The killing of George Floyd has produced a huge fallout. Demonstrators of all races have filled the streets, and the media has become obsessed with the subject of policing. Police reform legislation is moving through Congress. The mass demonstrations that followed the Floyd killing may well have served as a sparkplug for the suggested reforms. The issues brought to the forefront by the demonstrations provide us all with much food for thought on policing and what it means to be a social democrat.
Social democrats, whether inspired by the New Deal or by 20th century Western European societies, believe in a fair-market economy, i.e., a free-market economy where the power of capital is significantly held in check by labor unions and government regulation in the interest of working people, consumers and the conservation of our environment. Social insurance to protect working people from the vulnerabilities of the market is also a key part of the social democratic vision. Social democracy differs from pure democratic socialism in that the latter arguably seeks to make the means of producing society’s goods public, but there are some portions of an economy that are already public in nature. Public safety, or policing, is arguably pure socialism because police departments are government entities providing safety on the public dollar with government employees. Fire departments are similar. This is a reality in all major industrial democracies.
The motto of the Social Democrats USA is pro-democracy and pro-labor. Therefore, we have a duty to use our democratic liberties to question the way that public safety operates and make it better. Investigative reporter Radley Balko addressed the subject of police militarization in his 2013 book “The Rise of the Warrior Cop.” The book blames the War on Drugs for bringing about changes to our legal institutions and policing in our country. It makes the case that police should not act like military units or be equipped with military hardware. Progressive journalist Glenn Greenwald and libertarian Republican Ron Paul both praised the book. Militarized policing is just one problem with public safety. The selling of military equipment to police departments started in the 1990s with the War on Drugs and increased with the War on Terror.
The reforms in public safety in Camden, New Jersey which revolved around what is termed community policing have become a point of discussion after Floyd’s killing. In a recent work of opinion journalism, Congressman Will Hurd (R-TX), the House of Representative’s only black Republican, advocated a plan to reform policing in America. Hurd wants a federal best-practices policy to be adopted. If local departments do not adopt the policy, then the departments will not be eligible for their share of the $2 billion dollars in federal funding allocated each year. Perhaps the public funding should be tied to a community policing model. Camden abolished its police department in 2013 and built a new one from scratch. When the new model was instituted, police knocked on doors and introduced themselves to residents to see what they want in public safety. The idea behind community policing means that police are a part of the community.
Building a new department was a big challenge, as the city’s crime rate was among the worst in the US. Within nine square miles encompassing nearly 75,000 residents, there were over 170 open-air drug markets reported in 2013. Violent crime abounded and police corruption was a problem. Lawsuits filed against the department uncovered officers routinely planting evidence on suspects, fabricated reports, and committed perjury. After the corruption was exposed, courts overturned the convictions of 88 people, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Camden’s crime rate dropped under the community policing model. More officers were added to the payroll, but the way the officers interacted with the public was totally different. Foot patrol – which increased presence in a personal way – became more common. Police were taught to deescalate situations first and use force as a last resort. When demonstrations broke out in cities after the death of George Floyd, Camden had demonstrations which were very calm, and Camden Police Chief Joseph Wysocki marched with demonstrators who held signs like “Black Lives Matter” and “Standing in Solidarity.” Camden has recorded lower crime rates as of late. There were 75 homicides in 2012 and 25 last year, according to Bloomberg News. Complaints about the excessive use of force have also dropped.
Police in Camden – a high poverty city – are not militarized like the departments described in Balko’s book. There is a movement to stop sales of weapons from the Pentagon to local departments, and social democrats should support that movement. Camden’s experience proves that policing can truly be about public safety – something that should be provided to all regardless of income. Police have said they are called to deal with the homeless epidemic in cities and this is something they are not trained to do. Funding homeless shelters would take pressure off of police and free up funds used for policing.
While regarded by many on the Left as a seriously flawed politician, the late vice-president Hubert Humphrey called his vision for America “social democracy.” Humphrey understood the importance of private property, but he also favored planning in certain parts of the economy. The vice-president wanted both freedom and equality and private property and social security. Each of our individual lives are, quite literally, private property and we must promote a vison of public safety that guards as many lives as possible.
Jason Sibert is the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.