Why Police Reform Fails

Susan Saxe
10 min readAug 24, 2020


To fully understand why policing is so persistently violent and resists every attempt to reform it, we have to understand what the real mission of policing is. It is NOT to solve crime or keep anyone but the ruling class safe. If that were their job, crime rates would have some inverse relationship to police presence and money thrown into policing. There is no such correlation. https://www.politico.com/interactives/2020/police-budget-spending-george-floyd-defund/. http://www.justicepolicy.org/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/rethinkingtheblues_final.pdf. If that were their job, we would not have over half the victims of serious crimes choosing not to report those crimes, either because they prefer some other source of help, they don’t think the police will help them or because they fear the police will make it worse. https://study.com/academy/lesson/reasons-why-people-dont-call-the-police.html. https://wp.nyu.edu/dispatch/2018/08/31/why-do-so-many-crimes-go-by-unreported-in-the-states/The statistics are even more shocking when it comes to crimes against women. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/21/rape-study-report-america-us_n_4310765.html

The real role of policing is to defend the corrupt, rigged, unjust status quo against any credible threat or resistance. It’s the one thing they do well, while failing at everything else, including preventing or solving crime. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/10/17/facts-about-crime-in-the-u-s/

Once we understand this, it is not difficult to understand how other social functions that logically should be addressed by medics, social workers, therapists and community institutions came instead to be handed over to the police. Most of our social “problems,” from mental illness to homelessness to truancy and juvenile misbehavior, to domestic abuse to street crime and more, are either the direct result of poverty, injustice and deprivation or greatly exacerbated by these factors. But a system based on optimizing profit above all else will not really try to address any of these ills, because to do so would require a redistribution of wealth and power that is unacceptable to those who benefit most handsomely from things remaining exactly as they are. Therefore, rather than being rationally addressed, these “problems” and the people caught up in them must be criminalized and punished, not helped. That job is exactly what the police were designed to do, from their earliest roots in slave patrols and anti-union, anti-immigrant goon squads right up to the present. https://www.npr.org/2020/06/05/871083599/the-history-of-police-in-creating-social-order-in-the-u-s

To maintain an unpopular and unjust status quo, both individual and and collective resistance must be crushed and harshly punished, sending the message that resistance is futile and costly, so that others will be discouraged from trying. Individual resistance or nonconformity includes engaging in survival strategies that are criminalized, like street peddling, begging, sex work, petty theft or simply being homeless, in the “wrong” place because you have nowhere else to be. It also includes infringement of laws designed to criminalize entire swaths of the population, a strategy with roots in the “Black Codes” of the post Reconstruction South and most cruelly, effectively and deliberately built upon in modern times by the Nixon administration which created the drug war explicitly to criminalize hated populations of youth and people of color. https://www.cnn.com/2016/03/23/politics/john-ehrlichman-richard-nixon-drug-war-blacks-hippie/index.html.

To add insult to all this injury, these “services” must be paid for by extracting money from poor communities even as taxes are slashed for people who have more power and privilege. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-link-between-money-and-aggressive-policing. That has led to an epidemic of predatory policing, aggressive stop and frisk policies, cruising neighborhoods looking for poor people’s cars to tow or ticket, rigorously enforcing “nuisance” or “quality of life” laws and the outrageous practice of civil forfeiture, all designed to loot community wealth, ensnare vulnerable people in a web of inescapable debt and put them in the clutches of the surveillance/probation state or the even more extractive private prison and probation industry. https://harvardlawreview.org/2015/04/policing-and-profit/

Now let’s consider the collective or societal level of the job, which is to systematically crush any credible threat of real change. That means siding with landlords over tenants, https://jacobinmag.com/2020/06/nypd-landlords-tenant-organizing-housing. That means siding with bosses over workers, https://plsonline.eku.edu/insidelook/history-policing-united-states-part-3. And it means protecting corrupt politicians from people trying to hold them accountable, favoring abusive men over women, etc. That is why, for example, when tenants meet in their own building to organize against a landlord who is refusing to make mandated repairs in violation of the law, it is the landlord who shows up with the police to threaten them. You will never, ever, see a cop say to the landlord, “You are in violation of the law regarding your obligation to maintain your building and these people have a right to gather to discuss that. We will protect them against your threats.” You will never see a union legally picketing a business where the police will step in to protect workers from private goons sicced on them by the bosses. The law doesn’t matter; power does.

