Police reform: Between the baton and the bullet

by J. Pharoah Doss
For New Pittsburgh Courier

Recently, former President Barack Obama said, “I guess you can use a snappy slogan like defund the police, but you lost a big audience the minute you say it …If you instead say let’s reform the police department so that everybody’s being treated fairly …Suddenly a whole bunch of folks who might not otherwise listen to you are listening to you.”

Obama’s comments didn’t discourage proponents of defunding the police; it disappointed them.

Proponents of defunding the police know police departments have undergone reform for decades, but unarmed Black people are still being killed by the police at disproportional rates. The demand to defund the police comes from activists abandoning “police reform” for punitive measures against police departments.

Decades ago, police reformers wanted to reduce baton beatings like the Rodney King incident. Today, proponents of defunding the police want to stop police shootings. (If you’re thinking George Floyd wasn’t shot by the police, maybe you didn’t notice activists were shouting “defund the police” since Michael Brown.) However, in between reforming the baton and reducing the bullet, there’s been an extreme problem that barely gets attention.

A decade ago, a writer for Police Magazine explained, experts felt the use of batons contributed to them becoming obsolete. “If you asked most Americans to draw a portrait of ‘police brutality,’ odds are it would show a cop with a baton or some other club.”

Defenders of the baton claimed the weapon filled a necessary use-of-force gap between “fisticuffs and firearms.” However, since nothing looked worse on video than footage of a police officer hitting someone with a club, tasers were recommended to replace them.

Three years ago, Reuters reported there have been 1,005 incidents in the United States in which people died after police stunned them with tasers since 2000. Many of the casualties were among society’s most vulnerable. A quarter of the people that died were suffering from a mental health breakdown or neurological disorders. In 9 of every 10 incidents, the deceased was unarmed. More than 100 of the fatal encounters began with a 911 call for help during a medical emergency. Most independent researchers agree deaths are rare when tasers are used properly, but the probability of dying from a taser shock in a police encounter may be incalculable due to a lack of official data. No government agency tracks fatalities in police incidents where tasers are used.

A former police officer turned criminal justice professor and advocate for abolishing prisons wrote a book called: “In Defense of Flogging.” The ex-cop wrote, “The problem—and our shame—is that prisons, though never designed for this purpose, have become the only way we punish. In an ironic twist we designed the prison system to replace flogging. The penitentiary was supposed to be a kinder and gentler sentence.”

Image-conscious police reformers expected tasers to be a “kinder and gentler” weapon that would rid the public mind of police brutality performed with a baton.

But, in an ironic twist, the replacement has become worse than its predecessor.

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