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Policing Is An 'Avatar Of American Racism,' Marshall Project Journalist Says

Jun 10, 2020

In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police, protesters across the country are demanding systemic changes in the way American police forces operate and are funded.

Journalist Jamiles Lartey says the discussion about policing feels different now than it has in the past. "You're hearing so much less of the 'few bad apples' argument and so much more of the, 'What is wrong with this system?' [argument]," he says.

Lartey is a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. He previously reported on criminal justice, race and policing for The Guardian, where he was part of a team that created an online database tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016.

Lartey notes that America's model of policing is a relatively recent phenomenon: "Policing wasn't always this way. It wasn't always this big. It wasn't always this bureaucratic," he says. "Modern policing — the policing that you and I and listeners recognize today — is really a product of the 20th century."

He says that Floyd's death — and the deaths of other black people in police custody — highlight the need to change a broken system.

"There's so many things that we currently ask our police to respond to — whether it's a noise complaint or a car accident — that don't necessarily fit into a reason why someone would need to show up with a deadly weapon," Lartey says. "Sometimes as a society, you need to rethink institutions, especially when they're relatively new, especially when they've changed a lot over the last 20, 30 or 40 years."


Interview highlights

On destructive acts of protest, like looting and arson

I think it is important to keep in mind that to the extent that there has been destructive acts of protests, looting, that there's a range of causes: Are there passionate, angry people who were lashing out in grief and frustration? Yes. Are there anti-capitalists who see looting and destruction as a form of revolutionary praxis and are using this as an opportunity? Yes. Are there pure opportunists who want to get free stuff and are taking advantage of the chaos? Definitely. Are there chaos agents who are trying to give the protesters a bad name and potentially see violence against them? It appears that that was the case as well. So I think it's really important that when we are trying to analyze these moments that we're not reductive about the socio-economic phenomena, like destructive protests or looting. ...

I think there's an important distinction between measuring the efficacy of violent protests or destructive protests versus the morality of it. The morality of it is going to be personal and subjective. Most of us can think of moments and places where we find violence or destruction useful and justified, and moments where we don't. Now, the efficacy of it is something that we can probably wrap our heads around. But again, it's complicated. If the point is to get attention, then destruction works. If the point is to win hearts and minds and the political center, then it probably doesn't. And if holding public officials hostage and forcing them to appease your demands is the point, it might depend on the public official.

I think something that you'll hear a lot ... is that, "Two wrongs don't make a right," which is an ethical and spiritual intuition in many traditions, but it's not a particularly American one. Our whole criminal justice system is based on the premise that two wrongs make a right. Caging humans and fining poor people money they don't have are morally wrong, but it's how we define justice in most cases in this country.

On a model of protest used in the '80s and '90s, where protest organizers met with police beforehand — and why that model is less common now

The negotiated management model of protest is this idea that community thought leaders would be meeting with police. Ahead of a protest, they'd say, "Here's what we're going to protest. Here's when and where and how. This is how we expect it all to go down." And they'd come up with a plan to essentially let people exercise their First Amendment rights in the fullest way possible. And there would be this expectation on both sides that the police would stick to the plan that they agreed to, that the protesters would stick to the plan that they agreed to. This took a lot of the uncertainty and mistrust out of the calculation and allowed people to express themselves. ...

That was in a moment where it was always very clear who community thought leaders were, and in many respects, they were folks who are connected to the establishment ... church leaders, people in the church, the spiritual religious leaders. Now, that's not necessarily the folks who are leading Black Lives Matter protests today. Some of them are. Some of them aren't. So I think there's a lot of reasons why that model has fallen out of favor. I think it largely has to do with the militarization of U.S. police. It largely has to do with just a changing cultural attitude about how police approach their job. But it also has to do with the fact that I think, ideologically and structurally, in many ways, the police and the folks who are protesting are further away from one another within the society, whereas before they were both members of an establishment and a community.

On a softer way of policing protests known as the "Madison model"

The National Association of Black Journalists named Jamiles Lartey the Michael J. Feeney Emerging Journalist of the Year in 2016.
Michael Jackson / The Marshall Project

I spoke to [former Madison, Wis., Police Chief] David Cooper, who I see is in many ways the forefather of this kind of softer approach to policing protests. ... And what he described to me is you show up in regular uniforms, people can see your face. (This was obviously outside the context of a pandemic.) You listen, you relate. You talk to people about their grievance. And in exchange for asking officers to make themselves fairly vulnerable in this way, you have these more well-equipped cops waiting somewhere close by in case things go bad.

