Bi-Partisan police reform is necessary but is it possible?
In the wake of the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis, it is clear that we are in need of serious reform in the way our police departments operate. This should not be a partisan issue. Conservatives, who always speak of their fear of excessive government power, should be concerned about the evidence of abuse of such power by police departments, an arm of government.
The evidence that real reform in how we train our police officers is needed is overwhelming.
The demands that we “defund” the police coming from some on the left are highly irresponsible. As crime grows in many cities, it is minority communities that would be left most vulnerable. Fortunately, few Democrats in positions of authority share such views. In fact, the liberal Democratic mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, recently announced a 3% increase in the police budget to $1.76 billion.
In Los Angeles, shootings have increased by 80% in the past year and homicides are up 28 percent.
The police play a vital role in our society.
My son Burke was a police officer for six years. Every time he left the house for work, I was worried about his safety. In that time, I had the opportunity to meet many police officers, of every race and background. They were dedicated to serving their community and did so at real personal risk.
The actions of police officers like Derek Chauvin only make their job more difficult.
We need to review the way we train police officers.
Recruits in the U.S. spend significantly less time in police academies than those in most European countries. Basic U.S. training programs take 21 weeks on average whereas similar European programs last more than three years. In Finland and Norway, recruits study policing in national colleges, spending part of the time in an internship with local police to earn degrees in criminal justice or related fields.
Joachim Kirsten, a senior professor of criminology at the German Police University said that police training in Germany covers everything from how to respond to cases of domestic violence to how to disarm someone with a lethal weapon. In this case, he said, “The emphasis is not on using weapons or shooting.”
Rather, trainees are encouraged to de-escalate, resorting to lethal force only when absolutely necessary.
This is a European-wide standard.
In some countries, the rules are stricter. Police in Finland and Norway require that officers seek permission before shooting anyone, when possible. In Spain, police must provide verbal cautions and warning shots before resorting to deadly force. Even where weapons aren’t used, police officers in Europe tend to be more restricted in what they can do. Chokeholds of the kind used to immobilize, and ultimately kill, George Floyd, are forbidden in much of Europe. Some places in the U.S., including Minneapolis, California, and New York, have since banned chokeholds and other similar restraints as well.
In Germany, police recruits are required to spend 2 1/2 to 4 years in basic training to become a police officer with the option to receive the equivalent of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in policing. Basic training in the U.S. can take as little as 21 weeks or 33.5 weeks with field training.
In the view of Paul Hirschfield, associate sociology and criminal justice professor at Rutgers University,
“Less time is afforded to guidance on crisis intervention or de-escalation if you only have 21 weeks of classroom training. Naturally, you’re going to emphasize survival…If you change the rules of engagement, if you make it more difficult to use deadly force, legally and through training, then police departments need to adapt their tactics.”
Last year, the U.S. recorded more than 1,000 killings by law enforcement, dwarfing the number of police-related deaths in other Western countries. Canada had 36, Germany had 14, and England and Wales had 3. Lawrence Sherman, director of Cambridge University’s Centre for Evidence-based Policing, notes that,
“There is a major difference in the level of harm that police do in carrying out their duties in a society that, to begin with, has far more guns than Britain could ever imagine. It creates a very different starting point.”
The U.S. has approximately 18,000 law enforcement agencies at the city or county level with anywhere from 1 to 30,000 officers. Standards and practices vary widely. American policing has no federal oversight authority. Lawrence Sherman suggests that the establishment of an Inspector General of Police or some such equivalent of the British Inspectorate at the state level would improve things.
Such a commendation was made to President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was established after the fatal 2014 shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. An authority of this kind would monitor police forces to ensure that they are abiding by rules and regulations and cutting off funds if they don’t.
Other recommendations included the establishment of a National College of Policing and a registry of dismissed officers to ensure that those who are fired aren’t simply rehired elsewhere. None of these recommendations were ultimately taken up. Others have suggested changes including fewer traffic stops and no longer stopping cars for expired license plates but, instead, taking a picture of the expired plate and sending a ticket in the mail.
However, the Obama administration failed to take these recommendations under consideration.
In the wake of the George Floyd murder, the House has passed H.R. 7120, the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act.
The bill addresses a wide range of policies and issues regarding policing practices and law enforcement accountability.
Among other things, it lowers the criminal intent standard – from willful to knowing or reckless – to convict a law enforcement officer for misconduct in any federal prosecution. It limits qualified immunity as a defense to liability in a private civil action against a law enforcement officer. It authorizes the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas in investigations of police departments for a pattern or practice of discrimination.
The bill also establishes a framework to prohibit racial profiling at the federal, state, and local levels and creates a national registry – the National Police Misconduct Registry – to compile data on complaints and records of police misconduct.
The bill bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants in drug cases. It requires that deadly force be used only as a last resort after officers have employed de-escalation techniques first and limit the transfer of military-grade equipment to law enforcement agencies. This legislation passed in the House by a party-line vote. It is now being considered in the Senate.
There is the hope of bipartisan support for legislation on this subject, if not approval of the House bill as written.
Taking the lead for Republicans is Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC).
Sen. Scott’s proposal is more modest. It would require increased reporting of the use of force and no-knock warrants. Provide grants for law enforcement to be equipped with body cameras and require departments to maintain and share officer disciplinary records. And it would require the Justice Department to develop and provide guidelines to de-escalate police encounters.
It would establish several commissions, including one to study the conditions affecting black men and boys.
When it comes to the question of police immunity to civil suits, Scott said that one potential compromise is holding liable police departments, rather than individual officers.
“I think that is a way that we can make progress towards a bill that actually has the kind of that I think is helpful,” said Scott, who is working on this legislation with his Democratic colleague, Sen Corey Booker (D-NJ).
Sen. Scott, who in the past has discussed his often negative interactions with the police as a black man, says,
“I think we’re in a position now to move forward and I think I am cautiously optimistic that we’ll find a path forward. I think we’re making progress on the entire bill.”
During the presidential campaign, Joe Biden pledged that as president he would work “across the aisle to reach consensus.” Conservative commentator Marc Thiessen declaring,
“Here is his chance. Just as President George W. Bush reached out to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to pass bipartisan education reform, Biden should reach out to Scott to work with him on bipartisan police reform. He should insist that Senate Democrats bring the bill he negotiates with Scott…to the floor and pass it with a filibuster-proof bipartisan majority. He should call on House Democrats to support the compromise he reaches with Scott.”
Police reform, which recent events have shown to be vital for the well-being of our society, should not become a basis for partisan controversy. After his election, President Biden said that,
“The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another, it’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make.”
In the case of police reform, let us hope that Democrats and Republicans will cooperate, recognizing that neither side can get 100% of what they would like. Inaction in the face of cases like that of George Floyd and Derek Chauvin is not an acceptable public response.
About the Author:
Allan Brownfeld is a veteran writer who has spent decades working in and around Washington, D.C. Brownfeld earned his B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen’s Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia, and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times-Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonwealth, and The Christian Century. Visit his Writers Page to learn more.
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