Chants of “Black lives matter” and “no justice, no peace” have resounded in cities across the country and around the world in the few weeks since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Americans have become increasingly intolerant of the pervasive racist police violence that claimed Floyd’s life and the lives of countless others since the inception of modern-day American policing. The widespread disgust over Floyd’s murder and growing international attention has offered a unique opportunity to change the narrative around solutions to police brutality and racist policing. For years, police reform has been heralded as the solution to racist police violence, while police abolition movements have struggled to be heard and accepted by a wider audience. Currently, movements to defund and abolish police have picked up broader public support and garnered the attention of mainstream national and international media.
In the midst of expanding support for abolitionist measures, Campaign Zero, founded by Brittany Packnett and Deray McKesson, launched its 8 Can’t Wait campaign, which quickly grabbed headlines and began trending on social media. The campaign claims that eight data-backed policies, if implemented by police departments, will reduce police killings by 72%. The eight proposed policies are: banning chokeholds and strangulations, requiring de-escalation, requiring warning before shooting, requiring officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting, imposing a duty to intervene, banning shooting at moving vehicles, establishing a use of force continuum, and requiring comprehensive reporting. Each policy, if implemented, is said to reduce police killings by a certain percentage. For example, banning chokeholds and strangulation supposedly reduces police killings by 22%.
Setting aside questions that could be raised about the methodology behind the campaign’s data, the overall message of 8 Can’t Wait is flawed and misleading. While decreasing police killings by 72% may sound attractive, many police departments have already implemented several of the proposed policies. In fact, the largest police departments in the country already have half or more of these policies in place, including New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia police. In Chicago, where police are subject to 7 of the 8 policies, it seems there would be little room for improvement under the 8 Can’t Wait proposal. The blanket statement that we can reduce police killing by 72% subtly ignores that, if the data is accurate, we are already experiencing less killing in notoriously violent police departments, which for many is still far too much. More disturbingly, despite Campaign Zero being born out of the Black Lives Matter movement, its proposal offers no solution to the disproportionate police violence against Black people. While Chicago almost fully adheres to the 8 Can’t Wait policies, Chicago police still kill Black people at 27.4 times the rate of white people.
The most fallible aspect of the 8 Can’t Wait proposal, and all police reform efforts, is its inability to control for one irreparable flaw: average people having the extraordinary responsibility of policing other, average people. We cannot control for prejudiced officers, bad-tempered officers, or the very real possibility that an officer may simply break the rules, as Derek Chauvin did in Minneapolis. Even if an officer is prosecuted and convicted, death is irreversible. We cannot bring George Floyd back. We cannot bring Breonna Taylor back. We cannot bring Eric Garner back. No matter how many rules and policies are implemented, there is always the possibility that an officer will break a rule, resulting in unwarranted death. While the merits of police abolition can be debated, undeniably it is the only movement that offers an infallible solution to ending police brutality and racist policing. So why, until recently, has it been so largely omitted from mainstream political discourse?
It’s important to note that the 8 Can’t Wait campaign is not actually attempting to solve the issues of police brutality and racist policing; its mission is to reduce police killings by 72%. Campaign Zero’s decision to move forward with a middle-of-the-road proposal, just as abolitionist organizers have begun to garner increased public support in their demands to defund and abolish the police, is questionable. In response to rising criticism, 8 Can’t Wait released a statement clarifying that their proposed policies were merely a short-term approach to reduce harm and apologized for detracting from other organizers. While minimizing harm is well-intentioned, movements like this inevitably breed complacency. Police reform campaigns like 8 Can’t Wait offer a much easier—albeit less effective—alternative to the radical change proposed by police abolitionists. This implicates a dangerous side effect of police reform efforts, beyond mere impotence. Police reform is much more palatable than abolition but also holds limited potential. Nonetheless, it often takes center stage as a solution to racist police violence. In a country where solitary and simple solutions are encouraged, police reform often detracts from the multi-faceted and complex solutions proposed by police abolitionists.
Police reform serves as a compromise between those who want to maintain policing as-is and those who want to abolish the police altogether. Politically, police reform performs well, as it stays safely within the comfort zone of most liberals and some conservatives. Abolition would be a revolutionary change in the carceral state that America is. Like any movement, it can and will take time before the majority becomes accustomed to the idea. It took 246 years for chattel slavery to be abolished. Notably, during those 246 years, compromises, such as the Missouri compromise, attempted to satisfy both those who rejected slavery and those who demanded its retention. Ultimately, compromises failed to keep both parties satisfied and arguably, compromises acted as the glue to hold the institution of slavery together, prolonging the road to abolition. We might look at police reform through a similar lens: a compromise that, when implemented, will only suffice temporarily. As long as there are police, incidences of brutality and racist policing will persist, and change will be demanded once again. We’ve already repeated this cycle numerous times in the wake of the beating of Rodney King, the killing of Mike Brown, and other police violence that sparked unrest. The question is: when will enough be enough?
America is approaching a crossroads. Police reform and police abolition have both acquired unprecedented levels of attention in national discourse. Individuals who are enraged by the recurring injustices of policing have to decide whether to rally behind the easier, but likely impermanent route of police reform, or to offer support to the more difficult but wholly effective route of police abolition. This precise moment is offering an opportunity for change. What kind of change is up to us. One thing is certain: the road to abolition will not end here, and if you have had enough, the time for action is now.
Find more information about police abolition via The Marshall Project’s Police Abolition Collection.
Photo by Tarryn Mento