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Police reform: An important and cogent issue for Conservatives and Liberals

Written By | Jun 14, 2020
Police, Police Reform,

Photo by Lauro Rocha from Pexels –

WASHINGTON:  The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who had a long list of complaints against him for prior bad behavior, IS preceded by a steady stream of killings of unarmed black men and women in various parts of the country.  The killing of Floyd has properly focused attention on the need for reform of our police departments. This is something that both conservatives and liberals should find important.

Conservatives, in particular, frequently express concern about the abuse of government power.

What is a greater abuse of power than for police officers, representatives of government, to take innocent lives?  In Louisville, in possession of a no-knock warrant, police broke down the door of Breonna Taylor’s apartment and killed her.  Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was fatally shot by Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD).

She had not been charged with any crime.

American police and the pervasive use of force

Police in the U.S., it is pointed out, rely on the use of guns and violent force more than other Western nations.  The average police officers in Norway, New Zealand, Iceland, Britain, Ireland, and some other European countries, are not armed.

Overall, the absence of firearms appears to lessen the level of tension between officers and civilians.  Professor Paul Hirschfield of Rutgers University notes that while police can be armed in most European countries, they have nowhere near the level of police killings.  Hirschfield, who studies why American police officers kill more people than their European counterparts, found that police shootings in the U.S. in 2014 were 18 times more lethal than in Denmark. One-hundred times more deadly than in Finland.

The legal framework in the U.S. is different from that in Europe.

The European Convention on Human Rights allows police to use deadly force that is “absolutely necessary,” in contrast police in the U.S. are permitted to do so if they have “a reasonable belief” that their lives are in danger.  Rules differ in different European countries.  In Spain, for example, police officers must first fire a warning shot and shoot at a non-vital part of the body before they shoot to kill.

All of the available evidence indicates that black men and women are the victims of police misconduct far more frequently than other Americans.  During traffic stops producing no arrests in a 13-month period in  2013-14, police in Oakland, California handcuffed 1,466 African Americans but only 72 whites, according to Stanford University psychologists.

While 72 percent of the officers had handcuffed a black who wasn’t arrested, 74 percent had never done so to a white. Handcuffing blacks was “a script for what is supposed to happen,” the study concluded.

A 2019 study of 100 million traffic stops nationwide found blacks more likely than whites to be stopped but less so after dark when officers couldn’t see a driver’s race.  Blacks who were pulled over were more likely than whites to be searched.

We could fill pages with studies showing the biased treatment blacks receive from the police

A 2016 examination of files and mugshots determined that “the whiter one appears, the more the suspect will be protected from the police force.”  Off-duty black officers trying to stop crimes are more at risk of being shot by fellow officers than their white counterparts.

Comprising 10 of the 14 killed between 1995 and 2010, according to a nationwide study commissioned by the New York Governor’s office, “Inherent subconscious racial bias plays a role in ‘shouldn’t shoot’ decisions made by officers of all races and ethnicities,” the study declared.

No matter how high their status in society may be, black men and women remain the subject of police attention.

Consider Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) who went to the Senate floor recently and described being repeatedly stopped by police officers over the course of his life—-including seven times in one year——“the  vast majority of the time  for nothing more than driving a new car  in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.” (Sen. Tim Scott was pulled over by police 7 times in a year.)

Sen. Scott, who is now working on legislation for police reform, says,

“…while I thank God I have not endured bodily harm, I have felt the pressure applied by the scales of justice when they are slanted.  I have felt the anger, the frustration, the humiliation which comes with feeling that you are being targeted for nothing more than being just yourself.”

While radicals speak of “defunding the police,” or eliminating police departments entirely—a position which sounds very much like anarchy—-there are indeed many reforms that would make our police departments fairer.  One of these I would change “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that shields officers from lawsuits, by lowering the bar for plaintiffs to sue officers for alleged civil rights violations.

Another section of a law now being considered in Congress would change federal law so that victims of excessive force or other violations need only show that officers “recklessly” deprived them of their rights.

The current statute requires victims to show that officers’ actions were “willful.”

The Bill also seeks to ban chokeholds, carotid holds  and no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level.  To keep “problematic” officers from bouncing from one law enforcement agency to another, this legislation would create a “national police misconduct registry” to compile complaints and discipline records.

The police play an essential role in society.

Human nature being what it is, it is a legitimate function of government—-perhaps it’s most legitimate—- to protect all citizens from those who would attack their lives or property.  But the police themselves must act within the rule of law which, unfortunately, some do not.  The reforms now being considered would be an important step in the right direction.

My own attitude toward the police has been informed by the experience of my son Burke, who was a police officer for six years.  Through him, I met many police officers, black and white. They faced danger each time they put on their uniforms.  I was always relieved when Burke returned home from his shift.

For citizens, it is comforting to know that dialing 911 will bring rapid assistance.

To think society could function without the police is an illusion.

However, in light of the serious shortcomings that have been revealed, wanting to make the police more accountable is also necessary. Many advocate community policing, in which police officers become real parts of the community.  My son was involved in the production of the widely praised documentary film “Charm City,” about police-community relations in Baltimore.

We should use this moment for serious change, which should be embraced by Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives.  The safety and stability of our society depend upon it.

Lead Image: Photo by Lauro Rocha from Pexels


Allan C. Brownfeld

Received 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 Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.