A few years ago, when the Flyer offices were just off South Main, there was a policeman who was notable for hanging out near the intersection of Vance and Lauderdale, a four-way stop. His modus operandi was to nail people for "failing to come to a complete stop," and he did pretty good business because the intersection was sort of nondescript and most folks were heading to work Downtown and not paying much attention. I was among this cop's customers, and dutifully paid my fine, lesson learned.
One day, a couple years later, I saw the officer in his favorite spot, parked in the shade, just to the south of the intersection. I stopped, completely, because I'm no fool. I even waved to the driver across the intersection, motioning for him to turn in front of me. So imagine my surprise when, 15 seconds later, I heard the cop's siren, pulling me over.
"What's the problem, officer?"
"You didn't come to a complete stop back there."
"I sure as hell did! I even waved a guy to turn in front of me."
"No sir, all four of your wheels didn't come to a complete stop."
I paused for a minute to consider the physics of this statement.
"So, how many of my wheels were stopped?" I asked. "Two? Three?"
The officer looked at me, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses. He was not amused.
"You didn't come to a complete stop. I need your license and registration."
"This is bullshit," I said.
And it was. And there was nothing I could do about it. Was he a "bad" cop? I don't know. I do know he was good at collecting money for the city, and if I hadn't been an older white guy in an SUV, I might have come to regret mouthing off to him.
Police officers have an inordinate amount of power in their interactions with the people they serve. They hold all the cards. And too often, a cop can abuse that power — in small ways, as with me, and in large and unconscionable ways, as with George Floyd, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and too many others to list here.
The country has been literally demonstrating for two weeks that they've had enough. People are demanding change — accountability for bad cop behavior. So how would that change look? There is no shortage of ideas, many of them coming under the rubric "Defund the Police." This is a dumb slogan. It sounds like you're advocating getting rid of the police, and nobody wants that. If you have to add "It doesn't mean what it sounds like" after you chant a slogan, it's a bad slogan.
"Reform the Police" or "Re-Fund the Police" would be better. Not reducing an issue as important as the reorganization of our police departments to a simplistic mantra would be even better.
Those who say it's time to defund the police are mostly advocating that we reallocate some of the tax money that goes toward paying for police and use it for low-income housing, mental health services, programs for the homeless, job-training programs, and educational services, including pre-K and childcare. The thinking being that if we improve people's lives and reduce poverty, the role of the police can shrink, since much of their work comes from dealing with the fallout from various social issues. Reducing those problems means police officers can focus on larger crimes — and that we can get by with fewer cops.
But more accountability is also essential. Civilian review boards need to be given real clout to investigate incidents of possible police malfeasance, including subpoena power. The civilian review board also should get regular reports on any litigation filed against (or settled by) the city regarding police officer conduct, and those reports should be made public. And it should be a standing rule that if an officer shuts off his body cam during any interaction with the public, he or she is fired.
It's also time to stop the purchase of military-grade equipment by police departments. We taxpayers are already picking up the zillion-dollar tab for the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, (and, hilariously, Space Force), and the National Guard, as has become obvious this week. Money spent by police departments for tank-like vehicles and heavy weaponry can be better used for training officers in how to de-escalate situations. We don't need them to "dominate the battlespace" in American cities. We need to eliminate the need for a battlespace. And we need to go after bad cops without fear or favor. This behavior has to come to a complete stop.