Jody David Armour began his education in policing when he was just an eight-year-old boy, trying to figure out why his father had been swept up by the cops in the middle of the night.
The charge was drug possession — the Akron, Ohio police officers claimed a five-pound bag was found hidden in a kitchen cupboard. How or why it appeared there didn’t seem to concern the judge and jury much. Nor did his clear criminal record. What they saw was an outspoken Black man who was running a drug operation out of the apartment building he owned. The sentence was brutal: 25 to 55 years. Armour wondered whether he would ever see his father again.
What unfolded in Fred Armour’s jail cell is the stuff of Hollywood dramas. Through long hours at the library, he taught himself the laws and precedents that led to his sentence, then built a case to overturn the charges against him. It took years, but the successful appeal win taught his son both the power of police and the law itself. It was an up-close lesson in how someone could be framed by bad evidence for being politically motivated and critical of police. The lesson ultimately pushed Jody Armour to become a lawyer himself.
The violence that police can sow on innocent Black people is at the heart of the current movement to radically change how police operate. Like many others, Armour now views the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 as the culmination of a decade of organizing. As a criminal law expert and professor at the University of Southern California, he has pushed for significant reform in both policing and the courts, criticizing police and prosecutors alike.
His own experiences as a Black man in America inform what he calls the “n*gga theory” — the long and deliberate “otherizing” of Black people in America, which now affects all facets of the criminal justice system. The legal and social argument unfolds in his upcoming book, N*gga Theory: Race, Language, Unequal Justice and the Law, but Armour reminds me that the tragedies of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have clarified and sharpened the injustice in plain view.
Armour recalls listening to police chiefs around the country mourn the shooting deaths of Dallas police officers in 2016, and hearing LAPD Chief Charlie Beck note that an attack on a cop is “an attack on America.” By that same coin, he argues that a police officer’s killing of an innocent Black person is an attack on America in the same way.
“That’s not just a private citizen attacking another private citizen. That’s America shooting Walter Scott in the back. That’s America choking Eric Garner to death. That’s America dragging Sandra Bland out of her car and brutalizing her,” he tells me. “That cop is acting under cover of law on our collective behalf, and therefore, he implicates us as a nation. He implicates us collectively when he engages in wrongdoing. His blood is on our collective hands in a way that a random killer’s is not.”
The way out of tragedy and toward change is by significantly reducing the size of police forces and limiting what they can do, Armour explains. The call to defund the police isn’t merely a reactionary protest slogan, he says, but rather a strategy built on literature and research that proves why police fail so often in America to protect its most vulnerable — and actually solve serious crimes.
Last week, I spoke to Armour at length about how years of activism against racist policing has fomented change in cities across America, the crucial details when it comes to taking money from police departments and why reshaping police is merely the first step to transforming the legal system’s inequitable flaws.
When did you first start hearing about the idea of defunding the police? And what pushed you to take it seriously as an academic and lawyer?
It sounded implausible 25 years ago, and it sounded implausible five years ago. It sounded implausible in the same way that prison abolition sounds implausible for many people right now. It’s a similar line of questioning as with prison abolition, and people think, “Well, what are you going to do with killers? What are you going to do with rapists?” By the same token, it initially sounds implausible to hear the phrase “defund the police.” Who’s going to do the work?
But I still remember when it really hit me personally as a concept. It was 15 years ago, when the City of Los Angeles launched its Safer Cities Initiative. They added more than 80 additional police officers in Skid Row, the epicenter of homelessness in L.A. The plan had one purpose in mind: To solve homelessness on the streets by bringing in cuffs and citations and jail cells, because the idea was to police our way out of the crisis. By cracking down on quality-of-life crimes, telling the homeless that the way to get rid of a citation or arrest is by going to a mega-shelter or a 12-step program.
Their view of the problem of homelessness was that it came down to a lack of personal responsibility, not what really leads to homelessness — namely, a lack of jobs, a lack of affordable housing, a lack of mental and physical health care, a lack of social safety necessities. The police never saw it as a macro-level social problem. They thought of it as a personal deficiency. So no wonder they thought they could go in there, with all those resources, all those hours, cracking down and calling it “therapeutic policing” — the “velvet hand in the iron glove.” Safer Cities in L.A. showed me that with a giant budget, you can pour nearly unlimited funds into your police department and end up hurting the people you claim to help.
