How do we go from #BlackLivesMatter to changing the policies that devalue black life?
This moment feels both full of possibility and also in danger of going unfulfilled. Folks across the political spectrum are finally confronting the issue of police violence, but there’s little consensus about how to fix it. Organizations like Campaign Zero are doing impressive work mapping out solutions, but its 10-point program is a road map for the long haul.
To take advantage of the fierce urgency of now, activists need to coalesce around one demand. William Gamson, who studied 53 different social movements in the United States between 1800 and 1945, found that challenging groups with single-issue demands were generally more successful than groups with multiple demands.
What ambitious, but achievable, policy reform could be prioritized? It's a tough question because so many different policies contribute to horrific incidents like the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Samuel Sinyangwe of Campaign Zero suggests changing the police standard for use of deadly force. Many argue that police-union contracts protect cops after misconduct or abuse. Civil asset-forfeiture laws have also come under scrutiny for creating financial incentives to harass marginal folks who might have “goodies” that can be auctioned off to fund a department. Finally, numerous scholars and activists argue for ratcheting down the war on drugs. Like alcohol prohibition, drug prohibition creates a vast underground economy that increases violence and social conflict, both within poor communities and between police and citizens.
Unfortunately, all of these ideas are probably a little too wonky or far-reaching to rally a wide range of folks toward a near-term political consensus. What’s needed is a policy proposal that could significantly reduce police violence and that can easily be distilled down to the kind of slogan that might naturally follow a chant of #BlackLivesMatter.
What does that leave? One demand worth considering flows from the Pareto principle, often known as the “80-20 rule.” The basic idea is that, in many contexts, the vast majority of the outcomes are the result of only a small percentage of the inputs. For example, a company might find that nearly 80 percent of its revenue is generated by about 20 percent of its sales force.
Conversely, an organization might find that most of the bad outcomes are caused by a small percentage of the employees. In the movie Waiting for Superman, for example, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek notes that if the United States could replace the bottom-performing 6 percent to 10 percent of teachers, our underperforming public schools would approach the quality of education available to kids in Finland, which has one of the highest-performing school systems in the world.
A recent study of civilian complaints and disciplinary histories for 35,000 New York City Police Department officers found that a small number of officers were disproportionately responsible for citizen grievances. The Civilian Complaint Review Board records show 40 percent of NYPD officers have never been the subject of a citizen complaint. Twenty percent have only one complaint. Approximately 1,000 officers, or about 3 percent, however, have 10 or more complaints.
Another study of police in Chicago showed similar results. Looking at every complaint filed against Chicago police between Jan. 1, 2011, and Dec. 7, 2015, researchers found that more than half of the officers received fewer than one complaint a year. By contrast, the worst 1 percent of officers generated about 25 percent of the complaints.
As one expert said, “If you could devise a system to identify [problem cops] early, you could prevent a lot of inappropriate actions out there on the street.”
Many activists, columnists and pundits reject or criticize the “bad apple” narrative as a simplistic evasion of the deep, systemic problems in American policing. And it’s true—retraining, removing from the street or firing “repeaters” won’t, by itself, change numerous other structural flaws. Focusing on the officers who generate a disproportionate number of misconduct complaints, however, can serve as a powerful indictment of how little accountability there is for many police officers.
Political victories are often won by framing an issue in a way that points to only one reasonable solution. Also, people typically make sense of the world through stories. Focusing the public’s attention on individual officers who are repeatedly accused of misconduct but are never penalized powerfully challenges the conventional narrative about policing and can reshape the terms of the debate. What coalition is going to stand behind an NYPD officer with 51 complaints?
More importantly, focusing on police officers accused of extreme misconduct could significantly reduce state-sanctioned violence against black civilians. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and Laquan McDonald might be alive today if abusive and incompetent officers had been denied the privilege of a badge and a gun.
For #BlackLivesMatter to translate influence into policy, a national chorus of voices must increasingly speak as one. A strategy of drawing attention to those officers repeatedly accused of misconduct is not going to dismantle systemic injustice. It would, however, be a start.
Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on race and politics, protest movements and statistical methods. Before joining the academy, Omar served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.