In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers, the national conversation is focused on how police treat African Americans. As often happens, the loudest voices are left-wing radicals with impractical slogans and an anti-police axe to grind. But that doesn’t mean conservatives should be shut out of the policy debate. In fact, there are many ways to address police misconduct and brutality and improve our law-enforcement system that fit comfortably within a conservative framework. At the same time, it falls to conservatives to be careful that reforms do not do more harm than good.
What would conservative law-enforcement reforms look like? Here are the foundational principles from which specific proposals should proceed:
1. Respect for Human Life. Death is an unavoidable part of police work, especially in confrontations with armed civilians where the alternative to a killing by the police is often a killing of the police. As discussed below, the number of unarmed African Americans killed by the police in any given year is quite small, and proportion matters in deciding what changes to make and what tradeoffs to accept. But fundamentally, the first principle of policing must be respect for human life.
That means not treating the relatively small statistical size of the problem as a reason to do nothing at all. It means having respect for the lives of those who interact with the police, respect for the lives of those who depend on police protection, and respect for the lives of the police themselves. “Black Lives Matter” has gained currency as a slogan due to a widespread sentiment among black Americans that their lives are not valued equally. There is no single policy reform that can change that overnight, but conservative leaders should recognize that a consistent pro-life ethic and message stand the best chance of acknowledging the historical roots of the mistrust between cops and African Americans, and of making “Black Lives Matter,” “Blue Lives Matter,” and “All Lives Matter” into complementary rather than conflicting sentiments. To respect the lives of all, you must respect the lives of each.
2. Personal Responsibility. The core of conservative thinking about misconduct of any kind, in any line of work, is that individuals are responsible for their own actions. Broad-brush generalizations about “all cops” are just as counterproductive and dangerous as generalizations about “all black people.” When individuals misbehave, abuse their power, or prey on other people, they themselves should bear the lion’s share of the blame and accountability. Conservatives do not believe in the perfectability of mankind: There will always be bad cops, for the same reason that there will always be a need for cops. Moreover, cops exercise government power, which is always prone to abuse and always demands accountability.
The first big step toward individual accountability is to break the power of police unions over the investigation and discipline of individual officers. Conservatives have long argued that unions in general tend to hamstring employers in distinguishing between good and bad employees, and ultimately lead to collective rather than individual responsibility. Public-employee unions in particular are longstanding targets of conservative criticism for undermining democratic accountability in favor of government by the government, of the government, for the government. That is just as true of Republican-aligned police unions as it is of, say, Democrat-aligned teachers’ unions.