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America needs to reform policing

April 21, 2021

We take it for granted that our cellphones work reliably, despite the fact that they are enormously complex devices, each iteration designed by hundreds — perhaps thousands — of engineers, and that their software is constantly updated. Most people don’t understand how that reliability is achieved. Many think it must be because Apple hires good engineers. Which they do. But reliability isn’t achieved by hiring good engineers. Even the best engineers produce a steady stream of defects. Reliability is achieved through process and organization designed to produce it. Engineers have to help define that process and buy into it. So do some of the other parts of an enterprise.

Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder yesterday. If you ask why George Floyd died, the answer is that Chauvin was a bad cop.

Alas, the US doesn’t suffer the rare police killing. Police in the US kill at rates far higher than police in comparable developed democracies. Orders of magnitude higher. Such difference cannot be explained simply by looking at those events one by one. Those other nations also have their share of criminal gangs, ugly circumstances on the street, and flawed officers. It is because of how this nation does policing. Radley Balko took a stab at that. While I think his analysis oversimplifies, the fact remains that this magnitude of difference cannot be explained by bad cops or careless cops or good cops sometimes making mistakes or circumstances where deadly force was the best choice or any combination of those. It will not be improved merely by convicting rogue individuals. That is as futile a trying to make reliable systems by getting individual engineers to produce fewer defects. This is a systemic problem. It is about process and organization, about how police are deployed, as well as other first responders, about what we expect from police, about how they interact with the other parts of our government, even about how we organize public space and events.

The call to “defund police” this summer was a horrible slogan. The desire behind it for deep reform has a valid basis. In the US, the federal government can make only broad sweeps on policing. The cities and states must take the lead. I hope some American politicians continue to push on those larger issues, and that some of our cities and states pursue the kinds of reform that could bring those numbers down.

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