But David Cooper, when I talked to him, he said ... "You never, never, never, never start with the show of force and power because it ratchets up everyone's expectations for violence and ... generate[s] it." And again, just when we think about escalation and de-escalation, that makes sense. You show up with the most aggressive version of how you can respond to something, and it ratchets up the perception of everyone who's there of where this is going to go. ...

Law enforcement officials and former police chiefs told me over and over again [that] just showing up in soft uniforms to a protest full of angry people does not in and of itself guarantee a peaceful, satisfactory resolution. The work starts before that. There needs to be some baseline level of trust between police and between a community that they're going to do what they said they were going to do. If you're talking about one of these pre-negotiated plans for a protest, that they're going to abide by that. There's this metaphorical bank of trust between police and a community, and too often it's overdrawn in both directions, and there's no way to really approach it as anything but a war. As one of the retired law enforcement folks I spoke to said, "The time to make friends is before you need them."

On why reforms within the Minneapolis police department didn't prevent George Floyd's death

Malcolm X once said, "You can't legislate goodwill." And I think it's maybe one of the most astute political observations of our time. And if I can take the liberty of elaborating on it, I'd say you can't regulate goodwill or implement it with a consent decree or a strategic policy initiative either. So, yes, we can outline specific line-level reforms that were promised and not implemented or implemented unevenly or ineffectively.

Let's take neck restraints, for example. Many departments have chosen to ban those outright. But when the Minneapolis police department addressed them in 2014, they chose to leave this carve out where if deadly force was permissible, then so too was this kind of restraint. It maybe makes sense that if you're legally justified to pull out your gun and shoot someone, you're also justified to choke them. That's the argument that's typically made, and a lot of use of force policies make it. But by leaving that carve out, there's a significant ambiguity there in the policy. You're asking officers, in the heat of the moment, or in the heat of several moments, to make a distinction about whether or not this particular situation merits or makes it reasonable to restrain someone's neck in that way.

But putting aside that specific example, a lot of changes were made. The Minneapolis department adopted a slew of changes after this voluntary review in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Justice. And they automated their system for flagging problem officers as the Department of Justice recommended. They rewrote their use of force policy with a focus on the "sanctity of life." They required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive in front of them. And all of those would seem to be measures that would have lessened the possibility that an incident like what happened to George Floyd would happen. But they didn't. And so I think that's going to beg some really tough questions moving forward for reformers about why not.

And I kind of think it comes back to the words of Malcolm X: If there is a culture in an organization whereby the application of force to black bodies is the norm, that's the expectation. It's the M.O. You can't really policy change that away. The news that the city plans to disband its police department and kind of functionally start over again seems to be a recognition of that fact, as does this newfound popularity broadly of defund and abolition movements.

On why screening for racist officers is not going to fix the problem of racism in police departments

I've always found it instructive to think of the police and policing as this kind of avatar of American racism. The police are racism representatives. - Jamiles Lartey

I've always found it instructive to think of the police and policing as this kind of avatar of American racism. The police are racism representatives. They are the folks who we hire to actuate something that's far more distant than a person's individual biases.

I'm sure listeners will be familiar with the Central Park incident involving Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper [no relation] a few weeks back: A white woman was walking her dog off leash. This black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to put her dog on the leash, per the park rules. And she instantly seemed to feel very threatened and started calling the police and telling them that she was being physically threatened by a black man. This went viral just before George Floyd was killed.

And part of the reason that the Amy Coopers of the world feel so comfortable using the police as their own kind of personal racism valet is because that's in line with how they've operated in our society. Which is to say, even if you or I or we have never called the police on a black person for some deeply unserious reason, as a society we outsource the keeping of the racial order to police every day. ... And this is so important: Officers themselves do not have to be ideologically white supremacist to be performing that function.

So we spend a lot of time on this surface level question of how do we get police officers as individuals or as departments to treat black people better. But in sum, the way police treat black people in America is symptomatic of how America feels about black people, which is this state of conditional citizenship steeped in mistrust and in fear.

