I've been saying for years that there should be essentially two goals in local police reform: increase the tragically incompetent rate of major crime arrests and prosecutions, and to stop having police kill people.
Now, I strongly recommend rebuilding a iron-clad 4th Amendment – returning to a clear understanding of the language and the rights it guarantees all citizens. If someone wins a six-figure verdict for a 'promposal' where cops scare people out of their minds for a kid to get the chance to get a prom date, that behavior will stop – and take down unjustified traffic stops of black Americans too. Our rights ought to be so powerful that state actors are terrified of misusing their authority, even for a second, even when they think it'll look acceptable.
But not killing people is a much lower standard. There has been massive brutalization of peaceful protestors lately, and thousands of unwarranted arrests of peaceful demonstrators and journalists, and the cops have even deigned to arrest some minor fraction of the looters. But even when they've bothered with the actual criminals, I haven't heard of any protestors dying from that police conduct.
This is important: The police have means to arrest people, even in the midst of the most dangerous chaos they've been exposed to, without using lethal force.
Sam Harris is an author and podcaster I'm largely unfamiliar with. I've read a few of his books, generally about skepticism and related things, but that was a long time ago. But his most recent podcast episode, about how we need to have a more grounded, skeptical, and data-driven discussion about race and police was recommended to me, and I feel pretty comfortable signal-boosting it. It's quite good and worth listening to, and you can find it here. His broad points are worth considering, particularly about lowering the temperature of these conversations.
The point I take issue with has to do with the nature of the protests. I agree precisely as much as you'd imagine with the protests – my years-long position of radical criminal justice reform certainly wasn't tempered by videos of police treating my old home town as gang turf (although I did end up leaving the Twin Cities after cops clearly displayed how little they cared about recurring, targeted destruction of property – so I can't say it was surprising).
In the podcast, Sam Harris claims it's unreasonable to demand that there not be even one more instance of police brutality. The country is huge, well-armed, and although police could avoid killing people, it seems likely they will again, and some of those people will be completely innocent and blameless. He urges against catastrophic thinking in general, but on this point, he makes a specific point that this shouldn't be phrased as a threat against cops.
But if someone says, 'the country is at a rolling boil of anguish, anger and outrage, and doesn't have the capacity for more examples of police sadism, and more of this could send the country over the edge' – I don't think Sam Harris is listening as well as he could.
Part of the project of criminal justice reform is to help inform the public that the justice system cannot offer vengeance, and can barely offer any justice. There's just no way to do it, and our system doesn't really try all that hard. Trials take a long time, to make sure they are fair. Our values tell us that what is lost is lost – justice demands we attempt to punish those who kill, but cannot demand it. There are plenty of trapdoors, pardons and high legal standards and evidentiary barriers and double jeopardy protections, all meant to allow us to receive mercy, even if it is completely random. And it's never deserved – if we were innocent, that escape would be justice, but mercy is only for those who deserve punishment. And we are generous with mercy because that's the world we want to have. The state cannot bring back those who were lost. A "justice system" will never make the world just. After a murder, for those who knew the victim, for those who are even aware of the crime, the world will never be right again.
So when I hear that 54% of Americans think burning down the police precinct in Minneapolis was justified, I feel deeply sad. It doesn't feel like justice to me. I can't imagine it feels like justice to others. It just feels like vengeance.
I was in St. Paul after Philando Castile was murdered by a cop. He was a community leader and I truly have no understanding of how broken the system must be for him to be killed, and how broken a human all police leadership must be to have not done anything to fix it (because clearly, if they did anything, it didn't fix it).
But when outrages like his murder occur, we ask for justice, because there's no other option. If someone can be fairly punished, if we know for a certainty they deserve it, then we should punish them. Justice demands we try. But after a death, the world can never be truly just. So, we try for just punishment, if we can, and we ask that such tragedies never happen again.
That's what people mean when they say another unjustified police killing would be too much. They're demanding justice, the only justice on offer: that tragedies never happen again.
Our world is seldomly a just place.
If people try to reform, and fail, and another innocent American dies, that's wrong, it's unjust. Their death isn't legitimized by a sincere attempt. And let's not pretend that demanding justice is somehow an unreasonable ask of the justice system. We demand justice for all of our rights, and when they are violated, we ought to challenge it in court and be recognized as correct. This process is routine, in this unjust world, with the implicit threats all demands carry (suing your own government, or the officer who violated your rights, is the traditional method of attack in cases like this, but without bonded and insured police, it's been less effective than it ought to be). Handling those demands is literally and exactly the role of the justice system.