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FRONTLINE: Policing The Police 2020

A demonstrator raises his arms towards a convoy of police vehicles during a protest in Oakland, Calif. in May 2020 after the death of George Floyd.
Courtesy of Stephen Lam/REUTERS
A demonstrator raises his arms towards a convoy of police vehicles during a protest in Oakland, Calif. in May 2020 after the death of George Floyd.

Airs Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 at 9 p.m. on KPBS + Thursday, Sept. 17 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2 + PBS Video App + YouTube

Amid a National Reckoning Over Racism, FRONTLINE and Writer Jelani Cobb Investigate Efforts to Reimagine Policing

There will be an early release for streaming, beginning at 4 p.m. (7 p.m. ET) on the night of premiere.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black people, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of the police this year sparked a push for racial justice and calls for change. On Sept. 15, in a documentary called “Policing the Police 2020,” FRONTLINE and New Yorker staff writer Jelani Cobb examine the realities of race and policing in America.


“In this country, race is shorthand for a set of life probabilities. The odds are different in Black America — of dying of COVID. Of being poor. Of being incarcerated. Of being abused — or even killed — by the police,” says Cobb, a historian at Columbia Journalism School who has written about issues of race and policing for The New Yorker for years. “Our new documentary asks the core question: Can policing be done differently — and is there the will to make the change?”

The film explores that question through the story of Newark, New Jersey, which has been undergoing an experiment in police reform for several years. In many cities across America this summer, police met both protesters and members of the media with force.

But things remained relatively calm in Newark — whose police force was ordered to reform by the Department of Justice in 2016 after a federal investigation found a pattern of civil rights abuses, the brunt of which was borne by Black and Latino residents, and whose mayor, Ras Baraka, recently diverted five percent of the public safety budget towards social programs aimed at reducing violence and addressing the root causes of crime.

Baraka has publicly opposed calls to abolish police — he wants to keep them — but has been advocating for treating violence as a public health crisis, not a problem to be solved with policing alone. “I think defunding's necessary, right? I think it's necessary to begin to divert funding from police organizations to social services,” says Baraka, a former activist who went to college with Cobb and who speaks candidly in the film.

Cobb and producers James Jacoby and Anya Bourg first began examining policing in Newark for the 2016 FRONTLINE documentary “Policing the Police.” Now, “Policing the Police 2020” traces how the reform effort has played out in Newark — where prior to federal intervention, approximately 75 percent of stops by officers were found to have no documented legal justification — and how President Trump’s Department of Justice has largely abandoned federal efforts to compel systemic change in police departments.


Fixing the Force

Since 1994, the Justice Department has had the power to investigate law enforcement agencies nationwide for a pattern or practice of civil-rights violations. Federal officials can then compel departments with systemic problems to enter agreements to reform. Explore the investigations by location, date, allegation or status, then click for more details about each case.

Christy Lopez, who led many of the DOJ’s civil rights investigations of police departments under President Barack Obama, says the Trump administration’s approach harms both police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve: “If you tell police that the previous administration was abandoning you because they were insisting that you comport yourself consistently with the constitution, then you are telling police that they have a right to police without comporting themselves to the constitution,” Lopez tells FRONTLINE.

The film also examines the debate over holding police officers accountable. The U.S. Supreme Court has established that an officer can use force if they believe there’s a threat to their own life or the lives of others — a standard that activists have criticized as allowing officers to operate with near-impunity. James Stewart, head of Newark’s largest police union, says that external scrutiny of officers’ use of force is unwarranted.

“The police aren’t going out there just looking for violent encounters or looking to, you know, physically impose their will on people,” Stewart tells Cobb. “What does a cop want? We want to come to work, do our job and go home. We want a positive interaction with the community. But, you know, everybody's piling on, everybody's against you. There's protests or rallies all the time, anti-police this, anti-police that. You know, it's a difficult atmosphere to want to be a part of in 2020.”

Prior to federal reform, police officers in Newark didn’t know some elements of the law, says Peter Harvey, the federal monitor overseeing Newark’s progress. Newark’s head of public safety, Anthony Ambrose, says the federal reform process has brought about positive change, enabling the department to get its officers new and needed training: “If that's what it takes to get it done, then I'm for it.”

Ambrose also praises the work of the Newark Community Street Team, an alternative violence reduction program that enlists former gang members to defuse conflicts and work as mentors. In July, Baraka gave $11 million to programs like the street team, money he got by diverting five percent of the public safety budget.

“We talk about overaggressive policing, and police killing our kids with impunity. I’m like, how do we deal with it? We reduce violence and crime in our own neighborhoods,” says Aqeela Sherrills, who heads the Newark Community Street Team. “Then that way there’s no need for, you know, 20 cops y’know? Because if we making the neighborhood safe, then maybe we only need five and we need to deploy them strategically. And then we can have better relationships with them, because we’re not putting all of this pressure on our cops to do things.”

Peter Harvey cautions that the national push involving defunding police should be weighed against the fact that reforming them costs money, too.

“I think you have to invest in certain components of police agencies if you want high quality policing,” Harvey tells FRONTLINE. “If you're not going to give police agencies adequate resources for the components that matter — bias-free policing training, community engagement, use-of-force training… then you are asking for trouble.”

Cobb has the perspective of a historian, and through that lens, he finds that policing is just one of many longstanding systems in America — from education, to housing, to health care — that need to change if the goal is racial equity. It’s a view Baraka echoes.

“The police represent a larger system … they're enforcing these people's values, right?” Baraka says. “More African-American women die giving birth than on the streets by police, because of inequity in the damn hospital, right? And, every institution in America has the same values that the police department has in America. The police just got guns.”

Related Article: What Happens When Police Are Forced to Reform? by Kimbriell Kelly, Sarah Childress and Steven Rich

Tune in or stream:

"Policing The Police 2020" premieres Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020. It will be available to watch in full at and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on PBS stations and on YouTube at 9/8c.

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The film is supported by Chasing the Dream, a public media initiative from WNET in New York that examines poverty, justice and economic opportunity in America.

A FRONTLINE production with Left/Right Docs. The correspondent is Jelani Cobb. The producers and writers are James Jacoby, Jelani Cobb and Anya Bourg. The co-producer is Megan Robertson. The senior producer is Frank Koughan. The executive producers for Left/Right Docs are Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.