Here’s what we forget about the intentions of police reform | Livingston

In the aftermath of any and every police misstep and citizen killing, we talk about reform.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers who knowingly were not protecting, serving or operating in “good faith” on the public’s behalf triggered protests and riots.

The police officers’ actions in 2020 also set in motion legislative discussions and reforms across this country. The officers who perpetrated his death were fired, convicted, and are now in prison — but the public feels no sense of justice, peace or security.

Our country’s leadership continues placing band-aids over the ills of society and asks the police to protect us. And in return, we provide the police with a degree of indemnity for their mistakes. Some of us expect exemplary behavior, and some of us do not care what the police do to keep “bad guys” in check.

On Jan. 7, 2023, police officers in Memphis, Tenn., mortally pummeled Tyre Nichols into critical condition. He died three days later. Six Memphis police officers have been fired for their actions. That event, like many that came before, has set in motion rallying cries for police reform.

Somehow we are not learning or choosing correctly what to reform. Is it always the police who need reforming? There is room for improvement, but real reform has to come from us.

For police reform to work, we as citizens need to reform ourselves first. Our bad behavior as well as society’s inequities, lack of mutual respect, blaming others as a way of absolving our shortcomings, and contempt for compliance with governmental as well as decent human standards, combined with years of caste system policing creating situational public fears — this all needs to be addressed.

If your expectation is for the police to save us from ourselves, it will never happen. They are us.

Our society is built on stress. Stress for food, shelter, health care, family, employment, financial security and more. When you are hungry and can’t pay the bills, what have you got to lose? If you are young, bored and your friends dare you to vandalize, steal a car, try drugs, or shoot someone, what have you got to lose when you have gained the respect of your peers?

Are our schools the safe havens they ought to be? Can children learn and feel emotionally nurtured when they are hungry, struggling to fit in, ostracized for being poor or speaking a different language, and living in fear of being victims of the next school shooting?

In our country, we walk a fine line between success and failure, thinking that family and religion are the best purveyors of morals and values, when in reality they often are the generators of society’s ills — with a “my way or the highway” worldview that conflicts with building cohesive societal norms focusing on kindness, respect and caring for all. The moment someone says folks are coming here to take our stuff or jobs, or challenge our way of life, they have proclaimed their ignorance. They have built mental roadblocks preventing learning and seeing we all have the same needs. It is their ideas that need reforming.

Cults have been built around honoring the police for protecting us, and acknowledging police work has a high-risk factor when dealing with the public.

Putting on a uniform to protect us from ourselves does not make you a better person if society has programmed you to be “macho” and in turn react to any challenge to your authority by unleashing a “I will show you who is boss” beat-down response. We often choose to look the other way as our police officers fight the daily fight on our behalf, as long as they do not cross a forever shifting line that gets them called in for review. Heroes one minute, and villains the next.

The attitudes and tools we have for policing and building a better society in general are inadequate. As long as people do not accept accountability for their behaviors and flaunt every misdeed, piece of graft, bullying and so on — our police will continue being band-aids on a society that is failing.

Our Washington state legislative reformers for police accountability passed 12 pieces of legislation in 2021. The bills that got signed into law ban chokeholds, require officers to announce their presence before raiding a home, ban military equipment, alter the rules for when police can engage in a vehicle pursuit, call for the use of exhaustive de-escalation techniques before resorting to force, tighten up oversight and more.

The reforms are altering police culture and policies, but they are causing community concern as well. With every change there is a response. It seems an increased percentage of knuckleheads are presently committing crimes because they feel emboldened knowing the police are not likely to pursue. Sadly, there will always be people behaving badly, committing crimes and creating a need for a police response to help us pick up the pieces in the aftermath of an incident.

How should we be dealing with our cultural challenge of asking someone to be working for us — in a protect and serve capacity — while also in a societal asylum where a minority of inmates have no respect for people, property, rules, governmental authority, and consequences? Some members of the public are requesting that the reforms be undone because crime appears to be increasing.

We forget that police reform was meant to institute sufficient guidance to prevent our police from being perpetrators of their own crimes as well as decrease liability exposure. The deaths of George Floyd and Tyre Nichols should never have happened.

We are in our own way still a feudal society built on inequity, poverty, exclusivity, stress, workplace anxiety, emotional toxicity, hubris as well as the hypocrisy of double standards for race, wealth, education and more. Can we honestly have police reform without understanding how we are failing in our own accountability?

Keith Livingston is a retired municipal management professional, lifelong artist and Federal Way resident. He can be reached at