Transform our politics and the police

Fifty years ago on the eve of nationwide congressional elections, Maine Sen. Ed Muskie gave an influential address decrying the toxic politics of “law and order” and calling attention to the need for systemic change.

Then, like now, there was unrest in the country. 

And, like now, from the White House came the claim that members of the opposition party were radicals on the side of violent law-breakers.

In response, Muskie proclaimed it was “malicious slander,” “nonsense,” and “a lie,” to portray “Democratic candidates for high office ”who “have courageously pursued their convictions in the service of the republic in war and in peace” as people who “favor violence and champion the wrongdoer.”

And, because simply focusing on the upheaval distracted Americans from needed solutions, Muskie called on Americans to “look for the deeper causes in the structure of our society.” 

After all, explained Muskie, if someone you loved was sick, surely you’d want to “to try and discover the agents of illness.” 

An estimated 2,000 protestors lie face down in the middle of Commercial Street in Portland on Friday night for eight minutes — the same amount of time a Minneapolis police officer held his knee on George Floyd’s neck before he died. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Protestors all over the country are diagnosing the disease of police violence against people of color, finding a cause in systemic racism and looking for a cure. 

As Sen. Mitt Romney put it, “No Americans should fear enmity and harm from those sworn to protect us. The death of George Floyd must not be in vain.” And these problems, Sen. Angus King pointed out, have to be “to be fixed in every town and city in America.”

What should be done requires listening and learning. In Bangor, hundreds of people came together last week in a vigil for George Floyd and other African-Americans killed by the police. Those there heard City Council member Angela Okafor tell the crowd about racial discrimination against her and her family, explaining she was telling these “stories to show the fear impacted by the system of injustice” and to “give voice to so many more who can’t speak up.”

To address police violence that disproportionately affects black and brown people, there are calls to change police practices and demilitarize and transform the police.

The Department of Justice under former President Barack Obama recognized that people cooperate with the police and help them solve crimes when there is a sense of mutual trust. But the efforts the Obama administration put into place to try to improve police departments were dismantled by President Donald Trump and Attorneys General Jeff Sessions and William Barr. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden would restore those policies, support prevention to reduce crime and reform the criminal justice system. 

Led by Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris and others, Democrats have developed a package of policies to track and change how police interact with the public and to end an exemption called “qualified immunity,” which one libertarian writer called “a dangerous doctrine that has put deadly power in the hands of the state at the expense of the little guy.”

Conversations about reimagining public safety are unfolding across the country. In Minneapolis and New York City, political leaders are discussing using professionals other than police officers to deal with mental health crises and other issues that now generate a police visit. 

Camden, New Jersey provides one model for transforming the police. In 2012, they embarked on an ambitious effort, modernizing operations and changing the police department’s culture. Police officers started walking around in communities, which the police chief compared to “a political campaign to overcome years of mistrust.” Response time shortened and crime went down.

States, cities and towns should try out different reforms. This is a good thing. Not every place is the same and there is no one-size-fits-all approach and we can learn from seeing what works and doesn’t work in different places. 

And we can do better by remembering what Muskie said half a century ago, that there are just two types of politics — “the politics of fear and the politics of trust.” If we rightly choose the latter, “we can work to restore a sense of shared purpose, and of great enterprise.” We can choose to seek solutions as we “get about the work of the future.”

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.