John Oliver Offers Solutions for Police Reform in Stirring Last Week Tonight Performance

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver devoted its entire running time Sunday to confronting the country's ugly history of racial prejudice and violence in policing.

Last Week Tonight John Oliver Police Brutality
Photo: WarnerMedia

“It’s genuinely impossible to overstate how enraging that is,” John Oliver said of a video clip showing a man being singled out from the crowd, maced and dragged off merely for criticizing the overbearing police presence at a protest. HBO‘s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver attempted to do the impossible by dedicating its entire Sunday night episode to police brutality. Oliver talked about the history of law enforcement, Hollywood’s love affair with the police, and the need for reform which was highlighted prominently in the protests following the killing of George Floyd. Oliver called law enforcement’s response to the protests “frankly sickening,” and explained why there is a growing movement to defund the police.

The entire episode is available to watch on YouTube:

“If police are trying to convince the public they’re not guilty of using excessive force it’s probably not a good idea to display excessive force on national television,” Oliver explained in his patented way of stating the obvious to the clueless. He broke down his coverage into three parts: “How the fuck we got to this point; what the obstacles to reform have been; and what we can do going forward.” The violent response to the protests this week is the “tip of a very large iceberg.”

Oliver backed this up with alarming statistics. Black Americans are two and a half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by police. One in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police. “If you are black in America, I can’t even imagine how scared, angry and exhausted you must feel,” Oliver said. “The police are just one part of a larger system of racial inequality.” Excessive force police officers use against the black community is part of the police system.

“It didn’t start this week or with this president,” Oliver points out. It runs through the entire history of policing. “It’s about a structure built on systemic racism that this country created intentionally, and now needs to dismantle intentionally—and replace with one that takes into account the needs of the people it actually serves,” Oliver explained.

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“America loves nothing more than a renegade cop that doesn’t play by the rules,” Oliver said, skewering Hollywood’s glamorous portrayals of police. Tinseltown abets the larger whitewashing of the history of police. Some of the first law enforcement units in the United States were slave patrols Americans didn’t want to give up white power just because slavery ended. “We have the power to pass stringent laws to govern Negroes,” Oliver quoted from a post-Civil War era Alabama planter’s statement. “This is a blessing, for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them.”

A hundred years later, police enforced segregation laws in the South, and sometimes took part in lynchings. While White America celebrated 1967 as “the Summer of Love,” black people faced police brutality and violent put downs of Civil Rights protests. Nixon’s “fealty to law and order” and the Reagan administration’s war on drugs disproportionately targeted black communities. President Clinton increased the force by putting 100,000 police on the streets and encouraged them to make their presence known. Both Republicans and  Democrats increased policing budgets, encouraged zero tolerance policing and paved the way to the militarization of police and the “stop and frisk” policy.

While more money was being spent on police, social service budgets were slashed. Many of the additional problems this brought with it, were pushed on the police to solve. “Every societal failure we put it on the cops to solve,” David Brown, former chief of the Dallas Police, says in a clip. This included underfunded solutions to mental health problems, drug addictions and loose dogs.

Oliver agreed the cops are being asked to do too much with too few resources or training, like Jared Kushner, only without the “expression, complexion and general demeanor of a haunted baby.” Last Week Tonight reported on the militarization of police six years ago, the effects of that led to the show of force used against protesters this week and a new form of warrior-style police training. “Only a killer can hunt a killer,” we hear “Killology” expert Dave Grossman tell cops at an Ohio Police Training Seminar from the Field of Vision video “Conditioned Response.” The Minneapolis mayor banned that kind of training after the death of Philando Castile. Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, defied it and urged other officers to attend because they would not actually be punished.

Police unions make it hard to discipline cops, Oliver said. More than 1,881 officers were fired for misconduct at the nation’s largest police forces, but over 450, “that’s almost 25 percent,” were reinstated after union contract appeals. Oliver showed a 2018 news clip where Minneapolis police officers decorated a Christmas tree with racist items and posted it on social media. While the mayor said the cops would be fired by the end of the day, one officer’s case is still under arbitration.

