Police Reform Through a Power Lens

83 Pages Posted: 25 Nov 2020 Last revised: 10 Mar 2021

Date Written: November 16, 2020


Scholars and reformers have in recent years begun to imagine new and different configurations for how the state can design policing institutions. These conversations have increased in volume and urgency in response to the 2020 national uprising against police violence, when radical demands born within social movements have gained steam—demands to defund the police, to institute “people’s budgets,” and to give communities control over the state provision of security. In recent years, within this time of foment and possibility, social movements have been proposing, creating, and sometimes establishing new governance arrangements that shift power over policing to those who have been most harmed by mass criminalization and mass incarceration. These recent pushes by social movements for power-shifting surface a fundamental set of questions about the very purpose of police reform, adding a new way for scholars and reformers to think about the contours and objectives of the state’s provision of safety and security—what this Article terms the power lens.

This Article examines the movement focus on power-shifting in the governance of the police at both the local and national levels. It fleshes out a three-part theoretical account of why the power lens is an important and necessary addition to how scholars and reformers view the regulation of policing. First, shifting power to policed populations is reparative, in the sense that it shifts power downward toward populations who have been denied political power directly as a result of the history of policing policies and practices in their neighborhoods. Second, power-shifting is a means of promoting anti-subordination, based on the idea that it is wrong for the state to engage in practices that enforce the inferior social status of historically oppressed groups. Third, a power lens on police reform promotes a particular view of contestatory democracy, one in which democratic policing has as one of its objectives the facilitation of countervailing power for those subject to the domination of the state. Taken together, the power lens brings a critical eye to the ways in which the construction of the notion of “expertise” often denies agency to the people who most often interact with police in the streets and on the roads. More broadly, the power lens opens up discussions of reform to first-order questions about how the state should go about providing safety and security in our time, with or without the police as we know it.

Keywords: policing, police reform, social movements

Suggested Citation

Simonson, Jocelyn, Police Reform Through a Power Lens (November 16, 2020). 130 Yale Law Journal 778 (2021), Brooklyn Law School, Legal Studies Paper Forthcoming, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3731173 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3731173

Jocelyn Simonson (Contact Author)

Brooklyn Law School ( email )

250 Joralemon Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201
United States

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