Nationalize the Police

photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

Police and criminal justice reform has to be a priority in our political actions now, and into the future. We cannot wait for interpersonal racial reconciliation to act to legally remedy systemic racial inequities.  (Charles M. Blow  -- NYT, July 30, 2015)

Federalism has utterly failed to protect the lives, rights and interests of people of color, especially Black people. I say "federalism" because while the police are agents usually of local government, local governments are the creations of, and given powers by the states. Or to put it more accurately, Federalism is a key factor to how white supremacy is preserved.

This is how it was intended. The US Constitution was written with the purpose of creating the strongest possible national government that would not have the power to interfere with state systems of slavery, and later, segregation.

Every protection of African American rights that has been won has been implemented institutionally by placing state functions under the power of the federal government. Integration of the public accommodations came through the application of the federal government's power to regulate interstate commerce. Most social welfare programs that have been implemented have allowed for state discrimination against African Americans to somehow continue. (Medicare is perhaps the single exception.)

Federalism is why millions of poor people still don't have Medicaid, even though it is a program funded by the federal government. It is why US food stamp benefits are so uneven across the country., even though all the funding comes from the federal government. It is why states and localities can implement restrictions on the right to vote for the US Congress. It's why state legislatures draw the district lines for congressional representation.

And, most importantly, because this is where white supremacy is enforced most directly, it is why local police are, in effect, unaccountable to any higher authority, or constitutional standard. Federalism is why the problem of killer police seems to be impossible to solve -- why we are forced to wait for some far-off 'interpersonal racial reconciliation."

Local police need to be nationalized. They all need to be under the control of the Federal Department of Justice. It is the only way to create the institutional framework that will make "equal protection of the laws" possible. All law enforcement must be accountable to the full protection of citizen's rights under the Constitution. Their wrongdoings must be investigated, not by themselves and local prosecutors but by neutral fact-finders from somewhere else. Poor police officers should not be able to bounce from one jurisdiction to another. There needs to a national system that involves local citizens in the control and oversight of the police. There needs to be one clear police union contract that does not obstruct the investigation of police misconduct.

Nationalizing the police seems like an unimaginable restructuring of our system of government. It is radical, yes. But is there an alternative that actually ends the death-dealing oppression which is now inflicted on African Americans in the USA today? 


  1. Anonymous4:02 PM

    I don't know if there's an alternative, but I shudder to think of further militarizing the law enforcement of our municipalities, which I fear might be a consequence of federalizing. I have lived in England, where a billy club was a bobbie's only weapon, and in Lebanon, where armed policemen roamed the streets with Kalashnikovs slung over their necks. The less lethal the weapons the fewer the deaths.
    Maybe along with federalizing we can insist that our law enforcement officers are the kind of people who don't shoot first and then ask questions.

  2. I think the legal and cultural aspects to nationalizing would be insurmountable, but that centralizing them at the state level would be the next best option. Even very conservative states like South Carolina are more responsive to political and economic pressure (see the Confederate flag) for reform than local municipalities. Also a state-based force would alleviate the economic pressure on urban areas with declining tax bases that have to handle the cost of public safety largely on their own.


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