Amy Salit and Seth Kelley produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

"Why So Many Police Are Handling The Protests Wrong" was the headline of an article earlier this month co-written by my guest Jamiles Lartey. Another recent article he co-wrote was about why Minneapolis police failed to adopt reforms and remove bad officers before George Floyd's death. Lartey is a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that describes itself as seeking to create and sustain a sense of national urgency about the U.S. criminal justice system. It's named after Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice.

Lartey previously reported on criminal justice, race and policing for the U.S. edition of The Guardian. He was part of the Guardian team that created an online database tracking police violence in 2015 and 2016. That project, called The Counted, revealed the number of people killed by law enforcement and told the stories of who they were and how they died. The project found the rate of death for young black men was five times higher than white men of the same age.

In 2015, FBI Director James Comey said it's unacceptable that The Washington Post and The Guardian newspaper are becoming the lead source of information about violent encounters between U.S. police and civilians. In 2016, the National Association of Black Journalists named Lartey the Michael J. Feeney emerging journalist of the year.

Jamiles Lartey, welcome to FRESH AIR.

So I want to ask you about an article that you co-wrote that was published on June 1. And this was after peaceful protests in several cities were capped with, you know, looting and some arson and confrontations with police. And it was hard to tell sometimes, like, were these the protesters? Were these just, like, opportunists using the protests as an excuse to loot? But you wrote an article about research that shows how crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave and what happens when the two interact and how disproportionate police force can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful. What are some of the things that you've learned by studying the research about how police can escalate the situation through tough tactics?

JAMILES LARTEY: So I want to start with what you mentioned about, you know, that there were these kind of different waves happening or these different moments in protest where we didn't know if it was opportunists or it was - like, I think it is important to think - to keep in mind that to the extent that there's been destructive acts of protests, looting, that there's a range of causes. Right? Were - are their passionate, angry people who were lashing out in grief and frustration? Yes. Are there anti-capitalists who see looting and destruction as a form of revolutionary praxis and are using this as an opportunity? Yes. Are there pure opportunists who want to get free stuff and are taking advantage of the chaos? Definitely. Are there chaos agents who are trying to give the protesters a bad name and potentially see violence against them? It appears that that was the case as well.

So you know, I think it's really important that when we are trying to analyze these moments that we're not reductive about socioeconomic phenomena like destructive protests or looting. And you know, the other thing I'll say is that I think there's an important distinction between measuring the efficacy of violent protests or destructive protests and the - versus the morality of it. The morality of it is going to be personal and subjective. Most of us can think of moments and places where we find violence or destruction useful and justified and moments where we don't.

Now, the efficacy of it is something that we can probably wrap our heads around. But again, it's complicated. If the point is to get attention, then destruction works. If the point is to win hearts and minds and the political center, then it probably doesn't. And if holding public officials hostage and forcing them to appease your demands is the point, it might depend on the public official.

And so to kind of step back from all that for a minute, I think something that you'll hear a lot - and I've heard a lot in the recent days - is, you know, that two wrongs don't make a right, which is an ethical and spiritual intuition in many traditions. But it's not a particularly American one. Our whole criminal justice system is based on the premise that two wrongs make a right. Caging humans and fining poor people money they don't have are morally wrong, but it's how we define justice in most cases in this country.

But to go to your specific question about the research on de-escalating tense situations, there's research from as early as the 1967 Kerner Commission, which was of course this landmark federal effort to investigate urban unrest that was occurring in places like Watts and Detroit. And social scientists found that these abrasive policing actions could be really pivotal in turning peaceful demonstrations towards violence or destruction. And they recommended that police eliminate those tactics and cities establish fair ways for citizens to address their complaints against the police.

GROSS: What were some of the tactics that were singled out as escalating violence instead of preventing it?

LARTEY: Yeah. So those will be things like clearing streets - right? - declaring a protest illegal and telling everyone that they need to move on and kind of setting up this - I don't know if they describe it as a phalanx - right? - but when all of the officers line up along the street with their riot gear and basically just start pushing people out; some of the kettling tactics that are used to make mass arrests. Even just what officers are wearing, right? Like, are they showing up to a peaceful protest in full riot gear with batons and with weapons used to fire chemical munitions into the crowd, or are they showing up looking like peace officers? All of that contributes to how crowds interpret what the police are there for.

GROSS: Yeah. And you're right that research shows if police go one step higher, so will the protesters.

