Last week was the anniversary of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, and it has felt like déjà vu all over again. Protestors marked the occasion by taking to the streets – a few by committing violent crimes. Gunshots were fired at cops, and a state of emergency declared. The pattern has become all too familiar.
Much ink has been spent interpreting the Black Lives Matter movement that sprang from Ferguson and subsequent killings of unarmed black men. They have maintained their public presence on an issue of great significance, even as their tactics have varied between silly, perplexing, and even downright unsafe.
The movement’s willingness to bend facts in order to advance a narrative has not done it many favors either. We now know that “hands up, don’t shoot” was based off false testimony about Michael Brown, and that he attacked Officer Darren Wilson and tried to take his gun. The true statistic that blacks are shot by police at a higher rate than their relative share of the population is often cited but ignores a disproportionately higher number of criminal interactions with law enforcement.
And yet these factual corrections don’t solve the underlying issue. Unarmed citizens are being unnecessarily killed to a degree that is both depressing and intolerable. The US has more fatal shootings by police than any other rich country, which has created a global perception of abusive and over-aggressive American law enforcement culture. It is time for conservative Republicans to prioritize changing that perception.
The fact that conservatives tend to be the most vocal defenders of police and skeptics of racial identity politics has made them reluctant to find common cause with Black Lives Matter and figures like former Attorney General Eric Holder. But the dual values of supporting the rule of law and limiting government authority – fundamental to conservatism – are critically undermined by police misconduct. When cops misbehave, it represents an abuse of state power that weakens citizens’ faith in the law. This is anathema to good governance.
In an ideal world, the government would enforce relatively few important laws with great vigor. This is not the status quo. Every year the number of crimes grows and with it the power of the police to arrest people. This gives government the power to harshly enforce minor laws selectively and arbitrarily, such as when Eric Garner was put in a stranglehold for selling loose cigarettes as well as the pattern of abuses of the Ferguson police department, which treated many of its poor, black citizens as convenient sources for state revenue.
The long-term solution, as usual, is to shrink the government leviathan at all levels. This means reevaluating initiatives like the War on Drugs in favor of stamping out violent crime and property crimes. This would also assist politicians in their quest to close prisons and reduce the huge number of incarcerated Americans. However, these major structural reforms will take time to materialize into any kind of legislation. The problem of police violence can be immediately addressed by other means.
Government-limiting reforms on policing should be applied in the many states where Republicans have firm political control. There are many areas where improvement is needed, starting with police departments and unions that hide evidence of misconduct among their forces. The vast majority of cops are not abusive or corrupt, but many may form a “Blue Wall of Silence” when questioned about the wrongdoings of their colleagues. Few want to actively blow the whistle, whether they are afraid of retribution, feel a strong bond of loyalty to others in law enforcement, or simply rationalize or underestimate that misconduct.
There are also shortcomings with local prosecutors who are wary of punishing police departments that they must work closely with, leaving them with little disciplinary oversight. The US does not even do a good job of collecting police shooting statistics in the first place, forcing it to address a problem it does not fully understand.
There has already been a sea change in public views on law enforcement. Measures to require police body cameras and appoint independent prosecutors when investigating police departments already enjoy broad bipartisan support. Majorities also support demilitarizing local law enforcement.
Conservatives can go further by limiting the power of police unions, as they have with other public sector unions, to ensure that police departments are prioritizing the interests of the public over their officers’ job security. Over time these initiatives for can change the culture of underperforming or abusive police departments, and reestablish a foundation of transparency and trust between cops and local communities.
This basically amounts to a laundry list of relatively minor reforms that can have a larger net effect. But the most crucial first step is to simply talk about the issue more. Thea argument that conservatives are indifferent to police brutality because they, for example, choose to focus on economic and national security issues in a presidential primary debate is unconvincing.
But public perceptions are still crucial. Voters rightfully care about this issue, and Republicans will inevitably face criticism if they even appear to be avoiding it. By not participating in the national dialogue, they will cede this issue to Democrats. Worse yet, essential reforms may be delayed and Americans will continue to lose faith in the police after witnessing more unnecessary deaths.
For some, this talk of reform and police violence comes uncomfortably close to questioning the authority of cops in general. Why should we be second-guessing the expertise of men and women who often put their own safety at risk? Why are we blaming the majority for the actions of a few? Simply put, all government authority needs oversight, and police are not immune from this. While society may give them leeway in performing a dangerous and essential job, it also must hold them to higher standards.
At the end of the day, it is better to have conservatives actively involved in pursuing responsible reforms, because they are less likely to put untenable pressure on law enforcement’s ability to function. The Left cannot be trusted to do this alone. Its public figures are too comfortable dabbling in anti-cop ideology and proposing ridiculous solutions like federalizing police forces and disarming police entirely. As evidenced by the recent spike in Baltimore’s violent crime rate, a breakdown in relations between elected officials and police leads to chaos.
The debate on police violence – and all of its political, socio-economic, and racial dimensions – will likely continue into the 2016 election cycle. Conservatives looking to demonstrate the broad appeal of small government ideology must embrace this issue. To do so would be an opportunity to craft a more pragmatic narrative to police reform. To dodge it would be a political and moral failure.