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Criminal Justice

The ‘Black Cop’ Isn’t Enough Reform to End Police Brutality

Hundreds of police reform policies have been adopted by states and cities in recent years. But the killings continue.

Demonstrators protest on Jan. 27 against the police killing of Tyre Nichols near the White House. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died three days after being severely beaten by five Memphis Police Department officers during a traffic stop on Jan. 7. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

More than 25 years before Nas released “Cops Shot the Kid,” KRS-One wrote about the “Black Cop,” describing them as strategically placed props in a systemically racist system used to oppress Black people. 

During slavery, there were Black overseers who beat other enslaved people. Fast forward to 1993, KRS-One wrote, “Black slave turned black cop is not logical, But very psychological, haven’t you heard?” 

The song continues: 

“Thirty years ago, there were no black cops
You couldn’t even run, drive round the block
Recently police trained black cop
To stand on the corner, and take gunshot
This type of warfare isn’t new or a shock
It’s black-on-black crime again nonstop …”

On Jan. 7, Tyre Nichols was pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun, and beaten with batons by five Black cops in Memphis, Tennessee. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black father, died three days later from his injuries. 

The brutal encounter, captured from multiple angles on body cameras and security footage, squashed any lingering notions that diversity is the answer to America’s age-old problem with police violence. After Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015, there was a flood of conversation about diversifying police forces in majority Black communities. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in 2020, the conversation shifted to leadership as Black police officers were hired and promoted to chiefs.

But during that time, there’s been little change in the rate of police fatalities. In November, 255 people were killed by police in 2022 — the highest number for that month in five years, according to the Mapping Police Violence database.

“Just because they are Black … that’s not enough,” said Dwonna Goldstone, a history professor and director of African American Studies at Texas State University. “The system has to be changed, and until they’re willing to change how they police — and especially police communities of color — we’ll have this conversation again.”

Speaking of repetitive conversations, in light of Nichols’ death, federal lawmakers have reignited efforts to get the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act calendared for a vote in the Senate. The bill calls for a litany of police reforms, such as a national database to record body camera information, a ban on chokeholds, and elimination of qualified immunity that protects law enforcement from lawsuits. 

The legislation has lingered in Congress since March 2021 despite the ever-growing list of Black men, women, and children killed by police since Floyd’s murder. 

Coupled with lawmakers’ thoughts and prayers, the call to reform has become a broken record of talking points that largely focus on amending existing law enforcement policies. The reforms simply tinker with a recipe for American policing that was seasoned with racist taste, experts say. 

In the police academy, rookie officers receive at least six months of training before being thrust into the streets of what are considered high-crime neighborhoods — usually Black and Hispanic communities. They often learn the off-the-books practices of more senior officers, who may pass down biases that negate any formal de-escalation training.

“In every instance that you’ve seen a brutal police abuse of power — Eric Garner, any number of cases, Alton Sterling — all of the officers that you saw engaged in that were trained,” said Redditt O. Hudson, a co-founder of the National Coalition of Law Enforcement Officers For Justice Reform and Accountability. “There’s that old saying that police culture eats police training for breakfast every day. You do what the culture has shaped in the work. It is rooted in white supremacy — systemic racism is a feature of our criminal justice system.”

The challenge of police reform

Because federal reform has been an uphill battle, some states and municipalities have taken matters into their own hands to force change within their police departments. At least 300 governor-approved police reform bills and policies have been enacted since Floyd’s May 2020 murder. Local governments have passed even more: body camera mandates, de-escalation training tools, limits on no-knock warrants, and chokehold bans. 

But the piecemeal approach to reform has allowed the pattern of killing to continue. In July,  Robert Adams was shot in the back seven times while running away from a San Bernardino, California, police officer. In Huntington Park, California, two police officers gunned down Anthony Lowe last month, a double amputee who was moving away from the officers while armed with a knife. 

De-escalation techniques — efforts to verbally calm down a situation before using less-lethal tools such as pepper spray or Tasers — have become increasingly popular in police training. But they don’t always prevent the most tragic consequences. The Memphis police officers who Tyre Nichols encountered used those “less-lethal” tools, while ultimately beating him to death with their hands, feet, and batons, according to surveillance and body camera footage. 

If there’s any hope of overcoming these hurdles to police reform, federal intervention is necessary, said Rodney W. Jacobs Jr., executive director of the city of Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel.

“When you look at any type of legislative change across our nation’s history and how that directly helped Black people, it’s been forced upon by the federal government,” Jacobs said, pointing to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as an example. “That’s because in order to change behavior in America, going up against something that may be counterculture, people have to be told to do it.”

The limits of representation

Black officers have been recruited to police departments since the 1940s. By the 1960s, they made up nearly 15% of hires — more than Black representation in the overall population, according to a 1980 report by the Office of Justice Programs. 

Little has changed. Black officers represent about 17% of the police force, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while “first-line supervisors of detectives and police” represent less than 5%. And even as far back as the 1970s, the OJP report noted, “one study (Reiss, 1971) has concluded that both white and black officers are more likely to use force unduly against citizens of their own race.” 

Details from the 42-year-old report wouldn’t surprise Dr. Amanda Calhoun, a psychiatry resident at the Yale School of Medicine and Yale Child Study Center. “Throughout history, we have always had Black people who have upheld and perpetuated white supremacy. … In order for white supremacy to function, optimally, you have to have Black people helping it,” she said.