LARTEY: That's right. In a lot of ways, I think the logic behind escalation and de-escalation, you don't necessarily need, like, a study to understand how that works. Right? Most of us recognize in our own life that escalation brings escalation. Right? If you approach a situation in the most aggressive way that you can think to approach it, that often elicits an aggressive or a defensive response from the person that you're dealing with. So I mean, the research is interesting and useful, and departments should be taking stock of it. But you don't actually need a study to tell you that approaching people aggressively can lead to worse outcomes than approaching them with humanity.

GROSS: You know what I think is really interesting? After the police moved in on protesters in Washington, D.C., on Monday, June 1, and they used tear gas and pepper spray and smoke - and this was the night of the - or the evening of Trump's now famous Bible photo op - we've seen so many just complete huge, massive peaceful protests since then. I mean, the reaction seemed to be almost like doubling down on peaceful protests.

LARTEY: Yeah. I think you're right. And I think - you know, again, there was also probably - there's tactical adjustments that are happening in the moment. Right? So if there's a recognition that the destruction is creating a bad narrative, then I think organizers are redoubling their efforts to make sure that everyone - as much as possible, everyone who's at protests is sticking to a message and sticking to a script. I think there's also a degree to which the bad actors or the disingenuous actors are getting bored, and they're just not showing up to protests looking to sow chaos in the ways that they were. But the committed movement folks, you know, who were doing this work before George Floyd, those are the ones who are continuing to plan rallies and continuing to make sure that they are having the effect that they're looking for.

GROSS: You write about how, in the '80s and '90s, there was something called the negotiated management model of protest. What was that?

LARTEY: So the negotiated management model of protest is this idea that community thought leaders would be meeting with police ahead of a protest. They'd say, here's what we're going to protest. Here's when and where and how. This is how we expect it all to go down. And they'd come up with a plan to, essentially, let people exercise their First Amendment rights in, you know, the fullest way possible. And there would be this expectation on both sides that they would - that the police would stick to the plan that they agreed to, that the protesters would stick to the plan that they agreed to.

This took a lot of the uncertainty and mistrust out of the calculation and allowed people to express themselves. But I think one of the things that I think about in this question of, you know, pre-organizing protests is that that was in a moment where it was always - it was very clear who community thought leaders were. And in many respects, they were folks who were connected to the establishment, right? I mean, in - the retired law enforcement voices who I spoke to about using this approach in the 1980s and 1990s kind of over and over again said, church leaders, you know, people in the church, the spiritual religious leaders.

Now, that's not necessarily the folks who are leading Black Lives Matter protests today. Some of them are; some of them aren't. So, you know, I think there's a lot of reasons why that model has fallen out of favor. I think it largely has to do with the militarization of U.S. police. It largely has to do with just a changing cultural attitude about how police approach their job. But it also has to do with the fact that, I think, ideologically and structurally, in many ways, the police and the folks who are protesting are kind of further away from one another within the society, whereas, before, they were sort of both members of an establishment and a community.

GROSS: And if the subject of your protest is the police, it's probably a little hard to negotiate with them what the protest is going to be like.

LARTEY: Yeah, I think that's right. And I think there's a degree to which today police appear to see themselves as counterprotesters, and I don't think that was richly addressed in the early literature on this question. I think it's ripe for more study today. The police were not disinterested parties in the people's grievances then or now, and it's foolish to pretend that they were. But based on the historical materials that I'm aware of, they certainly seem to do a better job of pretending that they were disinterested before, whereas it increasingly today feels like, in many departments, officers take these protests as a personal affront and, you know, feel inclined to respond to them.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamiles Lartey, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jamiles Lartey, who reports for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. He previously covered criminal justice, race and policing for The Guardian newspaper, where he was part of a team that compiled a database of people killed by law enforcement in 2015 and 2016 and told their stories.

Are there any examples or any models that you've found for how police can deal with really large protests without escalating the tension and without hurting the people, without tear-gassing people and, you know, clubbing them? I mean, we've seen some really appalling examples of policing, especially during the earlier part of the protests.

LARTEY: Yeah, so in reporting the story, I spoke to David Cooper, who, you know, I see as, in many ways, the forefather of this kind of softer approach to policing protests. And he - this notion of the, quote-unquote, "Madison model" is named after him, from his time of - as being police chief in Madison, Wis., through the 1970s and '80s. And what he described to me is, you know, you show up in regular uniforms. People can see your face. This was obviously outside the context of a pandemic. Your officers - you listen. You relate. You talk to people about their grievance.

