Alumnus reflects on the culture of policing in America amid racial protests and calls for reform.
On Monday May 25, 2020, I watched the horrific footage of George Floyd pleading for his life under the knee of a Minneapolis Police Officer. Mr. Floyd, an African-American, was clearly not resisting and not even in a position to resist since he was lying handcuffed, face down in a prone position. The officer, who had an arrogant smirk on his face, callously ignored Mr. Floyd’s repeated cries for help as he savagely pinned him to the ground for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
As someone who has devoted his entire adult life to the law enforcement profession, I wish I could say this was just an isolated incident and that an injustice of this magnitude was not reflective of a larger, systemic problem. While thankfully there are still many more good police officers than bad, sadly, what we witnessed in Minneapolis has become all too familiar: the unjustified killing or violent injury of an African-American person at the hands of the police, often in response to the commission of minor, non-violent crimes.
The public protests that follow these heinous acts inspire calls for reform and promises by law enforcement leaders and politicians for more training and better accountability. Over time, however, the reforms prove ineffective and do little to change abusive behaviors. The 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, for example, led to widespread use of body cameras by the police and were supposed to increase transparency and change the behavior of rogue officers. The Minneapolis police officers who killed George Floyd were all wearing body cameras and knew several bystanders were filming them, yet did nothing to alter the cruel behavior we all witnessed. Some of this is because police chiefs fail to enact tough policies on when officers must activate their cameras. They unquestionably support their officers even when it is apparent that their behavior is problematic. In other cases, powerful police unions restrict what a law enforcement executive can do to hold officers accountable and have too much influence in disciplinary proceedings.
I experienced the public outrage and promises of reform in the aftermath of the Rodney King trial, which was held in Simi Valley, where I have worked as a police officer for the last 32 years and currently serve as its Chief of Police. After the acquittal of the four LAPD officers accused of violently beating Mr. King, riots broke out across Los Angeles and in many other communities in the United States. When the dust finally settled, the City of Los Angeles formed the Christopher Commission, which outlined sweeping reforms for the LAPD that had a wider impact on law enforcement throughout the United States. These reforms were a positive step in changing the culture of policing in America; however like its federal predecessor the Kerner Commission during Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency, the Christopher Commission did not go far enough. Now, here we are again in 2020 engaging in the same discourse about injustice and reform that, unless our political and law enforcement leaders have the courage to take seriously, will end up back in the dustbin of the countless efforts that have gone before.
This time, however, I am hopeful there is a greater chance to improve the culture of policing in America. The campaign to defund the police has angered the law enforcement community, but grabbed the attention of law enforcement executives and politicians across the country. The role of social media has helped Black Lives Matter become a truly global movement, and some journalists are now calling this America’s “Arab Spring” moment. People outraged by the death of George Floyd are demanding more than empty promises on police reform—instead, they are looking for a profound reckoning with the problematic legacies of slavery and tearing down icons of the Confederacy erected during Reconstruction to intimidate emancipated Black people. I believe we are witnessing the beginning of a cultural revolution.
Many police departments, mine included, have now banned neck restraints and are requiring our officers to do more to de-escalate situations from becoming violent. Congress is debating federally mandated police reforms, and the officers involved in George Floyd’s death are now facing prosecution, as are others who have used questionable uses of force. These are steps in the right direction, but we also need to promote more education for our officers, and not just in criminal justice programs. Requiring police officers to have a degree in the liberal arts and humanities makes more sense. I cannot think of another career where the inability to think critically or display empathy for another human being can have such life-and-death consequences. A high school diploma and six months in the police academy is not enough for what we ask of the women and men in our departments. Policing in America must change; if not, our “Arab Spring” moment will fade in the same way it did for so many advocates of democracy across the Middle East.
We must also avoid the lure of utopian solutions such as those that suggest replacing police officers with unarmed social workers. Policing is part of a system that upholds the rule of law in any democracy. The sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as that which possesses a monopolization on legitimate coercive force. While police officers should not be the “catch-all” solution to all the complex problems we find in our communities, they definitely play a critical role in responding to emergencies and violent crimes. In Simi Valley, the Police Department was first established in 1971 as a “Community Safety Agency.” This was in direct response to the civil unrest of the late 1960s and calls at that time to demilitarize and reform the police. The local press called these officers the “Nice Centurions” while the public referred to the green blazer-wearing men as “realtors with a gun.” The first Chief, or “Administrator,” of the agency secured thousands of dollars in federal grants to fund youth programs and sent counselors to domestic violence calls. Unfortunately, the model ultimately failed because neither the community nor those who were committing the crimes respected this approach. I believe the plan had great intentions, but there was still a demand from victims for justice beyond what counselors and social workers alone could provide.
As I write this, I know there are no simple solutions. I know this as both a police chief and as a trained historian who wrote a Ph.D. thesis on the democratization of the West German border police. In my research, I have found that the behavior of a nation’s police forces often reflects the norms and values of the societies they serve. It should come as no surprise then that systemic racism and negative stereotyping still persists in many American police departments because it is still part of the fabric of our country. The bitter debates over symbols commemorating an insurgent state that advocated the violent overthrow of the United States to preserve the institution of slavery show we have still not come to terms with or adequately dealt with racism and its legacies. In addition, the call to demilitarize our police should also apply to the citizens in the communities they are responsible for protecting. The divisive debates and weak regulation of guns in America have allowed many citizens to acquire enough firepower to rival that of some smaller police departments. Let’s not forget that before the global pandemic, Americans were more concerned with mass shootings and demanded that police officers in Parkland and Las Vegas be fired and even prosecuted for cowardice and/or hesitating to use deadly force. We cannot expect police officers to respond to these violent incidents without the proper tools they need to defend themselves and others.
History shows us that institutions can change. In postwar Germany, atoning for the Nazi past—although a complicated and imperfect process—was critical in taming the systemic militarism of the former Nazi police officers who returned to their law enforcement careers after the war. If we are committed to reforming America’s police institution, then like Germany, we also must deal with the painful legacies of our own troubled past. Historian John Barry concluded his epic study of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic by pointing out that “Those in authority must retain the public’s trust. The way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try and manipulate no one.” We deserve and should demand more than just words from our national leaders and police chiefs. I believe that now more than ever, we must make substantive changes and promote a culture of transparency and accountability, or the cycle will only repeat itself.
David Livingstone, PhD ’18, is the Chief of Police for Simi Valley, Calif., and has served in the police department for 32 years. He earned his PhD in history from UC San Diego while serving as an officer.