The year of reckoning: How 2020 revealed the fault lines in American policing
Updated 4:12 PM ET, Fri December 18, 2020
(CNN)Every morning, Victor Wahl walks into his office with a sense of dread.
Months of intense protests and heightened scrutiny have left the acting police chief of Madison, Wisconsin, like many in his shoes, on edge about what lies ahead.
"I'm fearful to find a bunch of resignations on my desk," said Wahl, whose department has lost twice the number of officers this year compared to previous years.
The national reckoning over race and policing -- sparked by the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day -- resulted in more than 10,000 demonstrations nationwide. At one point, Wahl's department faced 119 straight days of protests.
"We're asking so much of officers now," Wahl said.
The killing of Floyd -- compounded by a string of other high-profile police encounters -- has driven the public outcry for change in policing, with some calling to defund or abolish police departments entirely. Agencies have faced frequent Black Lives Matter protests, armed counter protestors, and demonstrations over Covid-restrictions and election results -- with much of the interactions with police instantly captured on video, leaving little room for excuses and louder demands for transparency and accountability.
What's more, a generation of older cops who joined the profession during hiring sprees in the 1990s are ready to retire. And, there is evidence that some officers are rethinking their careers and leaving their jobs. Meanwhile, agencies throughout the country are struggling to attract new recruits to their ranks.
All this has led policing in America to a defining crossroads: Will there be substantive reforms to improve how law enforcement protects and serves the community, or will the energy of 2020 dissipate and allow agencies to retreat to their traditional ways of enforcing law and order?
"It worries me that the profession as a whole does not see the damage we've done to our communities," said RaShall Brackney, the police chief of Charlottesville, Virginia. "Without that understanding and reckoning of it, it will continue."
How 2020 delivered a 'collision' of challenges
An officer's knee on George Floyd's neck. Another shooting Rayshard Brooks twice in the back. Yet another shooting paralyzing Jacob Blake from the waist down. Each Black man's encounter with law enforcement -- captured on video -- became a potent symbol for a growing movement challenging police authority and thrusting the actions of police beneath a national microscope.
Even cases that didn't have publicly available video -- such as Breonna Taylor, an EMT-turned-ER technician who was gunned down in her home, or Julian Lewis, who was shot during a traffic stop along a country road in east Georgia -- still gripped communities, big and small, with sweeping protests.
"When we see officers killing a person of color, it doesn't just raise the anger of a potentially unjustified killing. It raises the anger of another potentially unjustified killing involving this troubling, repetitive racial dynamic," said Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor.
Though Floyd's killing was hardly the first, 2020 revealed a massive, galvanized movement against police brutality with unprecedented reach made possible by a national coalition of local groups working in unison.
The Movement for Black Lives -- bolstered during the 2015 national convention of over 50 black-led organizations, including Black Lives Matter, Dream Defenders, BYP 100, Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and the families of 20 victims of police killings -- provided the infrastructure that allowed thousands of organizers to mobilize millions of people in all 50 states this summer, despite a deadly pandemic, according to Monifa Bandele who sits on the leadership team of the Movement.
The historic scope of the outrage this year has some researchers suggesting that Black Lives Matter is the largest protest movement in US history, with estimates of up to 26 million people participating in demonstrations across the country by June, according to the New York Times. Between May 24 and December 5, more than 10,000 demonstrations associated with the Black Lives Matter movement took place, according to US Crisis Monitor, a joint effort by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) at Princeton University, which collects and analyzes real-time data on demonstrations and political violence in the US.
The vision for police reform is as diverse as its stakeholders.
Police departments and unions say the answer lies within unifying national policing standards and improving existing policies, which they insist requires more resources. Activists contend that cutting police budgets and reducing police interactions are the best ways to limit harm.
But in the absence of well-funded social welfare services, those very stakeholders see an American society that relies heavily on law enforcement to handle issues ranging from homelessness and mental health crises to maintaining student safety in schools.
"2020 has just been a collision of so many pressing challenges," said Cynthia Renaud, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. "And law enforcement has been at the forefront of all of those trying to respond to it, trying to work and serve their communities, and also trying to be responsive to the change and the changes that our society has been so vocal that they want."
A race against the clock
In the wake of Floyd's death, nearly 20 police chiefs have left their posts, many after facing criticism from their communities, including over use-of-force incidents and how their officers handled protests. At least 40% of them were minorities -- women, people of color and/or members of the LGBTQ community.
"The one thing that is really troubling in all of this is the laying off of innovative and progressive police chiefs. Often, it's a knee jerk reaction to a controversial incident," said criminology professor Michael White at Arizona State University. "But given the political climate, city government is moving way too quickly to remove a chief or call for their resignation in response to one incident."
Maintaining diversity among the ranks when the nation continues to grapple with systemic racism is key to changing policing culture within departments -- a culture which has typically supported straight, conservative, white men, said Natalie Todak, assistant professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"We want to build a police force that is as diverse as the communities they serve, to have cultural awareness and protection of life strategies ... The exodus of progressive police leaders is the opposite of what we want to see right now," she said.
In Charlottesville, Brackney says she feels the pressure of implementing meaningful change in a race against the clock.
"I worry I can't do enough before I'm forced out in some way," she said. "Before I have the time to put in place the institutional safeguards that will protect the community from a profession that hasn't had to undergo the right scrutiny for a long time."
Brackney was sworn in as Charlottesville's first Black female chief of police just a year after the deadly "Unite the R