And in exchange for asking officers to make themselves fairly vulnerable in this way, you have these more well-equipped cops waiting somewhere close by in case things go bad. But, you know, David Cooper, when I talked to him, he said - I remember it because he said it, like, five times. He said, you never, never, never, never start with a show of force and power because it ratchets up everyone's expectations for violence and conserve to generate it. And, again, I mean, just - when we think about escalation and de-escalation, that makes sense. You show up with the most aggressive version of how you can respond to something, and it ratchets up the perception of everyone who's there of where this is going to go.

GROSS: You point out that the police need to establish trust and good relations before the protests. And if they haven't, then it's kind of too late by the time the protests start because there's so much anger and so much distrust.

LARTEY: Yeah, that's right. That was one of the kind of caveats to this research that law enforcement officials and former police chiefs told me over and over again was, you know, just showing up in soft uniforms to a protest full of angry people does not, in and of itself, guarantee a peaceful satisfactory resolution, right? The work starts before that. There needs to be some baseline level of trust between police and between a community that they're going to do what they said they were going to do, that they're going to - right - if you're talking about one of these prenegotiated plans for a protest, that they're going to abide by that.

There's this metaphorical bank of trust between police and a community, and too often, it's overdrawn in both directions, and there's no way to really approach it as anything but a war. I mean, as one of the retired law enforcement folks I spoke to said, the time to make friends is before you need them.

GROSS: You know, I think there's so much anger and frustration because of years and years and years of racism within police departments and disproportionate numbers of black men and women killed during arrest or while in police custody, years of protests, years of promised reforms, and we're still seeing the same kinds of problems. So let's look at an example. Let's look at Minneapolis. There were promised reforms before George Floyd's death, and still, George Floyd died with an officer's knee on his neck. What were some of the reforms that were promised or that were actually supposed to be initiated, and what led to those reforms?

LARTEY: You know, just to take a step back, Malcolm X once said, you can't legislate goodwill. And I think it's maybe one of the most astute political observations of our time. And if I can take the liberty of elaborating on it, I'd say you can't regulate goodwill or implement it with a consent decree or a strategic policy initiative, either. So yes, we can outline specific line-level reforms that were promised and not implemented or implemented unevenly or ineffectively.

Like, let's take neck restraints, for example. Many departments have chosen to ban those outright. But when the Minneapolis Police Department addressed them in 2014, they chose to leave this carve-out where, if deadly force was permissible, then so too was this kind of restraint. And it maybe makes sense that if you're legally justified to pull out your gun and shoot someone, you're also justified to choke them. I mean, that's the argument that's typically made, and a lot of use-of-force policies make it.

But by leaving that carve-out, there's a significant ambiguity there in the policy. You're asking officers sort of in the heat of the moment or in the heat of several moments to make a distinction about whether or not this particular situation merits or, you know, makes it reasonable to restrain someone's neck in that way.

But putting aside that specific example, like, a lot of changes were made. The Minneapolis department adopted a slew of changes after this voluntary review in 2013 by the U.S. Department of Justice, and they automated their system for flagging problem officers, as the Department of Justice recommended. They rewrote their use-of-force policy with a focus on the, quote-unquote, "sanctity of life." They required officers to intervene when a fellow cop became abusive in front of them. And all of those would seem to be measures that would have lessened the possibility that an incident like what happened to George Floyd would happen. But they didn't.

And so I think that's going to beg some really tough questions moving forward for reformers about why not. And I kind of think it comes back to the words of Malcolm X. If there is a culture in an organization whereby the application of force to black bodies is the norm, that's the expectation. It's the MO. You can't really policy-change that away. And, you know, the news that the city plans to disband its police department and kind of functionally start over again seems to be a recognition of that fact, as does this newfound popularity broadly of defund and abolition movements.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamiles Lartey, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. We'll talk more about the protests and about efforts to reform, defund or disband the police after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with journalist Jamiles Lartey, who reports on criminal justice, race and policing for the criminal justice news organization The Marshall Project. He previously covered that beat for The Guardian's U.S. edition and was part of The Guardian's project, The Counted, which compiled a database of the number of people killed in the U.S. by law enforcement, told the stories of who they were and how they died.

