Why can't big-city Democrats reform the police?

About a decade ago, a narrative reemerged in America that police departments are deeply racist and single out minority residents disproportionately. The timing seemed unusual. America had just elected its first black president, which might have signaled that the country’s racist past was firmly behind it—certainly in the sense of systemic or institutional racism. And yet, with Barack Obama in the White House, individual conflicts between the police and African-Americans were not downplayed but amplified, at times by the president himself. Speaking about the case of Eric Garner, a New Yorker arrested for selling contraband cigarettes who died in police custody after resisting arrest, Obama said that the incident spoke to “larger issues that we’ve been talking about now for the last week, the last month, the last year, and, sadly, for decades, and that is the concern on the part of too many minority communities that law enforcement is not working with them and dealing with them in a fair way.”

New York’s progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, found larger meaning in the confrontation, explaining that he told his son Dante, who is half-black, that he faced extra danger when interacting with the police. “With Dante, very early on, we said, ‘Look, if a police officer stops you, do everything he tells you to do. Don’t move suddenly. Don’t reach for your cellphone,’” said de Blasio. “Because we knew, sadly, there’s a greater chance it might be misinterpreted if it was a young man of color.” Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, used his bully pulpit to argue repeatedly that police and public school officials disproportionately and unfairly targeted young blacks. Holder led federal investigations of several police departments and used the Department of Justice to force teachers and administrators to reduce suspensions of African-Americans students.

Though statistical evidence showed no disproportionate targeting of blacks, it’s clear that many African-Americans believed this narrative of the Obama years. And the rhetoric surrounding the 2020 unrest suggests that many still do. So why did so little change under a Democratic president, and in typically Democratic-run cities? The answers might lie in looking closely at some of the most egregious confrontations that occurred in blue cities over the last few years.