America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Pt. 4

The Brave New World of Police Reform

The typical order of events after a highly publicized fatal police shooting looks like this:

1. The Department of Justice (or another external third party agency) comes in and does a detailed investigation of the police department’s policies, personnel and processes.

2. The DOJ either prosecutes the department for civil rights violations, or makes recommendations for things that need to change in the department to improve community relations.

3. In cases where police departments are prosecuted, the DOJ uses the assistance of the federal courts to enforce the implementation of the recommended changes.

4. The police department — still in the spotlight and still under the watchful eye of the federal government — makes some or all of the recommended changes.

But in almost every case, the results produced by federally-mandated reforms are initially promising, but not sustainable over a longer term. In fact, since the 1994 Rodney King beating, when the Department of Justice first began investigating and reforming police departments for excessive force and police brutality, only Cincinnati stands out as a model for achieving both widespread and long-lasting results.

There are only a handful of laws that allow the federal government to prosecute a local police department. In lieu of litigation, the DOJ can also act as a consultant to police departments. The most recent example of this strategy is President Obama’s 21st Century Policing Initiative which provides grant funds and technical assistance to departments who apply for it.

In 2012, the Baton Rouge Police Department — the same department that is now under DOJ investigation for the Alton Sterling shooting — got some of those grant funds. With federal funds, the department launched BRAVE (Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination), a program to reduce violent crime. The Baton Rouge District Attorney championed the initiative and called in multiple experts to help Baton Rouge law enforcement agencies adopt more community-focused, problem-oriented police tactics. The decision was made to train only a subset of the police force and to focus on using these tactics in two predominantly-black zip codes in Baton Rouge — 70805 and 70802. Incidentally, the convenience store that was the scene of the Alton Sterling shooting lies in 70806. Just outside of these two zip codes. Which begs the question: Could the Alton Sterling shooting have been prevented if that zip code was also included in the Baton Rouge police department’s limited reform program?

It’s impossible to say. It’s also impossible for community-oriented policing practices to completely eliminate all fatal police shootings. But it is clear that, if left to their own devices, police departments either aren’t proactive in reforming their policies and practices or, if they are proactive, they simply don’t go far enough in their reforms.

As seen in Cincinnati and in police departments across the country, there are often too many forces at work — politically powerful police unions, inertia from leadership, and external criticism from vocal naysayers — to make serious law enforcement reform worth the risk of angering the public or losing political allies. Even in the wake of a serious and highly visible tragedy where implicated police departments are forced by court rulings to ‘play nice’, they often end up backsliding into the old way of doing things once the heat is no longer on.

READ: America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 5