John Oliver dedicated all of Sunday’s Last Week Tonight to examining the history of racist police violence, the roadblocks to reform and ways to overhaul law enforcement following worldwide protests over the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.
Oliver opened by showing just how “deeply policing in this country is entangled with white supremacy,” from patrols that captured and returned escaped slaves, to police who enforced Jim Crow in the South, to the “broken windows” approach to law enforcement that filled black and brown neighborhoods with cops. But as funding for police increased, Oliver noted, funding for other social services — such as housing and mental health — plummeted, effectively making the police the only entity in many communities to handle these problems.
“We are asking police to do far too much — they have a massive array of complicated duties that in many cases they just aren’t equipped to handle, making them very much the Jared Kushners of local officials,” Oliver cracked. “Without, of course, the expression, complexion and general demeanor of a haunted baby.”
For Oliver, this fact doesn’t negate any anger towards the police, as he went on to highlight the major obstacle to genuine law enforcement reforms: police unions. Unions, as Oliver noted, are capable of stymieing everything from repercussions for racist behavior to rules meant to decrease police violence. For instance, he showed the head of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association balking at a new rule — enacted six months after the 2014 police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — that required police officers to fill out extra paperwork any time they pulled their gun.
“Ok, first, the idea that the risk of paperwork is a greater deterrent to police officers drawing their gun than the risk of killing someone is legitimately terrifying,” Oliver spat. “And it’s hard to take that glib dismissal from anyone, let alone someone who looks like a boiled Mr. Potato Head or an angry egg with a mustache. And I know those comparisons probably make him mad, but what’s he gonna do, shoot me? I don’t think so — think of the paperwork involved.”
Oliver touched on other facets hampering accountability, such as consent decrees, which rely on action from the federal government, and qualified immunity, which essentially makes cops immune to civil suits. But even getting rid of something like qualified immunity would only mark one step, and Oliver closed the episode by examining plans to completely reimagine and restructure policing. He focused on new rallying cries to defund the police, noting it doesn’t mean eliminating all cops but significantly narrowing their purview and reinvesting funds from their astronomical budgets into other community programs.
“[This is] 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 that it actually serves,” Oliver said. “And this is going to take sustained pressure and attention over a long period of time, from all of us. Black communities have had to be perpetual activists while also routinely being disenfranchised, and it is long past time that the rest of us join to make sure that their voices are heard and acted upon.”