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Video: Walter Katz on How to Reform Policing in America

As Walter Katz, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, watched the excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds of George Floyd's death unfold, he had only one question: Again? Here, he discusses the concrete actions necessary for real change.

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Along with the images came a million different questions. How could Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin remain so indifferent to the repeated and desperate pleas that were coming from the person pinned beneath him? Why aren’t the other officers intervening? Is this horrific case an anomaly or simply a reflection of the broader problems that exist within the current state of policing in America? It is safe to say that the killing of George Floyd has brought with it a wave of indignation and a national period of self-examination. But as Walter Katz, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures, watched the excruciating eight minutes and 46 seconds unfold, he had only one question racing through his mind: Again?

“It’s been six years since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in a street in Ferguson, Missouri and almost six years since Eric Garner was killed with a chokehold in New York City,” said Katz. “And here we are. After all this effort to talk about reforming the police, of involving the community, of improving trust and legitimacy, I think a lot of people looked at what happened in Minneapolis and said, ‘What has really changed?’ ”  

Katz has been involved in America’s criminal justice system long enough to know that addressing the issues wrought by systemic racism is a painfully slow and difficult process. He was repeatedly reminded of this fact while serving as a public defender, police auditor, and as a law enforcement consultant. But Katz says that his first lesson — a cold but necessary rite of passage for any Black American — came to him as a young boy growing up in Chicago.

“The Black American relationship to policing is unique,” said Katz. “And there is not one Black individual — man or woman — in America, who did not at one moment in their childhood lose that innocence when they are told about what racialized violence is, and how to comport themselves when contacting or being in contact with a police officer.”

The data support the need for such painful conversations. African-Americans make up 13 percent of our nation’s population, but account for 27 percent of all arrests. Black men typically face a bail amount that’s 35 percent higher than white males when faced with the same crime, and Katz says that an unarmed Black man is 17 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than a white man. That inequity, combined with the brutal and callous nature of Floyd’s death, has sparked hundreds of thousands of people to gather on the streets in protest, especially among the nation’s younger population.

“A whole new generation has come up as activists,” said Katz. “They were raised to be socially aware and socially conscious from a very young age. And because they are aware of social inequity, they are at the forefront now and their voices are being heard.”

In regards to specific measures of reform, Katz calls for the following:

Remove Qualified Immunity for Officers: “There are shields in court which make it very difficult for people who have been victimized by police to hold the police accountable. This stands as a barrier to civil rights litigation relief.”

Limited Role of Police Unions in Review & Sanction Process: “There is nothing wrong with having pay, benefits, and even scheduling be part of a contract. But if you read many of these police contracts, they regulate and control, to an extreme extent, what the role of accountability and discipline is within that department.”

Enhance Transparency: “Ten to 20 years ago, many states were passing these really broad and expansive ‘Peace Officer Bill of Rights’. And what they were doing to a great extent was making the actions of police officers the opposite of transparent — in fact shielding records, shielding misconduct from public accountability.”

Uniformed Certification & Qualification Requirements: “We need certification and qualification requirements that are at least statewide, if not nationwide, so that all officers are on a register. So that, if they are disciplined for misconduct, if they are under investigation for serious misconduct, they’re flagged on that register as part of a do-not-hire list. We need to look at the number of officers who can resign from departments under clouds of suspicion while under investigation for serious misconduct or deadly use-of-force and then walk out that door and walk into the door of a different police department right down the street. That shouldn’t be.”

Katz firmly believes that each of these measures represents a critical step in addressing the deficiencies and shortcomings that have plagued police departments across the country. He says they will help restore — or in far too many cases help to implement — a sense of trust between members of the community and the badged officers who have sworn to maintain their safety. And at a minimum, it may even help to delay the question that Katz says he is dreading the most. Again?

Watch the video above, or read the full conversation here:

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David Hebert

Let’s start with the case that everybody’s talking about: The death of George Floyd. Your general impressions on the case itself and then all of the fallout that we have seen since then.

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Walter Katz

Well I think the general impressions as the initial word that I thought when I first heard about it and saw the video which is, "Again?" It’s been six years since Michael Brown was killed by a police officer on a street in Ferguson, Missouri. Almost six years since Eric Garner was killed with a chokehold in New York City. And here we are, after all this effort to talk about reforming the police, of involving the community, improving trust and legitimacy. I think a lot of people looked at what has happened in Minneapolis as well as in Louisville and said, "What has really changed?" So it’s a real challenge that we really haven’t come as far as a lot of people would’ve thought we’d have come to at this point.

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David Hebert

To someone like me, someone on the outside, on the periphery, who doesn’t live and breathe criminal justice every day, this feels different — the response feels different, bigger, more passionate. Are you getting the same sense or do you feel like, "I’ve been tricked before and nothing concrete came out of it?"

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Walter Katz

Well I think there are a couple different dynamics that are at play. The first is that within two or so days of the video becoming public that numerous police chiefs across the country stepped up and said that this crime was an abomination. Too often in the past, people in policing, including police chiefs, have said very little. There’s always this professional respect for the process that occurs and often it’s talked like that: “Let’s wait for the process to play out.” I think there are a couple of things which were in play here. The first is that the video is blatantly obvious, that Mr. Floyd was presenting no threat whatsoever. The second was the actions of the police officer, which is having his knee on the neck of Mr. Floyd, which in most departments who have policies like that or train officers in how to use bodily weights to control a person, do not have the knee on the person’s neck. Officers are trained to use very different tactics. So in terms of the response by the public, it has been a groundswell of revulsion at what occurred, and I think partially it is the same dynamic that it was so public. And the one thing also I did not mention is the behavior of the officer. The nonchalance that he showed, that went on for eight minutes. That he had his hands in his pockets like he just didn’t care. That his fellow officers just stood there and didn’t intercede. Everyone could see. And it’s ironic that today is the anniversary of Tiananmen Square, just like everyone could see what the truth was when that hero stood in front of the tank on Tiananmen Square, so could people see who that police officer was, and that this, despite of every effort and so many prior instances to demonize the victim, that in this instance there could be no way to create an excuse for the officer, for how he behaved.

