Push for police reform stutters ahead of US election

Calls for ambitious police reforms to tackle racism and misconduct have also been toned down as the election nears. PHOTO: AFP

MINNEAPOLIS (AFP) - Mr Thomas Waltower, a computer coding trainer in Minneapolis, had hoped that outrage over the killing of African American George Floyd in the city in May would force an overhaul of the police.

But "it started off with a big push; and now it's quiet", he said, as political parties fight shy of the issue ahead of next Tuesday's (Nov 3) presidential election.

Mr Floyd suffocated under the knee of a white policeman. His death, captured on phone video, triggered huge protests throughout the country and put police reform high on the national agenda.

There were calls for comprehensive change - ranging from better training to a controversial campaign to "defund the police", with the strongest move coming from the city itself.

In June, the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to "dismantle" its police force and "reimagine a new model of public safety".

Several council members wanted the proposal to be on the ballot next Tuesday, when local referendums can also be voted on. But the plan was vetoed by an unelected commission.

Elsewhere in the United States, calls for ambitious police reforms to tackle racism and misconduct have also been toned down as the election nears.

"We don't hear anything about what they want to change," said Mr Waltower, who trains girls in coding in Minneapolis' poor and predominantly black northern neighborhoods.

"It's out of sight, out of mind, but as African Americans, we feel it every day," he said, referring to racial prejudices he's seen from police, including often being stopped in his car.


The focus has instead shifted to a spike in crime.

Since the beginning of the year, the city has already recorded 65 homicides, up from 49 in all of 2019, and an upsurge in shootings.

We had a "horrific summer", Mr Waltower told AFP. Students from the high school where he works were caught up in exchanges of gunfire.

For him, the reason is simple: There are fewer officers on the ground, which sends a "green light" to criminals.

Since Mr Floyd's death and the violent riots and looting that followed, the city's police force has shrunk sharply.

At least 175 out of about 850 officers have resigned or gone on sick leave, according to a lawyer who represents many of them.

"The Floyd incident, the riots, the unrest, the total lack of support... has resulted in them just simply saying, 'I can't continue'," explained attorney Ron Meuser.

But Mr Stuart Schrader, a sociology researcher at Johns Hopkins University, cautioned against simple explanations.

For him, the pandemic and its economic impact may have played a bigger role in the increase in crime, also seen in New York or Chicago.

Like many of the protesters, he believes that part of the law enforcement budget could be usefully redirected to social programmes to combat inequality.


But the calls by Black Lives Matter activists to "defund the police" have been leapt on by President Donald Trump, who accuses the group of trying to plunge the country into "chaos and anarchy".

Mr Trump, who is keen to be seen as the "law and order" candidate in the election, has accused his Democratic rival Joe Biden of supporting the defund movement.

But Mr Biden has been careful to distance himself from them as he seeks to woo moderates.

In the run-up to voting day, "the demand to defund the police is probably not being as widely expressed... but I don't think that that means it's gone away", Mr Schrader said.

Ms Nichole Buehler, who runs a neighbourhood association in north Minneapolis, said crime was getting worse but "I still don't believe that more police are going to solve that. Basically, the police show up after the fact".

For her, the best strategy would be to invest in better housing and well-paid jobs.

"The uptick in crime doesn't change my perspective," she insisted.

If Mr Biden wins the election, the issue will quickly return to the table "with pressure from the left to push for new types of reforms", Mr Schrader predicted.

And if Mr Trump is re-elected, "there will be social pressure from reform but also a strong reaction" from Republicans.

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