Every morning, Victor Wahl walks into his office with a sense of dread.
Months of intense protests and heightened scrutiny have left the acting police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, like many in his shoes, on edge about what lies ahead.
“I’m fearful to find a bunch of resignations on my desk,” said Wahl, whose department has lost twice the number of officers this year compared to previous years.
The national reckoning over race and policing – sparked by the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day – resulted in more than 10,000 demonstrations nationwide. At one point, Wahl’s department faced 119 straight days of protests.
“We’re asking so much of officers now,” Wahl said.
The killing of Floyd – compounded by a string of other high-profile police encounters – has driven the public outcry for change in policing, with some calling to defund or abolish police departments entirely. Agencies have faced frequent Black Lives Matter protests, armed counter protestors, and demonstrations over Covid-restrictions and election results – with much of the interactions with police instantly captured on video, leaving little room for excuses and louder demands for transparency and accountability.
What’s more, a generation of older cops who joined the profession during hiring sprees in the 1990s are ready to retire. And, there is evidence that some officers are rethinking their careers and leaving their jobs. Meanwhile, agencies throughout the country are struggling to attract new recruits to their ranks.
All this has led policing in America to a defining crossroads: Will there be substantive reforms to improve how law enforcement protects and serves the community, or will the energy of 2020 dissipate and allow agencies to retreat to their traditional ways of enforcing law and order?
“It worries me that the profession as a whole does not see the damage we’ve done to our communities,” said RaShall Brackney, the police chief of Charlottesville, Virginia. “Without that understanding and reckoning of it, it will continue.”
How 2020 delivered a ‘collision’ of challenges
An officer’s knee on George Floyd’s neck. Another shooting Rayshard Brooks twice in the back. Yet another shooting paralyzing Jacob Blake from the waist down. Each Black man’s encounter with law enforcement – captured on video – became a potent symbol for a growing movement challenging police authority and thrusting the actions of police beneath a national microscope.
Even cases that didn’t have publicly available video – such as Breonna Taylor, an EMT-turned-ER technician who was gunned down in her home, or Julian Lewis, who was shot during a traffic stop along a country road in east Georgia – still gripped communities, big and small, with sweeping protests.
“When we see officers killing a person of color, it doesn’t just raise the anger of a potentially unjustified killing. It raises the anger of another potentially unjustified killing involving this troubling, repetitive racial dynamic,” said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor.
Though Floyd’s killing was hardly the first, 2020 revealed a massive, galvanized movement against police brutality with unprecedented reach made possible by a national coalition of local groups working in unison.
The Movement for Black Lives – bolstered during the 2015 national convention of over 50 black-led organizations, including Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the families of 20 victims of police killings – provided the infrastructure that allowed thousands of organizers to mobilize millions of people in all 50 states this summer, despite a deadly pandemic, according to Monifa Bandele who sits on the leadership team of the Movement.
The historic scope of the outrage this year has some researchers suggesting that Black Lives Matter is the largest protest movement in US history, with estimates of up to 26 million people participating in demonstrations across the country by June, according to the New York Times. Between May 24 and December 5, more than 10,000 demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement took place, according to US Crisis Monitor, a joint effort by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University, which collects and analyzes real-time data on demonstrations and political violence in the US.
The vision for police reform is as diverse as its stakeholders.
Police departments and unions say the answer lies within unifying national policing standards and improving existing policies, which they insist requires more resources. Activists contend that cutting police budgets and reducing police interactions are the best ways to limit harm.
But in the absence of well-funded social welfare services, those very stakeholders see an American society that relies heavily on law enforcement to handle issues ranging from homelessness and mental health crises to maintaining student safety in schools.
“2020 has just been a collision of so many pressing challenges,” said Cynthia Renaud, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “And law enforcement has been at the forefront of all of those trying to respond to it, trying to work and serve their communities, and also trying to be responsive to the change and the changes that our society has been so vocal that they want.”