We squandered all those resources, sent all those people into deeper misery and put all those extra cops on the street for no good reason. We misdiagnosed it then, and we do it now. The problem is and always has been a need for jobs, health care and housing. That’s why I started to understand why defunding, not reform, was critical.
Can a defunded police force still do its job effectively? What should a PD’s role be if you crush down the budget?
The alternative is that once you cut down police numbers, you focus on making officers do what they’re supposed to be best at doing: Going after violent offenders and solving murders. In L.A. and a lot of major cities, you have less than 50 percent of homicides being solved. You have countless jurisdictions where only about 20 percent of the rapes are being solved, with massive rape kit backlogs. It’s not because that PD doesn’t have the resources. It’s because they’re blowing all the resources on patrol cops who pursue broken-window strategies and end up going after low-level, nonviolent offenders.
Part of the problem appears to be that, when it comes to defunding or abolishing the police, the relevant case studies are tough to come by.
Camden, New Jersey is the one that everyone brings up, because the city dismantled its police force entirely, recreated it and ended up with good results. But to be honest, it’s challenging. Alex Vitale, author of The End of Policing, mentioned on a public radio program we did together that we’re in uncharted waters, essentially. We don’t have a lot of empirical examples to point to, but we will be able to learn as we go.
What we know clearly is what’s not working. This may be where federalism really matters, where you have local experimentation with different police departments. We have to be able to observe and learn from that, and apply lessons in real time to other places.
What are the biggest barriers to actually defunding police departments and maintaining it long-term?
The police unions are one big factor, of course, and they have lots of money. They give lots of campaign contributions to politicians. They gave more than $2 million to Jackie Lacey, for example, in her run for District Attorney of L.A. County, and she’s held very few police officers to account in her first two terms, despite many public problems. It would be naive to think that pattern is unrelated to contributions from the police. It also creates a problematic close relationship for cops to help her prosecutors. So that political influence can spread really quick. This goes up to all legislative bodies in California, with lawmakers who have passed bills to stop transparency and accountability for officers accused of misconduct.
These are politicians who, through the years, have learned that it is a political asset to be viewed as tough on crime and high on law and order. It goes back all the way to Bush villainizing Willie Horton, and law-and-order thinking has been bipartisan for more than 30 years now, just like support of mass incarceration has been a bipartisan idea.
But now, voters seem to have developed a different outlook. California was one of the jurisdictions that led the country in brutal three-strike laws 30 plus years ago. Now its electorate is passing things like Prop 47, to reduce a lot of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors, and Prop 57, to reform parole for drug crimes. The voters are now really leading the politicians on these issues and creating change. That’s big. It’s people perhaps recognizing that we cannot police our way out of social problems. We’re over-policed, over-criminalized and over-prosecuted.
It feels like mass protest has been the key to rapid change. We’ve seen a number of cities from Minneapolis to San Francisco pledge to reduce police contracts and even disarm officers who are responding to nonviolent calls. But what tactics are necessary to create lasting change? Is direct action the main tool, or is grassroots organizing still the best plan?
It’s not an either/or, I think. The protest moment of June 2020 is putting real pressure on politicians and policymakers. But the moment itself was born of a lot of political organization and activity in 2013, 2014 and 2015 by the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter activists in that timeframe started to develop an infrastructure, a network of activism, unlike when, say, the Rodney King incident happened. Through a long procession of hashtags and introductions, people created an infrastructure that lasted even when the press stopped paying much attention to BLM.
Those activists never went anywhere. They did the work. For example, you have Black Lives Matter L.A. for the last few years, every Wednesday, marching and protesting and demanding that Jackie Lacey hold police accountable. That kind of effort laid the groundwork for this current moment to be so strong and precise.
Everyone is talking about defunding the police, but what’s the equivalent cause in the court system? As a lawyer, what bothers you most about how Black and brown people are prosecuted?
Qualified immunity is a legal atrocity. It’s an improvisation by the Supreme Court that was created with one purpose: to insulate officers from accountability for flagrant wrongdoing. A lot of times it’s obvious that they’ve done something flagrantly wrong. Nobody can or will deny that they’re doing wrong. But because of some minor difference between their wrongdoing and some earlier officer’s precedent, they get to enjoy immunity from any reprisal.
