In recognition of the second anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd, President Joe Biden on Wednesday signed an executive order aimed at reforming aspects of federal law enforcement. In light of the collapse of bipartisan congressional legislation aimed at police reform, Biden’s order is a small signal of acknowledgment that Something about the font must change.
Among other things, the order will require federal law enforcement agencies to revise use-of-force policy, mandate the use of body-worn cameras, prohibit the use of dangerous tactics like chokeholds and restricting no-knock warrants, like the kind that police in Louisville, Kentucky, used when they killed Breonna Taylor, and increasing Obama-era reforms that restrict the transfer of military equipment to police.
History has taught us that while policies can reduce some harm, they are more a symbol than a sign of any change in the fundamentals of policing.
This order will also take a big step forward in creating a national registry of officers fired for misconduct and increasing transparency around policing. It also commissions the National Academy of Sciences to conduct and publish a study on civil liberties and the impact on racial justice of facial recognition technology and predictive policing algorithms, which municipalities across the country have already begun to ban for being invasive, dangerous, and disproportionately affecting black Americans.
But the problem is that history has taught us that while policies can reduce some harm, they are more of a symbol than a sign of any change in the fundamentals of policing.
A few major issues would prevent these changes from having any real impact on the lives of people in the United States who live in fear of police brutality. First, the executive order primarily applies to more than 100,000 federal law enforcement officers. This is not trivial, especially since federal law enforcement agents, such as those in the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, have increased their presence on the streets and at protests – but that’s still a long way from the reforms that would apply to the local, county and state police that most people deal with on a daily basis.
Under the executive order, local and state police would also be incentivized to carry out political reforms in exchange for grants, which history has shown often go towards the purchase of invasive surveillance technology.
Policing cannot simply be reformed by politics. Unfortunately, politics on the books often means very little on the ground. As the New York City Police Department saying went in the late 19th and early 20th century, “there’s more law at the end of a policeman’s baton than in a Supreme Court decision.” This quote illustrates a major problem: policing in the field is often spontaneous and unsupervised, and in such times police have proven time and time again that a policy written on a piece of paper somewhere has rarely an effect on how officers do their job. Chokes, an issue that Biden’s executive order hopes to fix with restrictions, highlight a major window into that issue. In some cities, the use of chokeholds by the police has been banned for decades, but that doesn’t stop the police from using them and people dying from them.
As activists and academics have repeatedly argued, one of the main ways to mitigate the harms of policing on communities is simply to limit the number of day-to-day interactions between people and the police. You do it by limiting the number of police officers, by removing responsibilities from departments, or both, and many other options. To that end, the executive order shows a glimmer of hope in a commitment to identify federal resources for “alternative stakeholder models.” Hopefully that means more non-police support for the response teams that are popping up across the country, teams that send in unarmed professionals to respond to calls about people who are homeless or people in the midst of a mental health crisis – rather than armed officers who can make the situation worse.
It should be noted that when an earlier version of Biden’s executive order was leaked in January, some police officers were furious that its preamble mentioned the relationship between police and “systematic racism,” saying it meant Biden “would turn the corner.” back to the police”.
This rift has caused the Biden administration to seek more input from police groups. It’s a small consolation that the executive order’s fact sheet still mentions systematic racism, which, combined with the reforms listed, already seems to have angered some police groups. At a time when the mayor of San Francisco plans to skip the city’s pride parade because the police feel disrespected by the new policies, or the police unions tell then-New York mayor Bill de Blasio, whom he threw the police ‘under the bus’ as he was content to mention his concerns about interactions his biracial son might have with officers it is increasingly rare to see moderate politicians do anything to anger the police.
The police in the United States are a large, massively funded, heavy-handed and politically powerful faction. In some places, their traditions and cultures go back centuries, perpetuated and preserved by institutional memory, legal and social isolation, a monopoly on violence and an expectation of subservience among the people they encounter. Removing some of their most dangerous tools and tactics on paper is a step forward, but it’s a tenuous one, easily countered by the realities of how officers do their jobs – and the shifting political tides that could reverse that executive order in a moment.