Signs of our times

Public safety, nuance, and 5 links worth your time

By now, you’ve probably experienced the proliferation of yard signs. They’re all over my neighborhood too.

On one side of my street, for instance, there is a sign I’ve seen in a lot of places, and it includes the statement “Black Lives Matter.” Recently, another sign appeared on the opposite side of the street and it is actually pointed at the first. This sign also has a list of the owner’s values, and it includes the statement “good policing is essential.”

Taking sides

I’m intrigued by what appears to be a silent disagreement going on between my neighbors about race and policing, though it’s a fairly innocuous example of the strong feelings in our country right now.

But events in Kenosha, Wisconsin last week are a reminder that tensions over criminal justice and our values are anything but innocuous. After a video of a police shooting made national news, the city erupted in protests and significant property damage. On the second night of unrest, two people were fatally shot, and a 17-year-old has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide and one count of attempted homicide. Reports indicate that the suspect crossed state lines, illegally armed himself, and volunteered to protect damaged businesses as a means of supporting the police.   

Police reform and taking sides

If you listen to political rhetoric, you might be led to believe that criminal justice policy is a two-sided issue: either you support law and order or you are in favor of looting and chaos.

For our current episode of the Civil Squared Podcast, I talked with Arthur Rizer, director of the Criminal Justice & Civil Liberties program at the R Street Institute. If anyone has a background that might lend itself to advocating for a “law and order” side of this issue, you’d think it would be Arthur. He’s an attorney and a former federal prosecutor, but he was also a civilian and military police officer.

But Arthur doesn’t think about police reform in terms of taking sides. He told me, “If you don’t see nuance when you’re talking about human life, you are really doing a disservice not only to yourself…but you’re doing a disservice to this country.”

Public safety and nuance

The way we talk about justice matters, and Arthur is serious about nuance. The fact that we refer to police and other justice officials as “law enforcement officers” changes how we look at them. It may seem like a small point, but he believes there is a big difference between valuing “enforcement” over “protection” and “public safety.”

Whatever anyone says during political conventions or on social media, you don’t have to take a “side.” You can be in favor of public safety and not be “against cops.” Arthur was a cop, a prosecutor, and is now a policy researcher. As a former policeman, he knows the challenges cops face and he respects and appreciates their work. As a researcher, he understands that our criminal justice system requires reform in order to reflect our country’s values. Like you, he is a thoughtful person who understands that important issues demand careful consideration and discussion.

Our 5 links this week explore the nuance of the issue of police reform and the language we use to talk about criminal justice.

  5 links worth your time

  1. Confidence in Police Is at Record Low, Gallup Survey Finds, The New York Times – For the first time since Gallup has tracked Americans’ attitudes toward various institutions, a majority of adults report that they do not have confidence in law enforcement. Responses, however, differ significantly depending on political affiliation and race.

  2. Quiz: Police Reform, Common Ground Solutions – From no-knock warrants to ending qualified immunity, test your knowledge about public support for various police reform proposals. How does your bias inform your answers?

  3. Why ‘Enforcing’ the Law is Not the Same as Doing Justice, The Crime Report – Our Civil Squared Podcast guest, Arthur Rizer, and his co-author, Lars Trautman of the R Street Institute, argue that highlighting “law enforcement” in our description of police officers and other criminal justice officials leads to valuing enforcement over public safety. That emphasis has an impact on how police see themselves and how the public sees police.

  4. Both parties’ police reform bills are underwhelming. Here’s why. Washington Post – Radley Balko, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, argues that at a time when there is strong public support for police reform, we may see little change because “Congress remains quite comfortable with leading from behind.”

  5. We train police to be warriors – and then send them out to be social workers, Vox – What are our expectations for police officers? Do training programs match those expectations? This article reviews data on police activity and compares that activity to the kind of training most police officers are given.