When it comes to the Nichols case, from the outside looking in, the makeup of the Memphis Police Department seems to be diverse — 58% of the department’s commissioned officers are Black, according to the Los Angeles Times. And the leader, Chief Cerelyn Davis, is a Black woman. 

But that’s a symbolic feat that Keith Taylor, a former NYPD officer and retired assistant commissioner for the city’s Department of Correction, says “doesn’t change the culture of the agency.” Davis already had a stain in the glass ceiling she broke when she was hired as chief of police in 2021 after leading another problematic, and now defunct, plainclothes unit as its commander during her stint with the Atlanta police. 

Read more: The False Promise of the Black Police Chief

The first generation of Black officers were essentially “doormen” with no access to leadership roles where their presence could make a difference, said Taylor. It took generations of Black officers to begin making changes within law enforcement agencies and reducing racism within the ranks. 

“The impetus for change in the NYPD, a lot of it came from internal efforts, the creation of the guardians association, Black fraternal organization in the late ‘40s that was fraught with pushback from the Commissioner’s office on down,” Taylor said. “Despite all the efforts that were made to prevent that from happening, fraternal organizations were critical in helping to coordinate lawsuits that officers would use to confront the open, racist policies within and outside the police department. They simply wanted to do their jobs.”

Taylor, who comes from a lineage of NYPD officers, says that he gives gratitude to his relatives’ “efforts and struggles” who paved the way for him to join a more diverse department in all ranks for an over 30-year career. 

But not all former police officers had Taylor’s unique experience, and witnessing the biases in policing close up have led some to leave the profession altogether. 

“I was profoundly disillusioned with the criminal justice system in the United States and disappointed too many times with the conduct of some of my fellow officers,” said Hudson, who quit the St. Louis Police Department in 1999 to become a criminal justice reform advocate. “It is a systemically racist system that does have two different tracks, multiple tracks, for people depending on your race and income. I don’t want to be a part of that.”

It’s not just policing. Systemic racism pervades health care, education, and many other industries, leaving many Black professionals feeling like outsiders in their fields. While some end up leaving, others stay with a hopeful goal to make changes from the inside. 

“How can you reform a system from the inside? You know, it comes at a cost to your mental health sometimes,” Goldstone said.  

It’s “traumatic and exhausting” to be Black in white spaces, Goldstone said, but she remained strong-minded and unphased when challenged by non-Black colleagues after making a change to her course’s curriculum.

In the health care field, Calhoun said she has often found herself stepping in to treat Black patients who she has witnessed being treated with much less compassion than white patients by non-Black residents. 

“Yes, it is inconvenient to push against the system, but for me, the alternative of being silent will be something that I could not do. I couldn’t bear that,” Calhoun said. “My goal is not to be liked by people who want to perpetuate white supremacy. My goal is to help Black patients and other patients and everyone be treated equitably.”

Dismantle the system?

Goldstone says that police departments should recruit individuals who’ve practiced in or studied professions that handle human behaviors. “To be reformed, they need to open up who becomes police officers. Stop making it about the person who can shoot the most rounds and, I know they’re supposed to have personality tests or psychology tests, but stop taking everyone from criminal justice and political science [majors] and get people from the liberal arts who might have gone into teaching or social work,” she said.

In Newark, New Jersey, the police department entered into a consent decree in 2016 with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division following a pattern and practice investigation. The investigation found that the police department engaged in several unconstitutional practices, including the use of excessive force. Under the consent decree, the department is required, in part, to revise their policies and improve their training. As a result of de-escalation training, the Newark Police Department went the entire year of 2020 without firing a gun, even during the protest following Floyd’s murder. That streak ended in January 2021 when a Newark officer shot and killed Carl Dorsey

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division is another federal arm that can enforce change within policing, and local U.S. attorneys have also used their authority to tackle reforming their police departments through court order. Currently, the Justice Department has seven pending pattern and practice investigations against police departments.

Taking on each of the 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country one by one is a slower route to change over sweeping federal reform that will set the standard for local governments to adopt. Hudson believes that accountability such as internal disciplinary actions, criminal prosecution, and the ability to hold a cop financially responsible for their misconduct sends a stronger message as Americans wait for lobbyists to convince some Republicans to vote in favor of the larger policing bill.    

“Before we get to reform, before we get to abolition [of police], first accountability: You pay for what you did. That’s the best training that’s available right now,” Hudson said. “Derek Chauvin (the officer convicted of murdering George Floyd) going to prison for much of the rest of his life, that’s going to be excellent training for the next Minneapolis police officer who may find himself in that situation. Just like if these five officers go to prison, it’s gonna be great training for the next set of Memphis police officers to come through and want to make a decision about whether they should just beat a man like an unrestrained animal or not.”

Jacobs says that any better police practices that are currently in place and enforced in small pockets across the country “are the crumbs and remnants that police unions and executives have allowed you to have.” Federal reform efforts in the policing bill aren’t necessarily revolutionary ideas and should be a no-brainer to vote and sign into law immediately, he said. 

“We as a country haven’t had the courage to go against the system in a meaningful way that perpetuates these types of changes, but,” Jacobs says, “I remain hopeful.”