How Women Want to Fix the Police Problem
Police departments—and how they operate—revolve around systems built by men. Systems that killed George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and so many others. Systems that are broken. As the country grapples with how to move forward, it’s time to listen to new voices: women.
For me, the words “safe” and “police” have never belonged in the same sentence. I remember being told not to look back if a police car was behind me because they would pull us over for any reason. I actually recall it happening once when I was a kid, driving with my mom and her boyfriend. The cops made us get out of the car and sit on the curb. I was so scared. Back then, we expected those things to happen to us, not realizing they were wrong.
Tamika Palmer As I got older and became a parent, I had a new fear: It was my turn to prepare my daughters for how to handle themselves when they came into contact with the police. How they should act, what they should say and do. And so, when we saw police yelling at someone or handling a situation badly, I had those conversations with Breonna. And still, it wasn’t enough.
What happened to Breonna that night should not have happened. It should never happen to anyone. But it’s not talking more with my daughter that could have allowed her life to be spared. You can’t talk your way out of being a victim of police violence. Here’s what can prevent another senseless death: a ban on no-knock warrants. Breonna’s Law, which prohibits cops in Louisville from entering someone’s home without identifying themselves, was definitely a start, but no-knock warrants should be done away with everywhere, period.
We also need better and more comprehensive de-escalation training, we need a system that demands accountability when an officer engages in misconduct, we need to amend laws that have a discriminatory impact on the basis of race, and we need cops who get out and interact with the community they are policing.
These are hard battles, and some days, I want to give up. But then I am reminded of Breonna’s greatness: In her name, a law has been passed. In her name, people are coming together. In her name, I won’t allow things to stay the same.
police departments desperately need more women Maureen McGough: We are dealing with a public-safety crisis, and so many of the contributing factors could be solved by increasing representation of women in the police force. Women have only made up between 10 and 13 percent of law enforcement officers for decades; at the executive level, less than 3 percent.
Maureen McGough Ivonne Roman: It’s largely because policing has been based on a patriarchal society that looked at women as ineffective at performing police duties. In fact, when we talk to high-ranking women, they tell us that no one is embracing their ideas; they’re being undermined and harassed. Police departments have been predominantly geared toward physical strength, when in reality, what’s required is being analytical, a good communicator, and nonreactive.
ivonne roman MM: And everything research tells us is that not only do women use less excessive force, but men are also less likely to use excessive force if they work alongside women. This is important when it comes to the idea of defunding the police, which is an important conversation to have. We should be evaluating what our officers are doing, but there also needs to be a critical discussion about who our police officers are. Because one of the things we need to remember is that even with a reimagined public-safety response that focuses on social work and smaller police units, there will still be some agency with an enforcement role. That means that even as we talk about defunding, we need to talk about improving the representation of women in policing. We’re committed to ensuring that women make up 30 percent of police academy recruits by 2030.
IR: We’d love even more. But research shows that for marginalized groups to make true cultural change, they have to reach that critical mass of about 30 percent.
MM: People in police reform are realizing we’ve tried lots of things, and there are millions and millions of dollars being spent to “fix” the problem. But we haven’t tried this, which would cost next to nothing, even as people continue to lose their lives.
Because the prosecution of “bad” cops will never be enough. After all, most cops guilty of excessive force will never be charged. If Derek Chauvin had knelt on George Floyd’s neck for closer to seven minutes than eight, maybe Mr. Floyd wouldn’t have died, but then he would have been dragged to court, charged with trying to use counterfeit cash, and probably—in order to cover up the officer’s action—charged with resisting arrest.
Maryanne Kaishian He likely would have spent time in jail. Chauvin would still be training new recruits to treat human beings with violence.
Because many people should never be arrested in the first place. We should be legalizing marijuana and decriminalizing sex work. Police use both of these laws to harass a demographic that is routinely subjected to police abuse. Fewer encounters with the police mean lives will be saved.
Because mandatory minimum sentences shouldn’t even be a thing. For certain crimes, if a person is found guilty, they must spend a minimum amount of time in prison, which causes a lot of people to take a plea deal so they can avoid trial and incarceration. That allows police misconduct to go unchecked, as many abusive officers will never have to take the stand and testify under oath. These laws protect problematic police officers—not you.
"The fact that it’s 2020 and we’re having conversations about me being the “first” is a problem. There are only a handful of women leading police departments. We need a seat at the table." — Danielle Outlaw, the first Black female police commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department
"We need to be recruiting with a compassionate policing model. A lot of recruitment videos show the aggressive side of policing: Someone robs a bank and a SWAT team comes in with a helicopter. But we should be more realistic with the true picture of what policing is, to attract the right kinds of people. I don’t want arrogant jerks. I want people who talk about community building and get into this profession to make social impact and progressive change." — Terry Cherry, officer and recruiter, Charleston Police Department
"Officers need to be trained in how to go to each other and say, “Look, I don’t think you handled this well,” in addition to how to react, like, “You’re right. I didn’t. I need to fix this." — Jennifer, police sergeant in Arizona
"Local and state policing budgets have risen from about $2 billion in 1960 to more than $130 billion in 2018. And yet, what currently exists—a country full of big, expensive police departments—isn’t creating the conditions for safety that people need. We need to rethink how the government spends money at all levels. At least a third of every city’s budget should be spent on dealing with what people actually need: resources for mental health, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, domestic violence issues. But we can’t implement that infrastructure if everything we spend is on policing.
thenwije mcharris Think about it this way: You live in a house. You want your house to be safe, and a large part of that is being able to pay the bills, buy groceries, take care of yourself. The focus has to be on making sure people have their basic needs met and non-punitive responses to safety. If all your money is tied up in security systems, guns, and ninja stars, you don’t have money for anything else. What are nunchucks going to do for your mental health? You need a therapist. So what I’m saying is: Let’s get the house safe. But let’s figure out how to create safety without causing harm and also make sure we get what we actually need." —Thenjiwe McHarris
"Right now, everyone calls 911 for everything because we have an outdated public-safety model that signals to communities that the only resource for your problem is the police.
