I’ve spent a lot of my working life trying to change systems from within. I’ve joined all the committees and lived through all the phrases — tolerance, multiculturalism, diversity, diversity and inclusion, diversity, inclusion and equity, belonging and equity. 

For every half step I celebrated as proof of the organization moving forward, I soon felt the sting of them taking four steps back. Sometimes the resistance was deliberate; sometimes it was inadvertent. 

I know now that there was no way they were going to truly change. They were built to be exclusive or exclusionary. They were built without people like me in mind. 

And that’s why I don’t believe policing can be reformed. Yes, there are people with good intentions in policing, people who wouldn’t have beaten Tyre Nichols to death, people who are horrified by those who did, people who signed up with service to the community in their hearts. 

But I’m not talking about individuals. I’m talking about the institution. Institutions are borne from the idea of control and shaped by political choices. To reform an institution like policing means holding fast to its basic idea and tweaking it. 

That doesn’t lead to the fundamental change that’s necessary.

Last week, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism published Brittany Brown’s story about how the work of DeCarcerate Memphis has led to the creation of ordinances presented to the city council that, if passed, would track law enforcement data and make it available to the public, end the use of pretextual traffic stops and unmarked police cars and remove the police from traffic enforcement completely, among other things. 

DeCarcerate’s aim with these ordinances is not to reform. Instead, as Brittany’s story says, the goal is to develop “non-reform” solutions, the kinds that reduce the role and power of policing. 

If we can’t defund the police, perhaps we can defang policing. 

It’s going to take a lot of citizen energy to get these non-reform solutions through. We can’t leave it to political will; we’ve seen — again and again — how outrage fades and things return to form. There has to be continued pressure because the status quo is strong. For instance, despite all that we’ve learned in journalism, that police lie in their reports, that research shows increasing the number of police doesn’t necessarily mean less crime, that journalism is supposed to be balanced and present both sides, I’ve read articles that lay blame at Memphis’ need for more police officers (with nary a quote from those who dispute that idea) and the lowering of standards to add to the force. 

Do you really have to be trained to know that kicking a handcuffed man in the head isn’t proper procedure? Seven police officers have been fired or disciplined so far, and not one of them stopped the beating from happening. How does hiring more police solve that problem?

A person holds a sign showing the names of "People shot/murdered by MPD 2016-2023"
A sign in the Memphis City Hall chambers during last week’s city council meeting. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

In the story, DeCarcerate’s Chelsea Glass asks a question: “What if we talked about proactive safety instead of proactive policing?”

I love that question. It demands reimagining. It’s about breaking form. It starts with us looking within. But the answers lead to reconstruction.

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com

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