Upcoming Paper Encourages Redistribution of Police Power

By De’Ja Wood

Over the summer, the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, sparked national protests and discourse about the need for radical police reform. Organizers across the nation called on their local and state governments to defund the police, invest in community resources that address the conditions that create violence within communities, and allow communities to define “public safety.” A Black-Lives-Matter vision – a historical, Black radical, and feminist idea – is now at the forefront of national consciousness.

In “Police Reform through a Power Lens,” an article forthcoming in the Yale Law Journal, Jocelyn Simonson, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School, reckons with the current political climate and argues that we should take seriously “radical” suggestions to defund or abolish the police. Traditional methods of reform have not worked and there is general agreement that change is needed. Demands to defund or abolish the police are rooted in a “Power Lens,” which Simonson describes as the redistribution of power to communities directly and disproportionately impacted by the police state, including “people with disabilities or trauma, people without stable housing, and people who are marginalized in other, intersectional ways,” Simonson writes.

Police Reform through a Power Lens asks the questions: how and why have we decided to prioritize the provision of “safety” through the police at all, let alone through traditional policing methods and metrics? We should pose these questions to the people who are governed, thus directly impacted, by the police state. Simonson argues that it is essential to the integrity of democracy to adopt such an approach, with three theoretical subpoints:

  1. A power lens is reparative, as it forces us to grapple with the ways in which the police state have wreaked havoc on certain communities and demands that we shift power downward to communities that have been denied political power because of this state;
  2. A power lens is anti-subordinate, as it holds the state accountable and demands that the state does not engage in practices that subjugate its own people, especially those who are historically marginalized; and
  3. A power lens is contestary, and thus maintains a healthy democracy which provides space for its people to contest their state when forms of state power subordinate its people.

Simonson notes that police reform has primarily been driven by those deemed “experts,” however, the author challenges this notion or language. The expertise of policing often refer to police officers who understand how policies can impact the job due to direct service, training, and supervision, or those who have attained advanced degrees studying the success of policing –often criminologists or social scientists, Simonson notes. This definition excludes those who understand policing because they are or have been directly impacted by the police state – those who live in highly policed neighborhoods or those who are justice-involved, often disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and LatinX people and communities. These are the people that have been barred from this conversation about police reform, but should be included, Simonson suggests.

Before Floyd’s murder, Minneapolis Police Department had already implemented widespread traditional police reform, including diversification of the department, implicit bias training, revised use of force policies, de-escalation training, and introduction of body cameras. However, this did not stop Floyd’s murder.

It is time that we take seriously the demands of people who are directly impacted by the police state and give them the power to define what public safety may look like in their communities. For some, as activists across the nation voiced in the summer protests, it may not include the existence of a traditional police force at all.

Below is the abstract from Simonson’s Police Reform through a Power Lens:

Scholars and reformers alike have in recent years begun to imagine new and different configurations for how the state can design institutions of policing. These conversations have increased in volume and urgency in response to the 2020 national uprising against police violence, when radical demands born within social movements have gained steam – demands to defund the police, to institute “people’s budgets,” and to give communities control over the state provision of security. In recent years, within this time of foment and possibility, social movements have been proposing, creating, and sometimes establishing new governance arrangements that shift power over policing to those who have been most harmed by mass criminalization and mass incarceration. These recent pushes by social movements for power-shifting surface a fundamental set of questions about the very purpose of police reform, adding a new way for scholars and reformers to think about the contours and objectives of policing – what this Article terms the power lens.

This Article examines the movement focus on power-shifting in the governance of the police at both the local and national levels. It fleshes out a three-part theoretical account of why the power lens is an important and necessary addition to how scholars and reformers view the regulation of policing. First, shifting power to policed populations is reparative, in the sense that it shifts power downward toward populations who have been denied political power directly as a result of the history of policing policies and practices in their neighborhoods. Second, power- shifting is a means of promoting antisubordination, based on the idea that it is wrong for the state to engage in practices that enforce the inferior social status of historically oppressed groups. Third, a power lens on police reform promotes a particular view of contestatory democracy, one in which democratic policing has as one of its objectives the facilitation of countervailing power for those subject to the domination of the state. Taken together, the power lens brings a critical eye to the ways in which the construction of the notion of “expertise” often denies agency to the people who most often interact with police in the streets and on the roads. More broadly, the power lens opens up discussions of reform to first-order questions about how the state should go about providing safety and security in our time, with or without the police as we know it.

De'Ja Wood is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.