which the police were not a force of violence against black people. Policing in the South emerged from the slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s that caught and returned runaway slaves. In the North, the first municipal police departments in the mid-1800s helped quash labor strikes and riots against the rich. Everywhere, they have suppressed marginalized populations to protect the status quo.

      So when you see a police officer pressing his knee into a black man’s neck until he dies, that’s the logical result of policing in America. When a police officer brutalizes a black person, he is doing what he sees as his job.”

    • Minneapolis had instituted many of these “best practices” but failed to remove Derek Chauvin from the force despite 17 misconduct complaints over nearly two decades, culminating in the entire world watching as he knelt on George Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

      Why on earth would we think the same reforms would work now? We need to change our demands. The surest way of reducing police violence is to reduce the power of the police, by cutting budgets and the number of officers.”

  • If we want better policing, we’re going to have to spend more, not less (Megan McArdle, Washington Post; June 2020)

    • “Unquestionably, we do need better policing. A system that simply lashes out at a subset of lawbreakers, often in ways that are wildly disproportionate, produces deep and lasting harms. In its place, we need a highly trained, professional police force and “swift, certain and fair” punishment that can actually change the incentives lawbreakers face.”
    • “Reform is thus more likely to stick if we co-opt the unions rather than trying to break them. Instead of “defund the police,” what if we offloaded the nonjudicial parts of their work, like dealing with the homeless and the mentally ill, to social workers, and then “stuffed their mouths with gold” to reform the policing part? We could offer a significant salary boost in exchange for accepting stricter standards and oversight, which wouldn’t just ease the political obstacles, but possibly attract higher-quality candidates to the police force.”
  • Defund the Police (Annie Lowery, The Atlantic; June 2020)
    • “A thin safety net, an expansive security state: This is the American way. At all levels of government, the country spends roughly double on police, prisons, and courts what it spends on food stamps, welfare, and income supplements. At the federal level, it spends twice as much on the Pentagon as on assistance programs, and eight times as much on defense as on education. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost something like $6 trillion and policing costs $100 billion a year. But proposals to end homelessness ($20 billion a year), create a universal prekindergarten program ($26 billion a year), reduce the racial wealth gap through baby bonds ($60 billion a year), and eliminate poverty among families with children ($70 billion a year) somehow never get financed. All told, taxpayers spend $31,286 a year on each incarcerated person, and $12,201 a year on every primary- and secondary-school student.”
  • Three Futures for the Police (Ross Douthat, NYT; June 2020)
    • “As a share of budgets, state and local spending on the police increased in the 1990s but has been flat or falling for the last two decades. (Indeed, cities may be offering sweeping union protections to their cops as a way to avoid paying them more money.) Despite frequent suggestions that the United States overspends on policing, as a share of gross domestic product, the European Union spends 33 percent more on cops than the United States does — while spending far less than us on prisons.”
    • “One argument for “bundled” policing in the United States is that we’re a heavily armed country in which traffic stops and mental health interventions are more likely to end in gunfire than elsewhere. So just implement gun control, comes the response … except that the kind of gun restrictions required to change that reality could be enforced only with the kind of invasive, stop-and-frisk policing that recreates the problems that police reformers want to solve.”
  • How Police Brutality Gets Made (David Brooks, The Atlantic; June 2020)
    • “About 70 percent of police officers say they have never fired their gun while on the job, but on average, 71 hours of their training are devoted to firearm skills and 60 hours to self-defense, according to a 2013 Bureau of Justice report, while only 43 hours are spent on community-policing measures, such as cultural-diversity training, human relations, mediation, and conflict management.”
    • “Even hiring a diverse police force is no panacea. A 2016 Justice Department investigation into the Baltimore Police Department found consistent racially biased policing, in a force where, in 2015, more than 40 percent of the cops were African American. The problem lay not only in the minds of individual police officers, but also in the culture of the departments into which the officers entered.”
    • “Over the decades, Americans have consistently said they want more police officers. A 2019 Civis Analytics poll for Vox found that 60 percent of African Americans, 65 percent of Latinos, and 74 percent of whites would like to see an increased number of police officers in high-crime areas. In 2015, just after the protests in response to Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, Gallup asked Americans whether they would prefer to see a larger police presence in their neighborhood or a smaller one. Thirty-eight percent of African Americans said they would like to see a larger police presence, 51 percent said they wanted no change, and only 10 percent said they wanted a smaller police presence.”
    • “Camden, New Jersey, became something of a model for reformers a few years ago when the entire police department was disbanded. It was replaced with a county-level agency less encumbered by union rules, which then hired more cops—411 officers, up from 250—and moved them out of their cars and back to walking the beats. Newark has handled the past few weeks reasonably well in part because it has not militarized its force, but also because in 2014, the city created the Newark Community Street Team, consisting of community leaders who take a public-health approach to violence and, in moments of tension, work to prevent looting and violence.”
  • Reflections of Race, Riots, and Police (Coleman Hughes, City Journal; June 2020)