Is a revolution in American policing now inevitable? Not so fast

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s poignant funeral yesterday, and the two weeks of unrest that preceded it, there is a sense that America’s police departments will never be the same again.

Congress will soon debate radical reform, including tougher scrutiny of police tactics and an attempt to reverse the militarisation of law enforcement.

America is not a battle zone and Americans are not the enemy, as one former senior US General noted last week.

Surely - as Houston’s mayor suggested on Tuesday in front of mourners - the days of police choke-holds, strangle-holds, aggression, escalation, and shooting-first-asking-questions-later are over.

I’m not so certain.

There have been several times in the last decade when I thought that change was coming to America.

George Floyd was laid to rest on Tuesday in Houston, Texas. Credit: AP

Each came after tragedy. Each time it was a mirage.

After the outrage receded, America reverted back to the status quo. It was a failure of American politics and leadership on a grand scale.

On Decemeber 14, 2012, I arrived in the small community of Sandy Hook in Connecticut to witness the horror of the aftermath of the primary school shooting.

Twenty children, aged just six and seven years old, and six teachers had been gunned down by a psychopath with a semi-automatic weapon.

It seemed inconceivable to me that such weapons of war would not be banned. Surely this was the point at which Congress would finally be forced to act.

The grief-stricken parents of those murdered children launched a national movement, known as Sandy Hook Promise. They demanded change.

It never happened. In fact, sales of AR-15s soared and they continue to sell well.

The Sandy Hook shooting shocked America. Credit: AP

In 2018, after the Parkland high school shooting in Florida, I watched students mobilise across the country, demanding gun reform.

They lobbied Congress and their state assemblies. They were articulate and motivated. It was inspirational to witness.

It didn’t seem posible to me that politicians could ignore the voters of the future.

Again, I was wrong.

To this day, common sense gun reform is out of reach, despite a clear majority of Americans supporting it.

Students marched for gun reform in the wake of the Parkland high school shooting. Credit: AP

So while I watch the anti-racism protests unfold on the streets of American cities demanding an overhaul of police departments, I am doubtful much will change.

Certainly, the protesters have powerful and passionate voices. Their cries of anguish and calls for justice and equality have resonated far beyond America’s shores.

But we know where President Trump and his fellow Republicans stand. They have defended police departments at every turn.

In a shocking twist yesterday, Trump promoted a wild conspiracy theory that an elderly protester was in fact an anti-police agitator.

And even if Democrats win control of the Senate and the White House in November, will they really be able to reform the mosaic of law enforcement agencies across all fifty states?

There are nearly 700,000 police officers in the US. They are fiercely defended by powerful police unions.

And the very scale of police abuses means it will be daunting to control. More than 1,000 people every year are shot dead by police. That’s a vast outlier compared to police shootings in other countries.

There is a policing culture here that is deeply entrenched. With 300 million guns in circulation, law enforcement in America can be a tough and dangerous business.

So while many officers will look at what happened in Minneapolis and see the need for a radical overhaul of their tactics and behaviour, I’m not betting on it.

Like with Sandy Hook and Parkland, the inability to enact meaningful change is part of the reality of a polarised America and a paralysed Congress.