The other thing at play is because we have gone several years now past Ferguson, a whole new generation of young people have come up who are activists. They were raised to be socially aware and socially conscious from a very young age, and because they were raised like that, because they may have been in high school during Occupy Wall Street, because their formative years were exactly during Ferguson, because they are aware of racial equity front and center, they are at the forefront now, and their voices are being heard.

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David Hebert

So concrete measures: What is it that you are recommending and pushing to different departments across the country? What is Arnold Ventures wanting to see? There’s a lot of talk about change in the general sense, but can you give me just a few specifics about what might make a difference to prevent a tragedy like this from happening in the future?

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Walter Katz

I’ll take one minor step back. Which is, what a lot of people are thinking now that we’re in this situation again — and it’s even worse than just a few years ago — because now we’ve also seen the response by too many police departments, which is violent repression of peaceful protests. Yes, there were looters, yes there are rioters who are resorting to violence, but by no indication is it any but a small percentage of the people who are out there protesting. What we saw in Lafayette Square earlier this week — when peaceful demonstrators were forced out of the park with force, and punches, and batons, and sting balls — showed everybody what occurs when authority can act unchecked. So what people are saying is that, "Wait a minute, we’ve had de-escalation training, we’ve had implicit bias training, we’ve had community engagement, and we're still here." And so there’s recognition that there’s systemic barriers, which are keeping reform from truly taking hold. You know the officer in Minneapolis, had something like 17 prior complaints. He’d been involved in two or three prior officer-involved shootings. He’d killed before, yet he was still on the force in spite of the great risk that he presents to the public. And so people are saying, "Well what are these barriers?" And I have some thoughts about that.

The first is to recognize that there are shields in court which make it very difficult for people who have been victimized by the police to hold the police accountable, and that’s called qualified immunity. It stands as a barrier to civil rights litigation relief.

The second is — and a lot of people are surprised about this — police officers in most states are members of public police unions. And there’s nothing wrong with having pay and benefits — even scheduling — being part of the contract, but if you read a lot of these police contracts, they regulate and control, to an extreme extent, what the role of accountability and discipline is within that department. In terms of timelines, in terms of not having to be interviewed right away after an officer-involved shooting, a number of measures which make accountability extremely difficult. So I think we need to be taking a look at qualified immunity. I think we need to be looking at the breadth of collective bargaining agreements.

Thirdly, 10, 20 years ago, many states were passing these really broad and expansive — what they are calling, “Police Officer Bill of Rights” — and what they were doing to a great extent was making the actions of police officers the opposite of transparent — in fact, shielding records, shielding misconduct from public accountability. So that would be the third thing that we need to be looking at, which is “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights.”

The fourth thing, the fourth systemic barrier we should look at is a number of officers who can resign from departments under clouds of suspicion, while under investigation for serious misconduct or deadly use of force and then walk out that door and walk into the door of a different police department down the street. That shouldn’t be. You need certification and qualification requirements that are at least statewide — if not nationwide — so that all officers are on a register, so if they are disciplined for a misconduct, if they are under investigation for serious misconduct, that they’re flagged on that register as a “do-not-hire list.”

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David Hebert

You are doing several interviews with different media outlets right now. Give me just a general sense of the tone of the questions. It seems like media across the board, it’s rare, but it seems like unanimity as far as condemnation. Are you getting that tone from reporters when they ask you questions that "This is horrible, how do we fix it?" Or are they saying, "No it’s a murky, it’s a gray area?"

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Walter Katz

The issue has resonated, and the questions that are being asked are far deeper than they were a few years ago during Ferguson and Eric Garner and the “I can’t breathe” movement. Because there’s a realization that something is deeply wrong. That there is apparently something broken in policing. I don’t think that it has gone unnoticed in the media that during these protests, it strongly appears that reporters, the media, were at times being singled out, if not targeted by some police officers. When we see a CNN cameraman, a black CNN news reporter, being arrested in the field — CNN. I think the media, the press, is understanding what the stakes are.

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David Hebert

The response, the protests that we’ve seen so far in response to the killing of George Floyd have been overwhelmingly peaceful, and I think it’s fair to say they’ve been multicultural, very inclusive. Does that give you hope, the fact that this is not a response that is strictly coming from the African-American community, but really America by-in-large is coming down and saying this is horrible, and not only is it horrible, we have to see some change this time?

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Walter Katz

First and foremost, it has to be centered in racial equity. It is no mystery what is occurring with policing and people in communities of color — primarily Black Americans. The reality is, is that a young Black man is 17 times more likely — who is unarmed — an unarmed young black man is 17 times more likely to be killed by the police than an unarmed young white man. That’s a massive disparity that can’t be explained away other than by racism, systemic racism, as well as individualized racism about how, for example, threats are assessed. So the fact that it's a multicultural response is great, but I am concerned, when I saw a protest last week which seemed to be hijacked by outsiders who were not from African-American communities, who are coming into African-American communities and essentially claiming the mantle, for example, of Black Lives Matter. I think people — it should be multicultural, it should be inclusive but people who want to be involved in this movement, who want to be involved in police reform and provide greater racial equity, for black Americans — need to understand that the black American relationship to policing is unique. It is built on a history of slave catchers. It is the reality that black Americans live with. And there is not one black individual, man or woman, in America, who did not one moment in their childhood lose that innocence when they are told about what violence, racialized violence is, and how to comport themselves when contacting, or being in contact, with a police officer.