Police abuse and violence and the protests that they have triggered make it clear that some things about policing need to change. “Defund the police” is a popular slogan but is used to mean a wide variety of changes from radical ideas of outright eliminating standard police departments to much more modest proposals to change how policing works. The common elements seek change to make policing less violent and more constructive and accountable.
Policing emerged and evolved as an effective way to provide immediate and necessary elements of a criminal justice system in response to violations, as well as to intercede during emergencies as needed. Few want to see that go away, but can we keep that baby while throwing out the bathwater of policies, practices and culture that have generated too many violent encounters between police and citizens and too many unjustified killings by police? I want to suggest three sets of reforms that make sense for the Sarasota region of Florida, where I live.
First, our elected officials must commit to diligent oversight of law enforcement agencies. Yes, micromanagement is bad, but so is insufficient oversight. Treating use of force, violent encounters and even community interactions by law enforcement as strictly a management issue is part of the problem. Those are, in fact, matters of policy and accountability to the community being protected and can even be crimes.
A great first place for elected officials to start is to demilitarize our law enforcement agencies. This means to stop accepting military weapons and inappropriate military equipment. The tactical gear, especially weapons, used by the military to fight a war creates a warlike mentality that is not appropriate policing where most of the time the job is helping people or dealing nonviolently with suspects. Moreover, the mere existence of military weapons in the hands of police makes their use inevitable.
Second, stop all participation in asset forfeiture programs. Law enforcement should not receive the spoils of impounding people’s property, which has been shown to influence investigations and arrests for financial gain. And because asset forfeiture takes property before prosecution, it is deeply and fundamentally wrong and creates distrust in the community.
Third, and most pervasively, is the failure to enforce a self-policing environment where officers can stop a colleague who is crossing the line or make an internal complaint and be supported. This is not just a management issue. An officer speaking out and acting to discourage bad actions by “bad apples” must have recourse above management. It is our political leaders’ job to ensure that police work is done for the good of the community, not the good of the department, so it cannot be left to management alone.
Hiring and Training
Local leaders can also change policing by changing who is hired and how they are trained. Background investigations should reject applicants with demonstrated temper problems, a screening that should be as important as credit checks and physical ability. Along with firearms and physical training, academies should emphasize a clear understanding of individual rights and grounds for reasonable suspicion for detainment. Most of the problems that arise are from unreasonable detainment of individuals, which then escalate into the use of force. When it does escalate, officers who have been trained mostly to handle problems with guns and tasers are more likely to use them. Academy training should spend just as much time on scenarios that call for de-escalation as shoot/don’t shoot scenarios. And just as important, training on how to recognize and step in when another cop crosses the line. Until the academies make those changes, we can ask for candidates who have had such training or provide it locally.
Police often lament review and criticism of their split-second decisions, but that’s not a good reason to drive the process into secrecy. Giving in to this impulse fuels distrust between law enforcement and the community. When police actions are on display, police leaders will make sure they don’t reflect badly on the department, which creates an incentive for better training.
Policing serves the community, so to the extent possible we need to make police records open and data transparent and available, even if investigation means they must be anonymized. The internet allows a lot of transparency with minimal staffing effort. The more important thing is the culture of openness. Elected officials and law enforcement management should identify broad categories of public data — such as the use of force and complaints against officers— to be shared online and narrow criteria for withholding information.
A great aid to transparency in law enforcement is dash and body cameras. Everyone, even police, acts differently when others are watching. Cameras are no panacea and don’t radically transform police-citizen interactions, but the National Institute of Justice review of the data confirms that modest but positive effects on police behavior. For officers who have nothing to hide, these cameras are invaluable aids to both police exoneration and prosecution of offenders.
Legal issues are no excuse for the lack of body cameras in Sarasota. In Florida, 22 sheriff departments and 102 police departments use body cameras. Legal issues are not a barrier. It is only the lack of resolve and commitment by local elected officials and law enforcement management that has prevented their use here.
A world based on “if you never do anything wrong you won’t have anything to worry about from the police” only works if all police are angels and infallible, which isn’t the case. And a world with no police only works if citizens are all angels — also not the case.
The goal of all of these reforms is to make it easier for law enforcement to help citizens, and for them to work together on fighting crime, less hindered by the growing lack of trust and cooperation many are feeling right now. It is all about finding ways to have the goals, expectations, and practices of law enforcement align with as many of the community as possible, not just a simple majority.