America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Pt. 5

What Real Police Reform Would Look Like

It’s obvious that what we’ve been doing to change law enforcement in this country for the past couple of decades isn’t working. Police departments have proven incapable of or unwilling to effectively self-regulate. Waiting until an egregious or lethal case of police abuse occurs to force individual police departments to reform is a too-little, too-late approach. Even in the unlikely cases where indictments, prosecutions and imposed reforms occur, the organizational structures and internal cultural norms that create and protect bad officers, while often silencing good ones remain in place.

It’s also obvious that police abuse of power, use of excessive force, racial and class bias in policing tactics and special legal and disciplinary treatment for police officers are not isolated problems occurring in individual police departments. They are systemic issues that can be found in every police department in America.

Yet we have failed to diagnose and effectively treat the problem as systemic. We’re still handling them as one-off incidents. Despite the good intentions and the dogged efforts of the Department of Justice, the President’s police task force and the few police departments that have been proactive about change, we’ve done little more than put a very pretty dress on a very ugly pig.

What we need is to teach the pig some new tricks.

We need a fundamental change in what it means to police. On what the police’s role is in the communities they serve. We need to change the role of police from enforcers working on behalf of the state to protectors working on behalf of their communities.

One approach with more teeth than current tactics would be to set federal minimum standards for law enforcement agencies or require certification/accreditation of law enforcement agencies by an independent third-party. Every police department within the country would have to meet these standards to be in compliance with federal regulations or to achieve certification, much like individual officers have to be certified or meet minimum standards before being considered fit for police service.

Standards should include requirements for:

Rigorous police training programs. Adopting the UK’s model for police training and staffing would require more specialized training for both rookie and veteran cops.

Use of unarmed and volunteer police forces in addition to regular, armed police forces. Unarmed officers would deal with minor issues in communities like traffic violations, noise complaints, etc. A more specialized, armed police force would deal with more serious issues. This would lower the barrier of entry for qualified people to serve as officers, and could increase the number of police living in and serving local communities.

Collaborative agreements between police unions and local civil rights and community agencies. These legally binding, federally-mediated agreements help monitor and govern how the police interact with public — including information reporting, public access to crime and police data, etc.

Annual reviews of police disciplinary actions. To ensure that discipline taken against officers is consistently applied and doesn’t attempt to skirt normal legal procedures available to all citizens.

Regular mental and emotional health screenings for officers. An officer’s mental and emotional health is directly connected to the manner in which (s)he relates to people both on and off the job. Officers should be routinely assessed for stress, anger management, anxiety and phobias (including race-based anxiety and phobia). Officers who do not respond successfully to treatment and remediation for diagnosed issues, should be removed from public service.

In addition to reforms that affect police departments, reforms that affect the general public — like increased gun control and decriminalizing minor drug offenses and victimless crimes — would go a long way in reducing the potential for fatal interactions between the police and the public.

These are lofty goals, and since there is a strong and vocal contingent in the US who sees any federal intervention in local and state police practices as downright communist, it’s unlikely that we’ll see any significant progress on federal regulation of police departments any time soon.

But, given the lack of viable alternatives that:

1. Provide for systemic reform that affects all police departments at once,

2. Don’t rely on reform as a one-off punitive action (i.e., lengthy investigations and court proceedings after suspected misconduct),

I believe these goals are goals worth fighting for. Even if it takes another 20 years to achieve them.

Until then though, I live in a world where sunny, carefree days can be sharply interrupted by a chance encounter with an officer, and a quiet but pressing question at the back of my mind.

“Could I be next?”

READ: America’s Broken Law Enforcement Model — What We’re Too Afraid to Fix, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 & Part 4