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After failing in Congress, does police reform stand a better chance at a local level?


Lawmakers spent months trying to reach a bipartisan deal on police reform, called the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and last week senators admitted their efforts had failed. So where does the push for police reform go from here? Well, our next guests are two scholars of criminal justice at Georgia State University who also happen to be married, and they have written about the answer to that question. Natasha Johnson and Thaddeus Johnson, good to have you here.

NATASHA JOHNSON: Great to be here, Ari. Thank you so much for having us.

THADDEUS JOHNSON: Yes, thank you. It's great to be here.

SHAPIRO: Policing is so local. There are nearly 18,000 departments across the U.S., each with different rules, problems and unique communities. And so do you think that any effort at federal regulation is inevitably going to hit a wall?

T JOHNSON: Yeah. You know, the fact that the reform talks failed is not surprising. It's disappointing, but it's not earth-shattering. These are local agencies. These are local issues. You may have a drug issue in one place. You may have a property crime issue in another place. You may have a bit of legitimacy issues. The communities know best how they need to be policed and what the issues are. I think the problem is we put too much faith and too much on the federal government. I think they can best act as watchdogs, but also, they can do a good job of financing.

SHAPIRO: And I know you speak from experience as a former police officer. Natasha, if you take that idea and run with it, what does that look like, this kind of grassroots ground-up approach to reform the conversation?

N JOHNSON: I think from the federal government to the states, at least, that direction is help the states determine the relationship between the conditions of funding and the purpose. Because we get the funding, and then it's reform and it's change and it's blanket. And it hits a wall because there never is that conversation about ways in which to make it tangible. At the end of the day, if we don't do anything about the role of the community having these conversations with community stakeholders and agencies, schools, boys and girls clubs so that we can hear what people are saying they need. We don't have to make these decisions on their behalf. We can have these conversations with and through and by way of impacting the community firsthand.

SHAPIRO: Thaddeus, can you give us an example of a city that is doing this kind of grassroots bottom-up police reform and doing a good job of it?

T JOHNSON: Yeah, in a place like Cincinnati, they may say this as a big part of the reform. They were equal colleagues in this. And so they had these meetings. They had these conversations. They had representation. But they also had their court backing. And so I think oftentimes, even though you have these grassroots efforts, you still need that oversight, whether at the federal level, state level, the courts or some type of (unintelligible). They also talked about the use-of-force issues in particularly Black - in communities of color. You know, since Cincinnati took these steps, use of force went down, right? Now, you still have some issues with arrest disparities and things of that sort. But if we're talking about use of force and the government using restraint when they're dealing with their citizens, that's a big win.

SHAPIRO: But it seems like a universal principle that people in organizations like to hold on to power, they like to hold on to money, they like to hold on to authority. And so if the community is saying we need to take some of this money that the police has right now and give it to afterschool programs, give it to mental health interventions, give it to non-police, I imagine there's going to be some resistance there, certainly in some cities.

N JOHNSON: The nature of the political game is such that it's a two-way street. There is a give and take. There is compromise. What is it that you need? What is it that I need? And let's find some harmony. And let's have real adult-level conversations. Everyone wants to feel safer. And so I, again, think that we're having the same conversations. Unfortunately, we're siloing (ph) those conversations. And we don't even realize that we have more in common than we do that divides us.

SHAPIRO: Thaddeus, you're nodding.

N JOHNSON: I have to speak about defunding the police and taking money away. We don't have to take money away because when we talk about - when we think about police reform and taking money away, defunding the police, talking about LAPD, the NYPD, most of the departments that we deal with have 25 or less officers that don't have these resources. They need these finances. What happens is we create this narrative that it's us versus them, thinking about the police subculture, which is very, very strong, right? I'm a Black man from Memphis, and I consider myself to be very, very vocal, at least as a police officer, and the culture is strong. So we have to recognize that. We need to invest in our officers and not make it us versus them.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like you're speaking not only to the police right now, you're also speaking to the activists. You're also speaking to people chanting defund.

T JOHNSON: Yeah, because it's a false dichotomy.

N JOHNSON: I would just say that let's not forget the role of the leader in initiating, sparking and ensuring that change - that we're making the progress we need to make.

SHAPIRO: So I hear you both saying that maybe the hopes of sweeping reform coming from Congress were always a long shot. But at this moment, when communities in Minneapolis and Louisville and so many other places that have struggled with police violence may be feeling a sense of disappointment, what is your message to those citizens?

N JOHNSON: First thing's first - you're not helpless. It's so hard to understand that you have agency when you don't think you do. And so there is collective agency and banding together. Know who your neighbors are. Know who lives around that perimeter. Have conversations with people. That's something everyone can be doing on some level - parents especially, pastors. There's so many stakeholders that who represent the communities already. And so this is something that shouldn't be left up to chance.

T JOHNSON: And I will say also - have to keep it real with them, too. You know, listen. we're in this for the long haul. This is not going to change overnight, right? This is a long-term investment. Let them know that they have their senators. People are advocating to rebuild, to revitalize their communities. That's where the reform happens, to empower these people to do these things. So let them know that we can do this beyond the police. But those things need to be resourced, to be bolstered and for them to flourish. But we are in it for the long haul, and it's not going to be an easy road.

SHAPIRO: That's Thaddeus and Natasha Johnson of Georgia State University's Criminal Justice and Criminology Department. Good to talk to you both. Thank you.

N JOHNSON: Ari, it's been our pleasure. Thank you so much for having us.

T JOHNSON: Yeah, thank you for having us. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.