I think if somebody is racist or, you know, afraid of black men, feels threatened by black men, then I don't know that, like, a diversity training session is necessarily going to change that. Do you think that - have there been any efforts in police departments to screen out people who are racist? And I don't know exactly like what the screening process would be, but I think what you're saying is like if there is a racist culture or if there are racists within a police department, then policies aren't necessarily going to change how they see things and how they react to things.

LARTEY: Yeah. I mean, I've always found it instructive to think of the police and policing as this kind of avatar of American racism. The police are racism representatives. They are the folks who we hire to actuate something that's far more distant than a person's individual biases. So, like, I'm sure listeners will be familiar with the Central Park incident involving Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper a few weeks back. A white woman who was walking her dog off-leash, this black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to put her dog on the leash per the park rules. And she instantly seemed to feel very threatened and started calling the police and telling them that she was being physically threatened by a black man. This went viral just before George Floyd was killed.

And part of the reason that the Amy Coopers of the world feel so comfortable using the police as their own kind of personal racism valet is because that's in line with how they've operated in our society - which is to say, even if you or I or we have never called the police on a black person for some deeply unserious reason, as a society, we outsource the keeping of the racial order to police every day. Officers themselves don't have to - and this is like so important - officers themselves do not have to be ideologically white supremacists to be performing that function.

So we spend a lot of time on the surface-level question of, how do we get police officers, as individuals or as departments, to treat black people better? But in some, the way police treat black people in America is symptomatic of how America feels about black people, which is this state of conditional citizenship steeped in mistrust and in fear. And I don't mean with this answer to kind of expand the issue into something so big that it becomes an abstraction either. Like, you can recruit better. You can catch problems more quickly. You can train people better. You can create better incentives. And it's been done - bad police departments have improved before.

But I do intend to take the onus off of police officers as this bad other who do harm because they are sociopaths and put it on all of us - like, what we get from police is consistent with what we as a society have internalized about black worth and about what constitutes order and justice. And so that, to me, is part of the reason why defunding and abolition has captured as much traction as it has in recent days. And I don't think that conversation is one that necessarily has to be interpreted as a punitive response that policing is bad, so let's take its money away, so we can, you know, get a police department so small we can drown it in the proverbial bathtub.

I think, you know, rather, if there's one thing police and their sharpest detractors can agree on - and it literally may be just this one thing - it's that we assign entirely too much of our social safety net to police in ways that are at best, unfair, and at worst, lead to tragic and predictable outcomes. So if defunding the police is coinciding with funding less confrontational strategies for handling social issues, it may actually leave both sides happier. You can imagine a world where police would be more like fire people, right? They're in the firehouse and they're up there. And then when the alarm goes off and they're absolutely needed, they slide down the pole and they show up because the only recourse in this situation is the strategic use of force.

But there's so many things that we currently ask our police to respond to, whether it's a noise complaint or a car accident, that don't necessarily fit into a reason why someone would need to show up with a deadly weapon and with the authority to use that deadly weapon to deprive someone of their civil rights or their life.

GROSS: Is there an example you can think of where a police department has been overhauled? And I'm thinking maybe - Camden, N.J., is often used as an example where the police basically were disbanded and a new system was created for the function of policing. How familiar are you with Camden or if there's another model you'd like to talk about?

LARTEY: Yeah. I think Camden is, in many ways, the best example. And obviously there's been a lot of interest and discussion about Camden. I spoke to their former chief, Scott Thompson, as I was reporting this story. And I think a lot of the things he described are important as we start trying to think about how we change departments. You know, one of the things that Thompson pointed out and highlighted was police unions, and they are - police unions are highly organized. They literally - many call themselves fraternal orders and they behave as such - as social and cultural interest groups that protect their own interests and members against a world that undervalues and misunderstands them. They're inherently politically conservative, but I think more importantly, they're very culturally conservative and see themselves as, in many cases, kind of soldiers in this culture war.

And so that generates this kind of cyclical, cultural inertia where there is today an alpha, macho, military culture that surrounds policing. And that's shaped who is interested in policing. So people who might be interested in some other version of policing don't apply or leave departments when they get there. And so that culture becomes entrenched, and it becomes more attractive to those kind of alpha, macho folks.