The “thin blue line” might occasionally run between ordinary people and random crime, but it much more often runs between ordinary people and a living wage, safe working conditions, clean air and water, decent housing, healthcare as a right and freedom from government abuse. It runs between us and politicians whose corruption we want to challenge and between us and corporations intent on exploiting our labor, poisoning our communities and cooking our planet.

So here is the dilemma. If the “order” you are maintaining seems unjust and rigged against people, if you are frustrating their aspirations and causing them grievous harm in the normal course of doing your job, they will resent it and push back. If you come from outside their community, view and treat them as less than human and not deserving of basic respect and civil rights, you will be seen as a hostile occupying force. You will never win compliance out of good will and respect. But you need compliance or you can’t do the job.

The easiest way to insure compliance, at least in the short term, is to instill fear. That is why systemic brutality is not incidental but a NECESSARY part of the job. People will only submit to deep and growing injustice if they are terrorized, and it is the job of the police to keep that terror in place. Therefore, they must consistently demonstrate that they are violence prone and unaccountable and must be obeyed without question at the peril of life and limb. A random killing every now and then is a great way to drive the message home. These extrajudicial executions are on the continuum with lynching as a form of social control. They are by design, baked into the system, not an aberration or the result of a “bad apple.”

The continuation of an entrenched institution charged with the maintenance of an unjust system through racialized violence is only tenable as long as the most brutal impacts of the system are confined to the most powerless elements of society, poor people, people of color, non-citizens, people suffering from lack of housing, education, health care, employment, education, opportunity and access. As long as enough people are fairly immune from its worst impacts, the system can go on crushing out the lives of those who are not so immunized.

Meanwhile, those who are fairly well insulated from the violence can pretend that everything is ok. That is why so many white people — who have never been the victims of endless “stop and frisk” assaults, whose kids are not ensnared in the school to prison pipeline, whose houses are not broken into and lives not shattered by out of control SWAT teams, whose ancestors came to these shores when there were literally open borders, at least to European immigrants, who have not lost loved ones to mass incarceration or extrajudicial killings — have been able to ignore what has been going on for so long. It explains why people have been able to tell themselves soothing stories — “he must have done something,” “she was no angel,” “they thought he had a gun,” “she resisted arrest,” “he tried to run,” and “if they hadn’t (moved too fast, been out at night, driven with a broken tail light, reached for their wallet, been wearing a hoodie, talked back, etc. etc.) it wouldn’t have happened.”

But suddenly, something seemingly unrelated happened that had unintended results. In the course of a few years, virtually every person in society started walking around with a little hand-held device that allowed them to immediately create videos of anything they saw and turn it loose onto a global network of information and images that could be picked up by pretty much anyone, anywhere in the world on a similar device. That was a game changer. The drumbeat of horrifying videos began to mount, bearing witness to all the things that poor people and POC have been telling us for decades and that white America was able to ignore and discount. We saw with our own eyes that the victims didn’t “fit the description,” were not “acting suspiciously,” clearly did not have a gun, resist arrest, present a threat or do anything to deserve to be executed on the street or in their home. The zeitgeist began to shift and finally, there was a breaking point.

Something shifted. Was it the cumulative effect of video after video of cold-blooded murder carried out in our names? Was it fueled by the COVID pandemic bringing to a head the vast inequities in our system? Can it be attributed to other factors, including decades of painstaking organizing and relationship building? We may never know exactly how and why but the Overton window moved. Things that were once immutable and outside the scope of serious consideration came into question. A recoil, a reckoning and a resistance like this nation has not seen in decades was launched.

