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Patrick McCarthy headshot

Uptick in Police Violence Offers a Chance for Brands to Address the Root of the Problem

A protester holds a sign that reads "I can't breathe."

This is the second article in a two-part series about brands addressing police violence — click here to read part one.  

In 2020, corporations donated billions of dollars to under-served and over-policed communities hoping to correct the deep-rooted systemic injustice that breeds police violence and brutality and underscores every aspect of our country.

It didn’t work. 

An estimated 1,096 people were shot and killed by U.S. police last year, according to tracking from the Washington Post. That’s the highest number since the paper began keeping track in 2015 — with a disproportionate number involving Black Americans. U.S. police have killed 436 people since the start of 2023.

Creating a cultural renaissance to reduce police violence

When it comes to a polarizing topic like police violence, brands often prefer to weigh in with solutions-based rhetoric, rather than just restating the problem. So, brands are far more interested in suggesting police reform projects and less interested in publicly condemning police violence. 

“Positive action and language always has more staying power,” said Diane Primo, CEO of the Purpose Brand agency. “Gun prevention versus gun violence, think about it like that. That creates lasting impact.”

Primo recommends an approach that’s different from many advocates, calling on brands to work toward creating a cultural renaissance in police forces that have been perceived as having a bias against Black communities.

“The police's relationship with the community has broken down. A few bad apples have tainted the reputation of the dedicated officers who are committed to serving and protecting the community,” Primo said. “Local governments and the citizens they protect rightfully hold them accountable.” 

So, how can brands support police-community engagement? “Continuous retraining and re-engagement with the community continues to be paramount,” Primo said. "Therefore brands should consider supporting and funding training and community engagement programs. Brands should ask police leadership what they need to accelerate their own transformation. I don’t think there’s a police force in this country that isn’t grappling with these issues while facing budgetary constraints.”

Police reform requires additional funding for police departments. If pro-reform Americans don’t want this additional funding to come out of local budgets, then they ought to embrace the concept of brands funding police department reform projects, Primo said.

Still, she understands the skepticism from critics wary of increased investments in police departments, the majority of which already boast hefty budgets. Though public safety across the nation has become inextricably linked to malpractice, corruption and the avoidance of accountability, Primo observed that similar issues are also prevalent in other sectors like healthcare, where a solutions-oriented approach has been effective.

“No one has a problem leaning in and saying, ‘Let me figure out ways to help ensure there is equitable health care,’” Primo said. “We know there are plenty of organizations with the ability to tactically provide solutions — what I'm proposing is not radically different.”

To achieve the police reforms advocates seek, it may be necessary to fund, rather than defund, police departments — just not directly. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) goals, community outreach, de-escalation seminars, and interventions with problematic perspectives are all initiatives that brands can finance for police departments. 

“It's not necessarily pledging money to the police department open-ended. It's providing restricted funds to accelerate their own internal transformation and engagement with the community,” Primo said. “These funds should be dedicated to rebuilding processes that embrace diversity when hiring, promoting and engaging with the community. This ensures institutional change. This is equivalent to the same internal diversity challenges that corporations and brands face. I would argue that it is brutality of a different sort.”

Cops can take a page out of corporate America’s DEI playbook

Police departments increasingly find themselves tasked with addressing the symptoms of larger societal crises that complicate a police officer’s normal duties. Black-and-white laws cannot accommodate the gray space created by systemic issues like poverty, socioeconomic inequality and community disinvestment.

“The issue of policing is far more complex than many understand, meaning they are really at the center of things that are socially and economically so out of hand. This creates its own set of unique problems,” Primo said. "When you have a community that is not healthy because they can't get jobs. They don't have a living wage to support their families. There's a transportation issue in their community. There's a healthcare issue in their community. When you're talking about crossing the ZIP code and having mortality change. That’s going to create a special set of problems.”

These same communities, though, hold the key to unlocking a better model of policing. In communities that harbor strong distrust, fear and skepticism of law enforcement, there lies the potential for a new generation of police officers who are better equipped to navigate the challenges of enforcing the law in an underserved and over-policed community.

Yet in areas where police departments have acted downright antagonistic toward civilians, how are these same departments to recruit from a group of people who have only ever had negative experiences with cops?

Once again, companies have the potential to bridge this gap, Primo said. If brands really want to commit to police reform, they will need to invest in reforming both police personnel, as well as the communities they serve and protect.

“What dollar amount can brands give to support education? What dollar amount can brands give to create a better relationship between the community and the police, and actually fund more positive policing in the community?” Primo asked. “Helping the police figure out how to attract more prospects of color into the police force so they, too, achieve diversity.”

American police officers lost the trust of the people they are supposed to protect. For many young people, trust in police is not eroded — it is non-existent. To win it back, police need to plant the seeds of community engagement. And corporations can help connect these seemingly incompatible camps. This young generation recognizes the power of corporations to enact change and has leveraged brands to act on various topics in the past, including police violence. So, it is not a stretch to suggest activists could again pressure corporations to fund police reform. 

“Sticking power really is about how to create positive change — you don't approach that negatively. And that's why during the George Floyd protests, people talked positively about, ‘What can I do? What does this mean?’” Primo said. “From a brand perspective, think about the transparency that was created in your own organization with the acceleration of DEI reporting, DEI officers and DEI hiring. The question remains: Will it continue, and what will the impact actually be today and over time?”

For this to work, though, police must commit to reforming their own procedures and perspectives. Brands must commit to putting their money where their mouth is and continue their reform work after the media stops covering it. Activists must acknowledge that abolishing and significantly defunding the police are unrealistic goals — the pursuit of which fails to address, and even exacerbates, the present policing problems.

“We know that whenever there's a crisis, positive change can come out of it,” Primo said, “There is potential here for positive change, for brands to support the police in very positive ways.”

Image credit: Cooper Baumgartner/Unsplash

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Patrick is a freelance journalist who writes what the robots can't. Based in Syracuse, New York, Patrick seeks to uplift, inform, and inspire readers with stories centered on environmental activism, social justice, and arts and music. He enjoys collecting books and records, writing prose and poetry, and playing guitar.

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