The George Floyd protests have put police reform and, more broadly, criminal justice reform in the spotlight. I haven’t picked up the mantle on these issues, but they are ones that I have given a great deal of thought. 

So that you understand my background, I worked with juvenile offenders and high-risk youth for 13 years. I also spent some time working in community corrections with adult offenders. I have spent time interacting with juvenile court officers, judges, caseworkers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, corrections officers, juvenile facility staff, law enforcement officers, and offenders.

I don’t consider myself an expert, just someone who has spent several years observing the criminal justice system. I also do not come at this issue from a single perspective, which, unfortunately, I see too many people with monolithic views arguing about policing and very few people listening. I also want to emphasize that I am not “anti-law enforcement.”

Calls to disband and defund the police without an explanation of what that looks like and a plan for what will replace a department falls on deaf ears. We live in a sinful, broken world and are people with a sin nature. Until that reality changes we will always need some form of law enforcement.

Since the vast majority of law enforcement activity happens at the local and state levels, this is where most of the reform will have to take place. In terms of police reform, here are some thoughts I have. These are not exhaustive. I will address criminal justice reform in a different article.

1. End Qualified Immunity

Michael Farris recently wrote about qualified immunity at Caffeinated Thoughts. I encourage you to read his article. 

Essentially, “qualified immunity” is a legal doctrine that states law enforcement officers are immune from civil lawsuits unless the officer’s actions that violate a citizen’s rights violates “established law.” The problem is that “established law” is interpreted very narrowly. 

“And this doctrine has been used to say that unless almost the exact same facts have occurred and found to be unconstitutional in the past, then it’s not clearly established,” Farris wrote.

“What’s worse is that the judges aren’t required to go ahead and rule whether or not the actions were unconstitutional so that it is settled for future cases,” he added.

It’s a Catch 22. 

The Supreme Court will take up some cases that could eliminate or narrow qualified immunity. That would be a welcome development.

States and municipalities may have to indemnify law enforcement officers for damages they have to pay as a result of such civil suits. 

However, Ilya Somin at Reason pointed out, “But even if that happens, it would still be a step in the right direction. Indemnification costs money that many local governments will be loathe to pay. They will therefore have an incentive to crack down on abusive officers, particularly repeat offenders who routinely force authorities to pay out large sums to settle claims.”

2. Revisit Training and Pay

Not all law enforcement agencies require their police officers to have formal education beyond training at a law enforcement academy. Iowa’s Law Enforcement Agency’s length of residential training is 544 hours in a 13-week basic training. 

Iowa requires barbers and cosmetologists to have 2100 hours of training and experience before they can receive a license, a vet tech is required to have two years of education, 

Also, Iowa law allows uncertified police officers to be hired, provided they complete their training within one year. 

Think about this; Iowa requires barbers, cosmetologists, and vet techs to have more education than the state’s minimum requirement for law enforcement officers. Now, individual departments may have greater expectations than that, and I hope they do. 

The U.S. Army requires more training for their soldiers than the minimum standard for law enforcement officers. Soldiers had to complete basic and advanced training before they can be deployed. I was a combat medic, I spent eight weeks in basic training at Ft. Leonard Wood, Mo., and then 12 weeks to train to be a combat medic at Ft. Sam Houston, Texas. 

A 2013 Bureau of Justice Statistics report shared what the median amount of hours law enforcement academies spent on different types of training:

  • Firearms skills – 71 hours
  • Self-Defense – 60 hours
  • Criminal/Constitutional law – 53 hours
  • Patrol Procedures – 50 hours
  • Investigations – 41-42 hours
  • Community Policing (including human relations and conflict management) – 41 hours
  • Emergency vehicle operations – 38 hours

I do want to be clear that this just refers to basic training. Many law enforcement agencies have probationary periods for new officers riding along with training officers. Many departments require additional training and recertifications. There are different classes and exams needed for advancements.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect additional extended training at the front-end, however. There should be as much training on de-escalation techniques as there are self-defense and firearms training.

As more training is required, more pay should be considered as well. 

3. Revisit Use of Force Standards

Police should regularly revisit what entails reasonable force. 

Iowa law defines it this way, “‘Reasonable force’ means that force and no more which a reasonable person, in like circumstances, would judge to be necessary to prevent an injury or loss and can include deadly force if it is reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to avoid injury or risk to one’s life or safety or the life or safety of another, or it is reasonable to believe that such force is necessary to resist a like force or threat.”

Iowa law permits law enforcement to use reasonable force when making an arrest. The law states, “(a) peace officer, while making a lawful arrest, is justified in the use of any force which the peace officer reasonably believes to be necessary to effect the arrest or to defend any person from bodily harm while making the arrest.”