Dana Rachlin So what we need isn’t just a funding divestment—it’s a logistical divestment. We need to reimagine the 24/7 public safety ecosystem.
Everybody uses mental health as an example, but not everything is a crisis situation. Take New York City. Between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. in the summer, you might have anywhere between 200 and 400 teenagers just hanging out outside in areas with disproportionately higher crime rates. Someone calls to file a noise complaint. Officers show up in a neighborhood that has historic tension with the police, and they come in hot. The kids respond hot because they have seen this play out over and over again. It all boils over, there’s a brawl, people get arrested or worse. All for a noise complaint?
So the question is: Why are the police the first responders and not the Department of Youth and Community Development, which could be out doing GED and job programming between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m.? There are all these agencies within municipalities that have million- or billion-dollar budgets. Why are they not being activated when needed? When the police arrive, things get escalated immediately. They should show up only when it’s appropriate for them to be there." — Dana Rachlin
Some people hear “abolish the police” and think that sounds like a radical idea. How would you describe it?
Most people really do believe we need police to keep our communities safe. They say we need more women police, more Black police, more people from the neighborhood to become police officers; they say we need police to be better.
What we need is to get these people to see that police are managers of inequality. Because that’s how the conversation starts to shift from “we need police” to “we need less inequality.”
At its core, police abolition is about trying to find ways to solve harm without relying on cops. Defunding—taking money away from the police and giving it to social workers, counselors, and other resources—is part of that process.
Derecka Purnell But the ultimate goal of abolition is to answer the question: What would we do without the police? What do we actually need?
One thing I tell people is that police are kind of like Hot Pockets. If you put them in the microwave, they’re either boiling hot or frozen in the center. So do you want Hot Pockets or do you want better food options? I think we need to show people that there are better options available. Justice can look like different things.
What are some of those different things?
If you talk to people who live in places with a lot of robberies or violence, they aren’t just talking about police. They’re saying: We need better schools. We need strong economic opportunities. We need grocery stores and gas stations. What you hear is a demand for institutional life.
Here’s one example: The people who break into our homes do it because of economic desperation. Do we need to arrest people who break into our homes, or do we need to get to the bottom of why people break into our homes? Do we want a society where police just put people in cages? Or do we want a society where people have what they need?
Why should abolition be the goal instead of reform?
Reformers want police to do the “right thing.” Abolitionists would say that even if police are doing the right thing, they’re still just polite managers of inequality. Just because you rebrand something as “community police” doesn’t mean there is any better accountability or ability to meet people’s actual needs. To be against abolition is to be pro-inequality, and that’s not the world we want.
Thankfully, abolition is already happening. We are already seeing cities starting to dismantle their police departments and schools breaking their contracts with police. At an institutional and individual level, this is all part of an abolitionist landscape. People are figuring it out. Abolition is already here.
Ending police brutality will require rethinking our criminal justice system from top to bottom so that we transition away from a punitive system of locking people up and invest in community services that lift people up.
elizabeth warren We need real accountability for police officers who use excessive force.
We must end qualified immunity for police officers so victims of police brutality can hold officers and departments that violate constitutional rights accountable in court. We also need to expand independent investigations and prosecutions of officer-involved shootings and excessive uses of force, provide strong community oversight of police departments and practices, and hold police officers liable for denying medical care to people in custody. We need to get police out of our schools and replace them with counselors to help end the school-to-prison pipeline.
Nearly three months ago, the House passed the Justice in Policing Act—a bill led by Senators Booker and Harris and Representatives Bass and Nadler—which included some of these critically needed policing reforms. But Senate Majority Leader McConnell has refused to bring the bill to the floor. We must keep pushing Senator McConnell and Senate Republicans to allow the Senate to vote on the bill and pass it. We cannot let Congress forget the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many Black Americans who should be alive today. We need to act now. And while we work toward a new vision for public safety, we must also fight to end systemic racism in every part of our society, from housing to health care to education. I and others have a responsibility as white Americans to proactively dismantle systemic racism. Being an ally is simply not enough. We must be anti-racists too.
IT'S OFTEN SAID: Police make schools safer.
I SAY: How many mass shootings have police protected students from? And anyway, police usually aren’t a proactive measure to prevent crime—they are reacting to a situation. You look at the amount of police on campuses and there is still a high volume of crime, especially when it comes to sexual assaults.
IT'S OFTEN SAID: But police make me feel safe.
I SAY: Except they don’t make the majority of Black and brown students feel safe. Data shows us that students of color are disproportionately arrested at schools. And for anyone who does feel better with cops around, I’d suggest asking yourself: What privilege do I have that allows me to feel this way? Because Black people are being disproportionately killed by police, so law enforcement doesn’t look like a safety measure to us. It looks like fear. And that’s not conducive to learning.
Jael Kerandi IT'S OFTEN SAID: Well, let’s just train the police to do better.
I SAY: Police on campuses are a costly resource that isn’t working well. Give students better access to mental health counselors. Let’s invest in classes that teach consent to prevent sexual misconduct instead of just focusing on dealing with the aftermath. I think what people are trained to do, and how they’re trained to handle situations, is different from profession to profession. We should be giving authority to those who have expertise. In any other situation, you would make a change. You wouldn’t just let this keep happening. So let’s talk about this—let’s finally do something else.
Art by KangHee Kim. Portrait illustrations by Marion Ben-Lisa.