John Oliver Calls for Drastic Police Reform on 'Last Week Tonight'

John Oliver chose to forgo the usual Last Week Tonight format in favor of spending his entire episode Sunday night talking about the police brutality that led to the anti-racism protests that followed the May 25 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis who pleaded for air as a white police officer pressed a knee into his neck.

After spending a few moments criticizing Trump for his photo op outside a church holding a Bible, "hid[ing] from protesters in a bunker" and invoking Floyd's name while making an announcement about employment numbers, Oliver moved on to the crux of Sunday's show: the police.

He showed footage of protesters protesting excessive force by police who ended up being pepper sprayed by officers "like it's fucking sunscreen."

"We took [this video] Saturday morning," Oliver said. "Who knows what will have happened Sunday night? Maybe they'll be using grenades, even as The New York Times to weigh in with an op-ed titled 'Why We Need to Bring Hitler Back to Life as a Robot Right Now.' They just think it's valuable that you read that point of view. I mean, they didn't, but they think that you really should."

Oliver told viewers that he wanted to focus on "how the fuck we got to this point, what the obstacles to reform have been and what we can do going forward."

He started out by noting that police have typically been portrayed as heroes in movies and shows like what he jokingly called "Cranky Gun Grandpa" (referencing Clint Eastwood films), "Cocaine Cops Who Fuck" (Miami Vice) and "Manic Bigot and His One Black Friend" (Lethal Weapon). "America loves nothing more than a renegade cop who doesn't play by the rules. But the reality of policing is and always has been very different," he said.

Oliver said the history of law enforcement has always been "entangled with white supremacy." 

"The police have not just been incidentally tainted by racism," he said. "For much of U.S. history, law enforcement meant enforcing laws that were explicitly designed to subjugate black people," Oliver said. 

He went back to the earlier days of America, talking about when "slave patrols" were tasked with capturing and returning slaves. But when slavery ended, that didn't mean that many white people stopped wanting to have "control" over Blacks in a way designed to elevate whites.

"For a century after that, police in the South were responsible for enforcing segregation while allowing and sometimes participating in lynchings and anti-Black terrorism," he said. Even those who moved to the North still faced brutality, along with limited housing and economic opportunities.

During the '90s, the school of thought was that minor offenses needed to be handled with "zero tolerance" lest they lead to more serious crimes, resulting in "the saturation of police in low-income communities of color," according to a Time report Oliver cited. He said it also paved the way for "stop and frisk," which allowed the police to search people at random. In 2011, of the nearly 7,000 stops in New York, more than half were of Black people, while a third were of Latinos.

Oliver called out Democrats who were in favor of putting more police on the streets during that time, including then-President Bill Clinton, who repeatedly made calls of putting "100,000 more police on our streets" and, after that was funded by Congress, adding "50,000 more, concentrated in high-crime neighborhoods."

Oliver then argued that cops are being trained to essentially go to war, showing footage of a training session by Dave Grossman in which they were told they are "predators." He calls himself an expert in "killology," and the officer who fatally shot Philando Castile, a Black man, during a traffic stop had taken a class based on Grossman's theories.

Oliver then moved on to the obstacles stopping police reform, including unions. When two Minneapolis officers decorated a Christmas tree in an offensive manner in 2018, the mayor announced they'd be fired by the end of the day, "only to have to almost immediately walk that statement back, saying that there was a process that they were required to go through by law." A year and a half later, one of those offiicer's cases is still under arbitration, Oliver noted.

"I get unions fighting for their workers; that is what they do," Oliver said. "But police unions take that to a dangerous extreme and negotiate language into contracts that makes removing a problem officer incredibly difficult."

He cited a Washington Post study showing that about 25 percent of fired officers at the nation's largest police departments were rehired after appeals that were required by union contracts.

Oliver also discussed "qualified immunity," which makes it hard to successfully sue an officer, or any public official, who exhibits inappropriate behavior, given that they can argue they were just doing their job and, therefore, immune from lawsuits.

So, Oliver asked, what do we do now? "Unfortunately, some prominent Democrats have been spitballing ideas that are embarrassingly small and perhaps none more ridiculous than this," Oliver said, cutting to a clip of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden suggesting that police be taught to shoot unarmed people in the leg instead of the heart. "Wow, that lack of imagination is not particularly inspiring, but also not particularly surprising coming from Joe Biden, who is truly the 'getting shot in the leg instead of the heart' candidate right now," Oliver said.

He argued that, instead, more drastic measures be considered, including "rethink[ing] the police from the ground up."

One idea: Oliver cited the Camden, New Jersey, police department, which dissolved the department completely and forced officers to reapply for their jobs. New policy changes led to a drop in excessive force complaints and "some rebuilding of community trust," Oliver said.

He also mentioned the idea of defunding the police, which many people have been calling for. He explained that the concept does not mean doing away with police altogether but rather investing in community programs like stable housing, mental health services and community organizations.

Oliver also showed photos of police kneeling at protests but argued that more needs to be done.

"We need so much more than that because ours is a firmly entrenched system in which the roots of white supremacy run deep, and it is critical that we all grab a fucking shovel. To do anything less would be absolutely unforgivable," he said.

Oliver ended by showing part of a video of author Kimberly Jones talking about the protests, letting her words conclude the episode. Watch the video he pulled the clip from below, followed by Oliver's full segment about police brutality.