After Minneapolis police officers killed George Floyd in May 2020, weeks of demonstrations worldwide addressed the injustice of his death, police brutality, and structural racism broadly. Activists pushing for police reform adopted the slogan Defund the Police, and their movement won changes in police departments across the United States. More than 20 large cities cut about $870 million from their law-enforcement budgets, sometimes reducing the numbers of officers or shifting funding to social services. But as the pandemic wore on, violent-crime rates surged across most U.S. metropolitan areas, public opinion shifted toward increasing police spending, with many Democrats rejecting the Defund the Police slogan. Polling by the Pew Research Center in June 2020 had found that more Democrats and Blacks wanted police spending decreased than increased in their areas, while in October 2021 higher numbers of respondents from both groups—and of respondents overall—wanted it increased than decreased. As an example of the political reversal, the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser, marched with Defund the Police protesters last year and called for police budget cuts, yet this summer she asked for $11 million in new funding to hire dozens of police officers in response to rising crime. Eric Adams, a former police officer, won the Democratic primary in the New York City mayoral race by rejecting Defund the Police and pledging toughness on crime. City governments across the U.S, such as New York, Oakland, and Austin, have approved significant increases in their police budgets this year. As crime rates jump and police budgets swing upward again, what’s going on with police reform?

Ed Maguire is a professor of criminal justice at Arizona State University and a co-author of Transforming the Police. According to Maguire, many U.S. cities are embracing new approaches and methods in policing, with some positive results are already apparent. But other cities are proving resistant to change, whether because of reluctant police chiefs, local governments, police unions, or officers themselves. In Maguire’s view, prospects for reform often come down to whether an individual police chief takes an open- or close-minded position on it. Reforms gaining traction, Maguire says, include focusing law enforcement on the tiny subset of residents and locations that tend to be involved in crime, reducing traffic stops for minor violations, and deploying trained civilians to deal with calls involving mental-health concerns or people experiencing homelessness.

Michael Bluhm: Where does police reform stand?

Ed Maguire: The story of police reform is city-specific in the United States. Some cities are taking it very seriously and trying to figure out how they can do better, meet the requests activists are making, and experiment with local-level reforms. In others, we’re seeing a more defensive posture and pushback against calls for reform—or everything in between.

Bluhm: How are the reforms doing?

Maguire: We’re seeing promising signs from Baltimore, for example, which is an interesting city in police reform because, for many years, Baltimore was almost a national symbol of opposition to police reform.

They did a great job in responding to the protests during the summer of 2020, were very thoughtful in how they chose to handle those events, and are engaged in a much larger program of reform under an innovative police chief.

I have a student who’s doing a master’s thesis on how the Defund the Police movement has taken shape in different cities. It really differs. We’re seeing defensive postures from some cities, arguing that the calls for reform are an indication that people don’t support the police, which is a silly argument. We’re seeing this mixed bag across the country in how agencies are open, transparent, and introspective, or defensive and resistant.

Josh Couch

Bluhm: What are some of the specific reforms that police departments are trying?

Maguire: We’re starting to see some experimentation around not engaging in traffic stops for minor offenses like a broken taillight or license-plate light. Often, those traffic stops tend to be used as pretexts for proactive police work. If you’ve got a taillight out, the officer pulls you over and is not necessarily interested in the taillight, but is interested in what else he or she might find in the vehicle. Some research suggests that, particularly among African Americans, there’s the feeling that that type of enforcement is directed much more heavily toward them than people of other races.

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