And so then what we see again and again in U.S. cities, usually Democratic cities with liberal mayors, is they'll hire among the most liberal law enforcement professionals they can find, and they'll propose a slew of progressive reforms and say many of the right things. But there's this pervasive disconnect between the leadership and the rank-and-file, and the union is a really powerful impediment to rooting out folks and trying to change the culture and add in accountability.

So I say all that to say that - you know, speaking with Scott Thomson and his experience in Camden, you know, one of the things he said to me was that he was able to do in three days what would have taken him three years or more simply because of not having to push all of his changes and proposals through a union.

GROSS: Was the union disbanded when the police department was?

LARTEY: Yeah, because they fired all the police officers, and they started again from scratch.

GROSS: I think here's a concern that a lot of police officers must have now - unions can be politically very conservative and resist change and everything, but they're also a force for, you know, decent salaries and benefits, which are important to anybody who's doing that work. Was getting rid of the union also used as an opportunity to cut the pay or cut the benefits of the new people who were hired to do the work?

LARTEY: So I can't speak to the actual labor conditions of the old department versus the new department. I mean, what I can say is I fully understand - I think anyone can understand - the reason why people value having a union and being in a union.

And, you know, talking to attorney general - Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison at some point shortly after George Floyd's death but before his department had taken over that case and agreed to press charges on the officer, I asked the AG Ellison about police unions and their role in being a roadblock for reforms. And one of the things he said is, you know, we need police unions to stick to union stuff, right? Union stuff is pay. It's benefits. It's comp time. It's how you're treated as an employee. And what we need them to kind of leave alone is accountability and policy.

And, you know, when a community elects a mayor and a mayor appoints a police chief, that's democracy. And when a police - when that mayor and that police chief and, you know, maybe a commission come together and say, this is how we want to change policing in our city, we want police to react to this situation in this way, that is really not a labor union's place to push back on, politically.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jamiles Lartey. And he's a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jamiles Lartey, who reports for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. He previously covered criminal justice, race and policing for The Guardian newspaper, where he was part of a team that compiled a database of people killed by law enforcement in 2015 and 2016 and told their stories.

You know, you're talking about the conflict that sometimes happens between liberal leaders, political leaders, who want to see police reform and a police union that opposes it. And Minneapolis is, I think, a really good example of that. And the head of the union there, Bob Kroll, there's a movement now to remove him. But can you explain why he's seen as such a reactionary force and such an oppositional force when it comes to reform?

LARTEY: I mean, I would say Kroll is representative of what we've come to expect from police union leadership in large cities - so be that, you know, Pat Lynch in New York or in St. Louis, Chicago. I mean, most of these departments that have had - that have experienced this turmoil have had police union heads who were extremely reactionary, often abrasive, sometimes vulgar, who lash out at the political leadership in those cities.

Like, Kroll is not a unique case, right? He's sort of the typical big-city police union boss. And so yes, like, specifically to him, we do know - and we reported, as a number of other outlets have reported - that he was involved in this civil rights suit brought by a number of black officers in that department when he was an officer, who noted that he used to wear a white power patch on his motorcycle jacket and used to use a lot of racially abusive language. You know, so that's kind of the particulars of his story.

But in terms of how his leadership is functioning now in that city, in this moment, in this time, it's really not indicative of anything unique to Kroll or Minneapolis. That is par for the course for police union leadership in big American cities.

GROSS: What are some examples of what unions can do to stand in the way of reform?

LARTEY: Well, I think more than - I mean, they can certainly exert their political influence on leaders who seek to reform, be that a police chief or a mayor. You know, they can operate the same way political organizations generally operate. They go to the leadership, and they say, we want this, this, this. We don't want that, that and that. And if you go forward with this, we're going to be, you know, a major thorn in your side. We're going to have guys walking off the job.

You know, I think about Bill de Blasio's case, mayor of New York City who made some, you know, to my mind, fairly anodyne comments about policing and race I think in reference to his son Dante back in maybe 2014 and, you know, found himself just at the absolute mercy of the police department and the police union to where they would - you know, they would turn their backs on him anytime he was in their presence, a good number of the officers there. That's a very tenuous situation to be in as the leader of a city when the way that your law enforcement agency looks at you is that fractured. That makes it really hard to do your job.

So these are all of - it's just an example of the kind of political pressure and force that unions can exert on political leaders and sort of make it very uncomfortable for them to try to make real substantive change in departments.

