Police Reform Sputters From Failure of Imagination

Behold the human imagination!

Author of the cave drawings of Lascaux, Great Pyramid of Giza, and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; written language, Euclidean geometry, and astrophysics; Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam; classical music, jazz, and rock; the steam engine, jumbo jet, and lunar rover.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder earlier this year at the knee of one police officer and the apathy of three others, calls mounted to overhaul law enforcement in America. In response, Charlotte leaders said they wanted to “reimagine” policing here.

But the best our collective imagination could achieve when we tackled police reform was mostly an agreement to maybe consider doing a few things a little bit differently, a little bit later. As one City Council member put it this week when discussing a particular milquetoast reform, we are now “someplace that we almost already were anyway.”

Behold a failure of the human imagination!

The unimpressive fruits of City Council’s work were harvested this week when it unanimously adopted six so-called reforms — none of which effect any fundamental change to law enforcement in Charlotte and all of which are described in a slick, 32-page municipal publication designed to sell the package of new policies as being the kind of real change they are not.

The so-called Safe Charlotte plan includes:

  • Providing $1 million to non-profits in the community to help them address violence.  While this may well be a welcome development, it doesn’t address how CMPD does its work.
  • Working with an external partner to develop a comprehensive recommendation to convert low-risk sworn duties to non-uniform units. Read closely: This is an agreement to craft something the City Council may then consider. It’s a hedge not just once (to later “develop a comprehensive recommendation”), but twice (Council may then consider, but will not necessarily adopt, this as-yet-unformulated recommendation).
  • Working with an external partner to provide an independent analysis of police-civilian contact and police calls and responses. In addition to being hopelessly vague, this is also an agreement to merely study a poorly defined subject matter. No action is promised.
  • Expanding the Community Policing Crisis Response Team and developing a non-sworn officer model for mental health and homeless calls. This is the closest Council got to taking real action — if there is follow through on cutting the cops out of the business of hassling people who are houseless or sick.
  • Hiring a university or other independent organization to assess CMPD’s youth programs. Again, there’s no action here, only study. And the subject to be assessed assumes continued intrusion by law enforcement into the lives of young people.
  • Enhancing recruitment efforts to convince cops to live in Charlotte by offering them financial incentives. The vast majority of Charlotte’s cops live outside the city and function as paid mercenaries. CMPD could require residency as a condition of employment, but is instead proposing to throw more money at officers.

These six “reforms,” along with a handful of other empty gestures the city and CMPD adopted in recent months, are all that Charlotte’s imagination has wrought.

Officers with CMPD used chemical weapons on protesters during the RNC in uptown Charlotte. Nothing in the Safe Charlotte plan, which aims to “reimagine” policing in Charlotte, will prevent the cops from continuing to pepper spray peaceful protesters.

Even while the city pitched these changes as meaningful at this week’s Council meeting, some elected officials went out of their way to clarify they have no intention of fundamentally changing policing in Charlotte or in any way crossing CMPD.

Councilman Ed Driggs most honestly described the anemia of the Safe Charlotte plan.

“This is not something where we are trying to improve our police department or correct failures of our police department,” he said.

Driggs also admitted what has long been obvious when he noted that CMPD’s recent, celebrated compliance with the minimalist 8 Can’t Wait campaign “was probably someplace that we almost already were anyway.” In other words, no meaningful change.

That’s been the theme of “reimagining” policing here.

“I just want to disavow this idea that we are defunding the police. We are not,” explained Mayor Vi Lyles. “There is no council member that has spoken anything but favorably about the work that our police department does.”

Councilman Larken Egleston, who chairs the city’s public safety committee that was charged with developing the Safe Charlotte plan, expressed his agreement.

“It does not say anything about defunding the police. It does not say anything about cutting police salaries. It is not in any way anti-police.”

Council’s discussion also laid bare the unhealthy place law enforcement currently holds in our collective imaginations.

“These men and women give everything to protect and serve us under normal times, and they’ve been pushed to the edge these last five months,” Councilman Tariq Bokhari claimed with great exaggeration — as though a city of nearly 900,000 people would suddenly fall into anarchy if its roughly 1,750 police officers, who spend much of their time responding to nuisance calls and minor car crashes, weren’t around.

In December 2019, CMPD officers began their interaction with motorist Anthony Caldwell and his passengers by jumping from their car, immediately drawing their firearms, and shouting contradictory instructions that were impossible to follow. We can expect more of the same under the Safe Charlotte plan.

Egleston suggested the interests of the couple thousand cops in Charlotte are somehow equally as weighty as the interests of the city’s nearly one million residents, a sign that we value police officers — that is, armed agents of state violence — more than we value mere citizens: “I think [the plan] does right by the citizens of this community, and I think it does right by the law enforcement officers in this community,” he said.

CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings expressed a similar sentiment.

He told Council his priority while helping to develop the Safe Charlotte plan was to “make sure we are taking care of the officers because they can’t take care of our citizens if we don’t do that.” To the police chief and those who think like him, we are so many children to be watched over and protected from ourselves by our benevolent, gun-toting guardians.

To be sure, other Council members talked about the Safe Charlotte plan being only a start.

“This is not mission accomplished, and this is not mission complete,” Councilman Braxton Winston said. “We have set out on a course of systemic change.”

Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera added, “This is not the end. This is just the beginning.”

But the attitude that has thus far pervaded the work of “reimagining” CMPD, as well as the ethos of the Safe Charlotte plan, suggests any future work will continue to fall short of achieving real change.

That’s not to say no one on Council understands the kind of fundamental reform we need.

Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt captured the essence of the argument behind calls for radical change, even if she didn’t recognize it as such.

“Society has put a lot of the burden on CMPD to solve problems that ultimately lead people to commit crimes or to be in situations where they feel hopeless. They feel like they don’t have options. It leads to situations where crime goes up,” she said.

Eiselt said that issues of affordable housing and mental health contribute to the problems police are tasked with addressing and “frankly, [the cops] aren’t trained to do that kind of work.”

“For too long, we’ve put that responsibility on CMPD where there are needs in this community that have gone unmet because we haven’t addressed it, frankly.”


The real problem isn’t crime, which is merely a symptom (and even then, it’s not one that cops can prevent, but can only react to).

The real problems are jobs, housing, poverty, mental illness, and desperation born of the lack of real opportunities to craft materially secure lives, especially among communities of color.

Cops can’t solve these problems, as Eiselt pointed out.

In fact, law enforcement only makes these problems worse by over-policing poor, marginalized communities, thereby saddling already powerless people with the additional social, economic, cultural, and political disabilities that necessarily come with their entry into our system of cops, judges, and jails.

If only our city leaders understood the accuracy, import, and implications of Eiselt’s words, the work to “reimagine” Charlotte law enforcement could have achieved something worthy of the human imagination and human dignity.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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