So that’s a major legal obstacle that needs to be scrapped by lawmakers. Also, changing some of the legal standards for when officers can use deadly force. Saying that you can only use force, lethal force in particular, when there are no less-drastic alternatives is a much tighter standard. It gives prosecutors more legal leverage rather than the standard that as long as you have reasonable fear, then you can use lethal force. It’s what justifies shooting someone with a knife when you have enough space to evade them.
We need to adequately fund public defenders, which also brings up the bloated jail and prison budgets. We spent so much money on keeping people locked up — like $35,000 a year, and that’s the low end. It’s just squandering money on all kinds of low-level offenses. Keeping poor people locked up over a couple grand in bail money is costing us so, so much.
Is it possible to truly abolish the police? What does that concept mean to you?
The language I use is defunding. I’m not quite there at abolition. I don’t see some kind of community tribunal handling the officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he died, right? That’s a case in which you have to have somebody arrested, tried and convicted.
I’m not saying that means that they have to be put to death or even given a life sentence. That gets us back into the same cycle we’re trying to get out of, which is taking the most punitive approach possible when it comes to wrongdoers.
But it’s wrong to think that most people in state prisons are there for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. Most of them are there for violent offenses. And my book asks us to rethink how to punish violent versus nonviolent offenders and come up with a new moral framework for everyone. That includes unpopular violent offenders like [Derek Chauvin] or Amber Guyger, who shot Botham Jean in Dallas. It’s not that we stop holding violent wrongdoers accountable. It’s that it cannot be more important than taking resources away from police. Once we have a leaner police force, we can try to address the crimes that plague the Black community disproportionately, like murder and sexual violence. Once the police focus on that, we can shift our court system, too.
We just have to stop handing out 25-to-life sentences like they’re nothing. In a lot of countries, 15 years is a long sentence. Even murderers do 15. Once we defund police, we can start a real fundamental reorientation in what justice looks like for all cases.
It seems that police officers themselves feel overburdened by too many tasks, ranging from social work to rapid response to a violent incident. That seems to support the need to shrink PDs outright.
Yes, we haven’t addressed the massive bloating of police departments as a result of them being asked to do tasks that aren’t in their wheelhouse. I belong to an organization called Law Enforcement Action Partnership. They came into existence because these officers saw that the War on Drugs would fail, but that the police were being asked to damage minority communities and society in its name. It’s why they began pushing for the decriminalization of a variety of drugs, for example. Now they’ve moved to a broader agenda, and want police to do what police can do best, rather than being forced into an adversarial relationship with the community they’re supposed to protect. That’s the beauty of defunding the police — it emphasizes the overgrowth of it all.
Over the last decade, whether it’s Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Walter Scott, Philando Castile or Eric Garner, whomever the sickening hashtag of the moment is, there’s been a predictable pattern of responses. A wash, rinse and repeat pattern: Namely, convene a commission, hold some public hearings in town halls, let people vent, then come in with some policymaker to propose a fix. The fix was often either technological or some policy tweak — maybe body cams, or policies for “community policing,” de-escalation training, implicit bias training. Now, through the process of elimination, we’ve seen that none of that has addressed or fixed the problem. Minneapolis has all of that and more, and look at where we are.
And I think it’s the perfect moment for my book, because the underlying issue in it is that Black lives don’t matter in America. It didn’t matter at the inception of the country, with Thomas Jefferson and George Washington as slave owners. It didn’t matter after the cataclysmic race war that killed 600,000 Americans, because we went right from slavery to Jim Crow. They didn’t matter after Jim Crow, either. You walk down here in L.A.’s Skid Row, and you see that in the biggest homelessness encampment in America, 75 percent of the faces are Black. You see it in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, when you had those Black people standing on those rooftops with water up to their necks for not one day, not two days, not three days, not even four days in.
And you compare that to the reaction that Americans had after 9/11. There was a panic of empathy for those victims in those buildings in New York. We just got it done. We didn’t let anything get in the way. Those lives mattered. Black lives didn’t and don’t. The reason I call my book N*gga Theory is because that blood-soaked epithet, the N-word, has been used to monsterize Blacks since this country’s birth.
And I want to drive the point home that we n*ggerize Black people in the criminal justice system. When you go into jails and prisons, the same demographic you see on Skid Row is right there. We have to do better than criminalize all our problems and treat people like toxic waste, to be dumped, warehoused and forgotten. That’s what defunding the police is about.