“When faced with accountability they don’t like, unions will often issue the ultimate threat: simply pull back and let crime rise,” Oliver said. This warning was represented by a clip showing New York’s police union rep saying cops should “take it a step slower” after a judge recommended the officer who killed Eric Garner be fired.  Using the threat of “inaction against killers” is a bargaining chip most unions don’t have at their disposal. The “step lower” resulted in an 11% drop in felony arrests, 18% drop in misdemeanor arrests and 32% drop in moving violations, and the city did not plunge into chaos, Oliver pointed out.

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Oliver didn’t only criticize. He made suggestions. He pointed out that the Federal Government “has the power to investigate police departments for a pattern of civil rights violations.” He explained that a consent decree can get a police department to agree “to make institutional changes which are then overseen by a federal court.” While this can be a powerful tool to force change, Oliver says “The problem is: how or even whether the government does that depends on who’s running it, and right now, it’s this wildly unsuccessful bible salesman. And he clearly has no interest in police reform.”

During his first term as president, George W. Bush’s Department of Justice launched 12 investigations on police departments. Barack Obama’s DOJ launched 15 in his first term. President Trump has launched one with zero consent decrees. The president practically gives consent. “Please don’t be too nice,” we hear Trump say at a 2017 address to police officers. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over, like, don’t hit their head and they’ve just killed somebody. Don’t hit their head. I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”

Civilians can act against police officers civilly by suing the city or individual officer, and cases have been settled for “astonishing” amounts but most officers have “qualified immunity,” we hear Defense Attorney Mark Shamel says in a news clip. This makes it hard to sue public officials unless their “exact” conduct has been already ruled unconstitutional in a previous case. But Oliver says “If you’re spending over a billion dollars on misconduct settlements you might want to seriously examine what conduct looks like.”

While the Supreme Court has the ability to shut down Qualified Immunity, it doesn’t look like it will be happening any time soon. So, “What do we do now,” Oliver asks. He dismisses Joe Biden’s “shoot them in the leg instead of the heart” alternative as a choice between where or whether to shoot a suspect.

He points to Camden, N.J., which skipped the incremental changes and forced the police department to restructure from “the ground up.” Officers had to retrain and reapply for their jobs. He then discussed defunding the police, a “phrase that on its face may sound alarming to some,” Oliver said, before showing Fox News host and “professional alarmist” Tucker Carlson becoming quite alarmed by the prospect.

“First of all, in all sincerity, Tucker, you seem nervous,” Oliver says. “This is a difficult moment, and I really hope you’re taking time for yourself and whether it’s through meditation or yoga or … just kidding. Fuck you forever, Tucker Carlson, you sentient polo mallet.” Defunding the police doesn’t mean eliminating the police. “It means moving away from a narrow conception of public safety that relies on policing and punishment and investing in a community’s actual safety — things like stable housing, mental health services and community organizations,” Oliver explains.

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Oliver promised this will not lead to The Purge.

It isn’t a question of how cops do their jobs, but what their jobs actually are. “This is going to take sustained pressure and attention over a long period of time from all of us,” Oliver says. “Black communities have had to be perpetual activists while also routinely being disenfranchised and it is long past time for the rest of us to join and make sure their voices are heard and acted upon.”

Social Scientist Kenneth Clark told the Kerner Commission, which was investigating the 1967 Detroit riots, felt the reports on the uprising was like reading the reports of the 1919 riot in Chicago, the Harlem riot of 1935, or the Harlem riot of 1943. “I must again in candor say to you members of the Commission, it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction,” Clark concluded.

Oliver ended the episode with a video of Kimberly Jones, co-author of I’m Not Dying with You Tonight. “There’s a social contract we all have where if you steal or if I steal there’s an authority who comes in and they fix the situation,” Jones said. “But the person who fixes the situation is killing us. So the social contract is broken.” She says the people who complain about destroyed Target stores should feel “lucky that what black people are looking for is equality and not revenge.”

John Oliver may very well be saying what everyone in his audience is thinking, or preaching to the choir. But it is good to hear it articulated by growing voices.

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver airs Sunday nights on HBO.

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