A race against the clock
In the wake of Floyd’s death, nearly 20 police chiefs have left their posts, many after facing criticism from their communities, including over use-of-force incidents and how their officers handled protests. At least 40% of them were minorities – women, people of color and/or members of the LGBTQ community.
“The one thing that is really troubling in all of this is the laying off of innovative and progressive police chiefs. Often, it’s a knee jerk reaction to a controversial incident,” said criminology professor Michael White at Arizona State University. “But given the political climate, city government is moving way too quickly to remove a chief or call for their resignation in response to one incident.”
Maintaining diversity among the ranks when the nation continues to grapple with systemic racism is key to changing policing culture within departments – a culture which has typically supported straight, conservative, white men, said Natalie Todak, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“We want to build a police force that is as diverse as the communities they serve, to have cultural awareness and protection of life strategies … The exodus of progressive police leaders is the opposite of what we want to see right now,” she said.
In Charlottesville, Brackney says she feels the pressure of implementing meaningful change in a race against the clock.
“I worry I can’t do enough before I’m forced out in some way,” she said. “Before I have the time to put in place the institutional safeguards that will protect the community from a profession that hasn’t had to undergo the right scrutiny for a long time.”
Brackney was sworn in as Charlottesville’s first Black female chief of police just a year after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally shook the Virginia town. An independent review found the Charlottesville police department failed to protect the community’s safety during the 2017 white nationalist rally, leaving Brackney to repair the relationship with the residents.
“There are calls for more diversity, more women, diversity in religious beliefs, in lived experiences … and yet persons who look like me are being run right out of this profession over their inability to change institutional issues in just two years,” she said. “They are attempting to address the right cases of police brutality, but not given the type of time it takes to change a culture.”
It may take generations to fix the damaged relationship between police departments and their communities, said Brackney. And in the meantime, even incremental progress is hard.
People chanting “cops and Klan go hand in hand” and “honk if you hate the police” right outside the station make it difficult to recruit new officers, Brackney said, let alone hire the diverse candidates needed to answer demands for reform.
“Who would want to walk into that environment voluntarily?” she said.
Some police agencies left struggling with recruitment
In 2019, a Police Executive Research Forum survey showed 63% of respondents saying that the number of applicants applying for full-time sworn positions at their agencies had either “decreased significantly” or “decreased slightly” compared to five years earlier.
The situation has only gotten worse, according to police chiefs and law enforcement experts interviewed by CNN.
“It’s the lowest turnout in over 40 years,” said Tom Weitzel, police chief of Riverside, a Chicago suburb. His department recruits new officers every two years, he added, on average receiving over 180 applications. So far, only a third of that number have applied in the current recruitment period.
“I think it’s a product of bad publicity and stuff that’s going on, they don’t want to get into a profession where they’re constantly under the microscope and constantly criticized.”
“2020 has been a remarkably challenging year for the front-line officer,” added Wahl, in Madison. “The public and media expect perfection in a job where it simply isn’t possible … I worry that this trend will continue and that it will be more and more difficult to recruit people to this profession.”
The struggle to attract new recruits is compounded by a rise in resignations and early retirements, experts told CNN. A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum found that 36% of responding police departments have seen a higher number of resignations and retirements this year compared to the same time frame over last five years. Larger and medium-sized agencies – like Chief Wahl’s in Madison – were found to have higher numbers of officer separations than smaller departments.
Wahl says he lost 13 of his nearly 500 officers between June and November. Over the past few years, he added, the average for the same time span has been half that.
The NYPD says it lost 2,100 officers out of more than 34,000 by October of this year – an increase of more than 65% compared to the same time period in 2019. Atlanta has been operating without a fully staffed force for some time, the Atlanta police department told CNN in a statement, adding that the agency has lost about 200 officers this year and currently fills 1,602 out of the authorized 2,046 positions.
“While it is true that we have seen some turnover within the department,” the statement said, “this is not out of line with what we are seeing with numerous departments across the nation today, due to the current climate surrounding policing in United States.”
