The protests of recent months, which reignited again in August following the shooting of a man by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, as he leaned into his vehicle, have created real momentum for efforts to reform police departments. In many cities, though, rank-and-file police officers are greeting these efforts with an apparent pullback. They say they are aggrieved by the charges against their fellow officers, public criticism of their department as a whole or growing calls to greatly reduce their powers and resources. In several cities, rising violence is already undermining support for shifting resources out of police departments, including among many Black residents and elected leaders. If reformers hope to succeed in curbing overpolicing, they will first have to overcome the challenge of underpolicing, which has often allowed officers to exercise an effective veto on reform.
Michael McGinn dealt with a police pullback when he was mayor of Seattle in 2012. And, he told me, the problem has a straightforward solution: A mayor facing a police pullback has to make it plain that officers are accountable to the elected government they serve. That starts, he said, with relatively small steps, such as demanding that officers uncover their badge numbers. And if officers refuse? “Anyone who doesn’t follow an order gets sent home. That’s what you do with someone who doesn’t follow orders in a semi-military organization. You fire them.”