GROSS: And the unions often have a lot of money that they use to back their preferred candidate. So there's that kind of pressure, too.

LARTEY: Yeah, absolutely. And their endorsements are important. And again, I mean, I just - police are the folks who we've given the power of governing by force when it's necessary. And that is a power that most leaders find themselves needing at some point or another. Sort of rightfully or wrongfully, that's where we are. So it is a very difficult constituency as a leader, as a mayor, as an executive of a town or city to have as an enemy.

GROSS: Let's take a break here. My guest is Jamiles Lartey, a staff writer for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jamiles Lartey, who reports for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization reporting on the criminal justice system. He previously covered criminal justice, race and policing for The Guardian newspaper, where he was part of a team that compiled a database of people killed by law enforcement in 2015 and 2016 and told their stories.

So I want to get back to Camden, N.J., and how the police there were basically disbanded and a new version of the police was formed. What's the difference between the old and the new version of the police?

LARTEY: Yeah. And from sort of studying the Camden experiment and speaking with Scott Thomson, the former chief there, I think largely, the Camden model is really - it's more about culture than any particular policy. I mean, we can look at some of the, again, the policy changes that they made. There were, you know, a number of them in terms of how officers should respond to non-crisis moments or, you know, I think there was an increased focus on de-escalation training. They got body cameras. I mean, there were policy-level changes that were made, but I think largely what Scott Thomson spoke to was changing the culture and engaging in a trust-building exercise, right?

I mean, the bank of trust between the Camden Police Department and the community in Camden, N.J., was as bankrupt as that relationship could ever possibly be. There was none. And so, you know, what Scott Thomson described was really just going into the community with this new department and telling folks, this is a reset. We're starting over. This is not the same old - this is not a tweak. We are here to help you. Let us know how we can do that. That was the approach.

GROSS: I think this must be a very difficult time for police officers in the sense that there is this huge movement to disband or defund the police, which translates for a lot of police officers into possibly there's a huge movement for them to lose their jobs. And I'm wondering if you've been talking to a lot of police officers about what their concerns are about what defunding the police or disbanding them would mean for them.

LARTEY: I do think what advocates of this approach are asking police officers to do - or I guess are asking society to do and asking police officers to be OK with is that we reimagine the number of people with guns and the right to take someone's civil rights away, how many of those you need to have a healthy society.

So yeah, I mean, if you're - if the question is, you know, is there fear and anger, frustration among police officers in America, the ones who I've spoken to or just generally, yeah, that's absolutely the truth - right? - or that's absolutely the case. We are in what really feels like an unprecedented moment where this industry is being questioned in ways that it never was before, even through Ferguson, even through Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and Eric Garner and all of these other moments where the national attention shifted to policing. You're hearing so much less of the few bad apples argument and so much more of the - what is wrong with this system? What is wrong with this approach to how we deal with problems in our society? Right? The anger and the frustration among the communities that police serve is so much more general, and it's so much less specific this time. To me, that's the big difference.

So is there fear? Is there concern? Absolutely. But you know, I think one of the things that I also think is important to think about is that policing wasn't always this way. It wasn't always this big. It wasn't always this bureaucratic. It wasn't always - right? Modern policing, the policing that that sort of you and I and listeners recognize today is really a product of the 20th century. And so you know, it - there is a degree to which sometimes as a society you need to rethink institutions, especially when they're relatively new, especially when they've changed a lot over the last 20, 30 or 40 years, and come to a decision as a society on, you know, whether - is this - is the direction that we've gone the direction that we need to go moving forward?

GROSS: Jamiles Lartey, thank you so much for talking with us.

LARTEY: Terry, I so appreciate you having me.

GROSS: Jamiles Lartey writes about criminal justice, race and policing for the nonprofit news organization The Marshall Project. He spoke to us from his home in New Orleans. In addition to being a journalist, he's a drummer. We'll close with music from a project he produced and plays drums on called Dikon.

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GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Pete Davidson and Judd Apatow. Davidson is the youngest cast member of "Saturday Night Live." He stars in the new movie "The King Of Staten Island," which draws on his life as the son of a firefighter who died at Ground Zero on 9/11. Apatow directed the film. It will be available on demand starting Friday.

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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIKON'S "FIXED GEAR NEON LIGHTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.