In Portland, Oregon, which witnessed months of near daily protests and a federal crackdown on the demonstrations by the Trump administration, the police department has reached its highest number of annual retirements in 14 years after 48 officers left the police department this year, according number provided by the city. Chicago’s usual retirement rate doubled in August and September with 59 and 51 officers leaving the department respectively, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Minneapolis lost 10% of its police force in the months following the George Floyd protests, with at least 75 officers have requested medical leave citing PTSD from the unrest, according to the Star Tribune.
“I am seeing many resignations, particularly of younger officers,” said Brackney, who currently has a 13% vacancy among her sworn officers: “We can’t operate like this.”
In Riverside, Weitzel received a two-week notice from an officer after just seven years.
“He left for a bigger agency farther away from the metropolitan areas,” Weitzel said. “He said he wanted to go to an agency that doesn’t have to deal with the rioting and the looting.”
The retirement bubble is bursting
There’s another, older, reason behind so many officers leaving the force: the 1994 Crime Control Act, a controversial law overseen by Joe Biden in the Senate and signed by Bill Clinton, which provided $7.6 billion in federal funding for tens of thousands of police officers.
“All these cops are coming up for retirement now,” said Ivonne Roman, one of those so-called “Clinton Cops” who retired as police chief of Newark on April 1. “This past April alone 200 cops retired in Newark. This was always coming regardless of Covid or the protests.”
A 2019 study by the Police Executive Research Forum called it a “triple threat”: fewer applications, more people leaving law enforcement for other opportunities and an aging workforce becoming eligible for retirement. The study found 8.5% of officers to be eligible for retirement, with an additional 15.5% becoming eligible in the next five years.
Weitzel, who was eligible for retirement six years ago, said many officers used to stay beyond their retirement eligibility date.
“I would have expected them to stay on, but Covid and the unrest have played a significant role in officers retiring earlier than they had planned,” he said, adding it’s not just affecting the rank-and -file but supervisors and lieutenants, as well.
The draw of saving a little extra money before retirement isn’t as appealing for those eligible for retirement when it means long days, mandatory patrol shifts and a drumbeat of negative publicity.
Staffing shortages caused by Covid-19 meant some veteran officers had to fill in on patrol shifts this summer, said Roman. “They’re not used to wearing body cams,” she added, “they don’t know how to operate all the new technologies. They’re fish out of water.”
The unintended consequences of budget cuts
Answering demands for police reform, even without an all-consuming pandemic, is challenging enough. But where calls to entirely defund the police haven’t made their way into budget talks, the economic repercussions of Covid-19 and civil unrest certainly have.
“Covid isn’t so much a health problem for us, it’s a budget problem. It’s the worst budget since I’ve been Chief,” said Weitzel, the Riverside police chief who has held the position since 2008. “The pandemic is affecting everything; taxes aren’t coming in… with restaurants and bars closed the village isn’t getting the liquor taxes,” he added. “It has a dramatic effect on how much revenue we can collect.”
While Weitzel’s 2021 budget isn’t yet clear, he knows replacing all his departing officers next year is out of the question. He anticipates having 20% fewer sworn officers.
In New York and Los Angeles, calls to “defund the police” coupled with the economic realities of Covid-19 have led to a significant decrease in police budgets. Both agencies are shrinking their force, Los Angeles is investing in a community policing program and New York is shifting responsibilities, such as responding to calls involving homeless people, away from its police department.
In Minneapolis, the city council voted to move almost $8 million from the police budget towards other programs, including mental health programs. The plan also notes nonemergency calls will be redirected to other departments.
Still, budget cuts at a time when the country is also pleading for more accountability and transparency from police departments can have unintended consequences.
Improvements recommended to Wahl’s department, he says, all require significant resources, whether it’s staff time, training or funding. “‘Defunding’ the police and police reform are mutually exclusive,” he said. “It’s not possible to demand more from the police while at the same time reducing their ability to improve.”
A popular remedy to police brutality is more, and better, officer training focused on implicit bias and de-escalation. Specifically, departments should be investing in scenario-based training emphasizing the effects of mental health and drug addiction on behavior, said Tom Saggau, spokesperson for the police unions in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.