It only permits deadly force in two circumstances: 

  1. The person being arrested has used or threatened to use deadly force in committing a felony. 
  2. The peace officer reasonably believes the person would use deadly force against any person unless immediately apprehended. 

The keyword is “reasonable.” 

Unfortunately, as David French wrote at National Review, that fear has replaced reason far too often, and juries have excused it.

This discussion should include non-lethal use of force. Is it necessary to deploy CS gas, fire rubber bullets, and use pepper spray to disperse a protest they may deem unlawful, but otherwise non-violent? 

Is it reasonable to have several officers tackle and forcefully bring someone to the ground when that person is not resisting arrest? 

I say no.

Las Vegas Metro Police Department implemented a policy that an officer giving chase should not be the first person to put their hands on a subject. The new policy stated an officer who initiates a pursuit should not be the first person to lay hands on the suspect, and should instead call for backup. Phillip Atiba Goff, with John Jay College, found when he studied the changes in Las Vegas, a 23 percent decrease in officers’ use of force and an 11 percent decrease in officer injuries after the new policies were implemented. They also discouraged officers from giving chase when they were alone or if the suspect was armed. 

High-adrenaline chases, like foot chases, can cause both the officer and suspect to become angry fast. The Las Vegas policy makes sense, and it protects both the suspects and officers.

Also, the use of chokeholds when detaining somebody should be illegal unless under extraordinary circumstances.  

Law enforcement officers must be willing to use force if needed, but they should also seek to avoid using force if possible. 

4. Reconsider a Different Policing Approach

Is random patrolling of a large area in a police vehicle the most effective means of crime deterrence? Not likely. 

“Broken windows policing” has led to mistrust in the minority communities. 

Instead, police departments should consider a community policing approach. For instance, Camden, N.J. in 2012, disbanded their police department in place of a department run by the county after reaching their peak murder rate. They changed the police culture in the community by implementing a community policing approach. 

A 2014 article in the New York Times highlighted the change and some of the results after just 16 months. The new Camden County Police did things like hiring more officers, eliminating squad car patrols, knocking on doors to ask residents their concerns, and hosting neighborhood events. They noticed a 20 percent drop in violent crime and a 40 percent drop in shootings.

NPR reported, “A majority of the police were rehired, but each had to complete a 50-page application, retake psychological testing and go through an interview process, former police Chief Scott Thomson said.” 

Thomson, who led the county police force from 2013 to 2019, and the city’s force before that noted that Camden’s homicides went from 67 in 2012 to 25 in 2019. Excessive force complaints went from 65 in 2012 to just three in 2019. 

Along with this, things like quotas for arrests and tickets should be eliminated. Departments should look for other outcomes to measure effectiveness.

5. Demilitarize the Police and End No-Knock Raids

Thomson also told NPR that a change of identity was needed in Camden, from one of “warrior” to “guardian.” 

The police department needs to demilitarize, significantly reduce the use of SWAT teams, and end no-knock raids except perhaps in particular circumstances where surprise is necessary to preserve life, and they are confident they have the right location.

There are situations when SWAT is needed, but using them to serve arrest warrants on non-violent offenders should be out-of-bounds. Do police need to receive excess military gear? No. They don’t need MRAVs, Humvees, and other military equipment? Generally, no. 

6. Independent Review and More Transparency

There should be a third-party, independent board consisting of civilians who review police misconduct complaints, has subpoena power, and can refer cases to a special prosecutor for criminal charges. 

Internal reviews are insufficient and often lack transparency. 

All law enforcement officers should be required to wear body cams. In any circumstance where the body cam during an encounter is turned off, that officer should be suspended and terminated if no malfunction is detected or a reasonable explanation is given.

7. Decrease Police Interactions Where They Lack Expertise

Law-enforcement officers are more and more placed in circumstances where they lack training. They receive little training in mental health, but increasingly encounter people suffering from mental illness.

Perhaps departments or cities can hire mental health specialists to accompany police on certain calls. Perhaps when someone calls 9-1-1, the operator can ask what they need and include mental health help in a list of options to accompany police, fire, and EMS.

The same could be said for drug abuse as well as homelessness. There are other services that should be looked to first before involving the police.

8. Bust Police Unions

I believe public sector unions are anathema, and police unions even more so. They are one of the biggest reasons why police reforms are not enacted.  

It should be far, far easier to get rid of a bad police officer. Police have a tendency to circle the wagons to protect other officers. Sometimes that is commendable, other times, not so much.

Police unions make that worse.

Conclusion

Again, I want to emphasize I am not “anti-law enforcement.” I believe most law enforcement officers are honorable and do commendable work. I also believe greater transparency and accountability will help the police rebuild trust where it is lacking and, in the long run, make their jobs easier.

My next article will deal with thoughts about criminal justice reform.

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