Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Police Are Still Killing Too Many Americans. Why Can’t We Do Something About It?

It seemed we were on a path to genuine progress after the death of George Floyd, but those efforts have faded. There are things we can do to get back on track.

More than 50 protesters arrested during faceoff with law enforcement in Minneapolis after police officer's release
Protesters march through Greenwich Village in a demonstration over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police on June 19, 2020, in New York.
(Bryan R. Smith/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)
On May 25, the nation observed the second anniversary of the death of George Floyd. Rocked by this and so many other high-profile killings of Black Americans by police, millions took to the streets in 2020, demanding an end to these and other unnecessary deaths. From coast to coast, local officials heard the pleas and many responded by reducing the funding of their police departments and redirecting resources to mental health, job training and other related areas. All told, more than 20 cities, including Chicago, Denver, New York and Washington, D.C., cut their police budgets.

This effort was short-lived, even though police-related violence continues. According to The Washington Post, in the past 12 months at least 1,049 people were shot to death by police. Some were justified but many were not. What have public officials done about this continuing crisis? Mostly nothing.

In fact, many local officials have returned to the days of prioritizing the budgets of their police departments over all other municipal operations. This includes in some instances giving them hefty increases without realizing any corresponding drop in crime or lessening of police-related violence. Nationwide, the annual funding of police operations exceeds $115 billion. Wall Street Journal reporters found that among the nation's 20 largest local law enforcement agencies, over half saw funding increases in the year following Floyd’s death. Interestingly, this includes cities like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York that had previously reduced their police budgets.

After several high-profile police shootings in 2020 and the mass demonstrations that followed, I thought that the United States was ready to undergo serious soul-searching about who we are as a nation and how we should not only redress some of our past sins but learn from them as well. I remember how I felt one day in 2020 while visiting my daughter in New York City when my wife and I joined a protest that grew larger every block we marched. I recall workers and residents waving and cheering from windows as we marched by defiantly. By the time we reached the staging area, tens of thousands had joined in as we shouted: “Hands up; can’t breathe.”

I believed that protests such as the one my wife and I participated in would lead to meaningful changes in policing and criminal justice reform. I hoped that public officials would finally get the message that Black and brown parents were tired of burying their children who were being gunned down in the streets or strangled to death by the very ones who had taken an oath to protect them. I thought the nation had reached a level of understanding that the problem of police violence against minorities was systemic and part of the lingering attitudes of racism and contempt for the underserved — that there would need to be changes not only in attitudes but also in institutions.

Apparently, I was wrong. Not only has government not acted, but it has also failed to hold others, like business leaders, accountable. Following the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others, we saw 50 of the biggest public companies and their foundations pledge to spend nearly $50 billion to address systemic and institutional racism. But The Washington Post, looking deeper into these pledges, found that “90 percent of that amount — $45.2 billion — is allocated as loans or investments they could stand to profit from.” JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America accounted for nearly all those commitments. Only $4.2 billion of the total pledges were grants.

Given these obvious failures, what can public officials and leaders do to get the nation back on track in making necessary reforms?

First, local officials should institute performance-based funding in establishing what the annual spending should be for police operations. Like all areas of governing, police pay and budget increases should be based on performance. This method of budgeting would bring benefits to police officers and citizens alike because both groups would know exactly what to expect. Progress could be measured against objective criteria such as number of crimes solved, friendlier relationships with the community and fewer unjustified cop shootings. This method of budgeting is superior to allocating huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to policing to merely create the impression we are improving public safety as crime continues to rise.

Beyond changing how police departments are funded, an important role that all leaders can play is to help educate residents on what contributes to public safety. They can help understandably frightened residents better realize that hiring more police is not the only solution for their safety. Actions like placing more emphasis on caring for the welfare of all residents, making sure the housing-fragile have safe and secure places to sleep, and getting the unemployed the job skills needed for them to earn sustainable wages contribute to public safety as well. Taking a comprehensive approach to public safety may not be politically expedient, but in the long term it will be effective. While addressing the spike of violent crime we are experiencing today, government leaders should keep this longer view in mind and be willing to adequately fund it.

Gianna Floyd, a daughter of George Floyd who was 6 years old at the time of his death, said at the time: “Daddy changed the world.” As sad as it was hearing her say this, it seemed possible if not prophetic back then. I interpreted the little girl’s statement as a prayer — a prayer that there is still time for society to answer.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Government and education columnist
From Our Partners