Now, imagine, if you will, that you are the average cop. For all these years, you have been asked to do a job, been paid for that job, been trained for that job and done it to the best of your ability. All along the way, you have been given lots of positive feedback for doing that job, and you have told yourself whatever stories it has taken to convince yourself that no matter what harm you are doing in the course of that job, whose lives you interrupt, wreck or even end, it is all for some greater good. You have a good story to tell yourself and all who will listen. It is the story of your heroism, your service and your sacrifice. The fact that it is all predicated on someone else’s lack of even the most fundamental human rights is not your problem. After all, you are not supposed to question the laws you are enforcing or the policies you are enacting, you are just supposed to do the job, right?

Of course some people (the “others,” the “bad guys,” the “criminals,” the “undeserving,” the “crazy,” the “animals”) don’t like it, but they’re not supposed to. You are “protecting” the “good people,” the “deserving,” the ones who fall under the category of “us.”

Now imagine, all of a sudden, that a significant chunk of those “good people,” the “citizens,” the ones you are supposed to “protect and serve,” the ones who are supposed to be grateful to you for being the “thin blue line” between them and the less than human “Others,” are angrily marching in the streets demanding that you be fired, charged, tried, convicted and jailed for doing what you have always done…your job, the job that for all these years they have let you do and wanted you to do and praised you for doing. Imagine the cognitive dissonance, the shock, the betrayal, the hurt, the outrage. You were once untouchable and now highly suspect, once the hero and now the villain.

Thinking about it that way, we can see why the police response to the current demonstrations is red-hot anger. “Oh, you treacherous ingrates are out here joining forces with those others we’ve been protecting you from? You want everyone treated alike? Ok, we’ll treat you all alike. Here’s a club, a flash-bang and face-full of gas for everyone.” https://www.nytimes.com/2. 020/05/31/us/police-tactics-floyd-protests.html

And when the expected responses — fear, obedience, retreat, silence — don’t happen, but instead the demonstrations get bigger, and even more people join the fray, the rage increases and with it the violence. White people joining with Black people freaks them out. Older people joining in with the young makes it even more disturbing. Knock down a 75 year old peacekeeper? No problem. Clergy? Reporters? Medics? Fair game. When the white moms (emblematic of the “white womanhood” that has historically justified their worst abuses) show up, any remaining shred of reason is out the window. They’re, literally, ballistic. https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/politics-news/from-the-administration-that-brought-you-kids-in-cages-its-tear-gassed-moms-1032760/.

There is no reform for this. Our only hope is to dismantle it and replace it with real solutions that can increase rather than undermine public safety. https://aworldwithoutpolice.org/2017/10/08/the-problem-with-community-policing/

But what to do with the police we have created? Along with the other restorative and transformative work we have ahead of us, we will have to also come up with strategies to help former officers exit the system of policing and safely, productively reenter society. Except for the real “bad apples” many of those who want to be “good apples” can find other ways to fulfill their goals. For those who like danger and excitement, we will need a lot more brave, skilled medics, rescue workers and firefighters as climate catastrophe results in floods, super storms and bigger, hotter and more frequent fires. For those who want to help people, there are thousands of programs and institutions that are starved of financial support that could hire more social workers, drug counselors, EMTs and other helping professionals if the money we put into policing and jailing were diverted to prevention and cure. Tired of breaking up homeless encampments and being hated for chasing our most needy neighbors from one place to another with no end in sight? How about good jobs building, refurbishing and retrofitting housing? Like those PR activities you do in your spare time, all those “Officer Friendly” gigs like the Police Athletic League and other youth programs? Go back to school and become a teacher, coach, therapist or school counselor. Steer kids to college instead of prison. Just talking about the good apples, here. The white supremacists who have been infiltrating law enforcement for decades are a different story and any good apple should be happy to be shed of them when they crawl back under their rocks. Meanwhile, there is so much meaningful work to be done that does not cause and amplify harm and that will increase pubic safety and inspire respect and appreciation, not fear and loathing. But the first thing we must do to get out of this hole is to stop digging.

Learn about alternatives and how we can create truly safe communities without resorting to violence and harm.





Susan Saxe

I’m a lifelong radical activist, intersectional in outlook since back in the day when we just expressed it as the idea that “everything is connected.” It is.