“But you have to role play that, you can’t learn that just from a book. And that means more money, because that means you’re pulling someone off patrol and someone else needs to fill that gap. That’s overtime – that’s money.”
Despite the widespread use of implicit bias training, even beyond policing, there is little evidence for its effectiveness in combatting systemic racism. A study of 36,000 New York police officers receiving implicit bias training in 2018 found “insufficient evidence to conclude that racial and ethnic disparities in police enforcement actions were reduced as a result of the training.”
Even if differently designed trainings yield better results in the future, budget cuts in some departments will prevent them from being offered.
“I will always try to cut things before I cut people,” Brackney said, “but that means you cut trainings when the community demands more training. You cut transparency tools when the community is demanding more transparency. That takes a lot of funding.”
And those transparency tools, she noted, include accountability tools like bodycams.
“So, when you say ‘defund the police’ these are the unintended consequences that the community doesn’t realize,” Brackney said. “These are tools that allow a police department to have legitimacy in a community.”
Universal standards key to building trust, but they won’t come easy
While law enforcement experts say police reform will look different depending on the department and the community it serves, they say uniformity in policing best practices and information sharing would go a long way in establishing expectations of police and building trust with their communities.
Someone living in a public housing community in Charlottesville, argues Brackney, should feel like they are subject to the same standard as someone living in Beverly Hills. People should have the same constitutional and legal protections against excessive force across the country, she said, adding that the United States is one of the few nations that doesn’t have national standards for policing, including officer training or hiring requirements.
Uniformity doesn’t just benefit communities, Weitzel said. “Officers work and operate better under clear directives, policies and procedures… if they are murky, they don’t work as well,” he said, adding that it helps when policies are the same across the country.
“Once an offender is in handcuffs, you know, the use of force stops. That should be the [national] standard,” said Weitzel. “If an offender has trouble breathing, an ambulance needs to be called immediately. That should be the standard. Most agencies probably have some version of this in their policies already, but not all. That’s why we need a national standard.”
Since last year, several bills addressing police misconduct and use of force have been introduced in Congress. At the end of June, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which calls for the development of uniform standards, including use of force procedures, passed in the House.
But Jim Pasco, head of the National Fraternal Order of Police – with nearly 350,000 members nationwide – is skeptical it’ll go much farther.
“It kind of goes with the country at this point … The conservatives are going to say it [a national use of force policy] ties the police’s hands and the liberals are going to say it doesn’t go far enough.”
Though he’d be in favor of a federally mandated policy, he doubts it’ll happen any time soon.
“We’ve got eighteen thousand police departments out there,” Pasco said, “[It’s] the most decentralized policing operating in the world.”
Research by Campaign Zero, a police reform advocacy group, shows that more restrictive use of force policies are associated with fewer police-involved killings. Implementing more restrictive policies on the state and federal level, the American Civil Liberties Union’s policing policy advisor Paige Fernandez said, will allow it to trickle down to police departments across the country.
A national policy will help standardize data collection on policing, she said.
“The fact that our government is not keeping track of their employees who are killing people is really scary and I think should frighten a lot of people,” Fernandez said. “One of the most immediate things President-Elect Biden could do is implement a nationwide use of force standard to ensure we are collecting data from states on police violence and other police misconduct.”
The existing database documenting officer misconduct, the National Decertification Index, is an imperfect system. It tracks officer decertification, the professional license law enforcement officers hold, from 44 states. Aside from missing six states and Washington, DC, it doesn’t capture data on police misconduct that didn’t result in decertification. It’s also not publicly accessible and, perhaps most importantly, the data that is submitted is done so voluntarily.
Mike Becar, NDI’s project director, has been keeping the database afloat on a “shoe-string budget” after receiving some federal funding when they started 20 years ago, he said. Last month, they received a $1 million grant from the Department of Justice to rebuild the database and possibly start tracking excessive-use-of-force incidents. But without a national use of force standard, Becar said, uniformity will prove to be a hurdle for NDI, as well.
