What is to be done?
That is an important question as protests continue across the nation. Those reflect Americans’ horror and outrage at what happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. Daily headlines from elsewhere show that the issue of sometimes fatal maltreatment of black Americans at the hands of police forces is not going to go away.
But what, practically, are the next steps that this country ought to take in response to a very real problem?
We cannot look far ahead but believe that some thought should be given to specifics, beyond the emotional responses to recent events. Dragging statues from their pedestals, like John McDonogh in New Orleans or other figures elsewhere, is street theater compared to the vast difficulty of overhauling policing and criminal justice in this country.
Nor is the broad and rather ill-defined notion of “defunding the police” likely to be a reasonable response to a complex set of problems, with interlocking parts. Just for starters, we think most people — and we are in that number — believe that officers on the beat are not paid enough. Defunding agencies means cutting people, as most expenditures are on payroll, although probably many might define the slogan as increasing spending on social workers or other ways to make policing more effective in neighborhoods.
Completely defunding police? That’s a political nonstarter, we think.
But we believe there are reasonable discussions that are possible. One of them is training and support for officers. If we commit to giving officers at every level — cities, states, rural areas — the training they need, and equipment like body cameras, that will be a costly effort that is inconsistent with defunding agencies. But it is probably one way to approach a complicated set of issues.
Thinking things through will take some time. At every level of government, including the U.S. Congress and the Louisiana Legislature, policymakers ought to be looking for an effective set of policies and a realistic pathway to implementing them.
The state Senate on Sunday passed unanimously a resolution by Sen. Cleo Fields, D-Baton Rouge, that sets up a task force to report by Feb. 1 on practical steps. Fields’ proposal said that Floyd's death "has focused public discourse on the causes of police brutality and the use of excessive force, especially when used against people of color."
Can things change? There are local examples of the system working: In New Orleans, a federal consent decree entered into with the city resulted in wide-ranging changes to Police Department practices. Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome brought in a new chief in 2017 who has responded effectively to the trauma of 2016, when Alton Sterling was indefensibly shot and killed by officers, resulting later in the assassination of three officers and wounding of three others by Gavin Long.
Change won’t be easy but it can come if we commit to it for the long term.