“What you don’t want is one state to report a set of data, and then a different state to report a different set of data,” said Renaud, of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. “The expectations and requirements need to be the same and consistent nationwide.”
President Trump signed an executive order in June that among other steps, called for a federal database of police officers with a history of using excessive force. The order, which also set financial incentives for police departments to establish credentialing programs and follow standard “best practices,” was a modest attempt by Trump to confront a national reckoning over racial inequities and law enforcement.
Critics say the order fell short of addressing the real problems in policing.
“This is a meager police reform,” said Carl Takei, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Trone Center for Justice and Equality, adding that information-sharing alone is not going to solve the crisis.
“What we desperately need is to shift funding, power, and responsibilities out of policing – and into community-based and community-led services that uplift the communities that have historically been targeted and disproportionately harmed by police.”
It’s time to reimagine policing, experts say
Two months ago, Walter Wallace Jr., a Black man wielding a knife, was shot and killed by police in Philadelphia when he didn’t surrender his weapon and walked towards the officers. His family said he had bipolar disorder and was in the midst of a mental health crisis at the time.
Wallace’s case isn’t an anomaly. A 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that 25% to 50% of fatal encounters with law enforcement involve people with a mental illness.
Each day, police officers are called into social situations they are not equipped to handle, said Saggau, the spokesperson for police unions in California.
Saggau’s statement is echoed on a national level. “We do believe that police officers are called upon to perform duties that they are insufficiently trained or equipped to handle. And obviously handling mentally troubled people would be one of them,” said Pasco, with the National Fraternal Order of Police.
Limiting the role of police, activists say, means shifting calls that don’t require an armed response – such as certain mental health crises or homelessness issues – away from police departments to other social services better suited to handle them.
“The question becomes, who intervenes in conflict? Who responds to harm?” said DeRay McKesson, co-founder of Campaign Zero. “The police are the easiest, laziest and simplest answer to those questions, but they are not the best.”
Experts point to programs like Eugene’s CAHOOTS in Oregon, which runs in conjunction with the police department and sends medical and crisis workers to make initial contact with people who are intoxicated, mentally ill or disoriented, focusing on de-escalation and harm reduction. Though successful in Oregon, the program requires a robust human services network that can’t simply be replicated elsewhere, CAHOOTS’ own website notes.
We need to change the way we think about public safety, said Fernandez, of the ACLU. “We’ve decided that police are the solution to every problem with society and we plug [them] into every single hole we have instead of investing in alternative services or other institutions, other life affirming programs that we know actually benefit public safety and public health.”
In the aftermath of Floyd’s killing, some cities and states took initial steps towards police reform – including banning chokeholds, cutting police budgets, and shifting responsibilities away from police departments. Still, at least eight states have not passed any legislation addressing police violence since 2014, when the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, fueled weeks of protests nationwide.
Renaud, head of the international police chiefs group, isn’t discouraged. “We’re already seven or eight months past Floyd’s killing – the conversation isn’t stopping and it will continue into 2021.”
Perhaps for the first time, Brackney said, the demands for police reform aren’t limited to marches and demonstrations. “We are now actually in a movement that mandates a reckoning and rectifying of the current culture of policing.”
“The nation is exhausted with the status quo, temporary appeasement or even resignations in order to muffle the demands of the communities,” she said. “I believe for the first time, we’re going to see very substantive changes in the way we police, but also in the ways in which we police are being legislated and governed by outside bodies.”
Re-imagining public safety and changing an institution as deeply embedded and intertwined in society as policing will take time, but Bandele, the activist, remains optimistic.
“Our movement put 25 million people on the ground this summer protesting police brutality and state violence, that has never happened in the history of the country,” she said. “The Juneteenth demonstration, which was led, called for, and launched by the Movement for Black Lives – and spontaneously supported by many unaffiliated groups – happened in all 50 states, that also has never happened. So, we’re telling the members of Congress: this is the issue, now is the time. We can’t wait.”