As so many progressive-minded policing experts have noted, the stars are aligned in a once-in-a-generation moment for major systemic reform. The inclination to shoot for the moon and stars is more than understandable: If not now, when?
I am not a professional student of policing. As a former U.S. attorney, I have spent time with good cops and with not-so-good cops, and I have prosecuted bad cops whose crimes were particularly repugnant to civil society.
My experience leads me to repeat a statement that has been said often in the last few weeks: A majority of police officers are dedicated and honest, and their peacekeeping work is important, necessary and incredibly difficult. Anyone in law enforcement over the last quarter-century or so knows that progress among the rank and file has been substantial, especially in some high-profile jurisdictions, including Los Angeles.
We’ve heard a related statement from some quarters in recent days, that police brutality against black people is not systemic but merely the work of “bad apples.” That argument whiffs on the core problem: Systemic features and practices enable those bad apples and make it insanely difficult to throw them from the barrel. That’s one reason that the rate of fatal interactions with police officers has stayed depressingly constant over the years, at about 1,100 per year.
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A lot of people — fellow cops, police brass, members of the community — know who the bad apples are. Deadly assaults with unreasonable force rarely come out of the blue. Certainly they didn’t with Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis; he had 17 complaints on his record, yet perversely was not only on the beat but assigned to train other officers.
The tumultuous events of the last month illustrate the broader issue. Minneapolis has a famously progressive police chief, who has the support of the mayor and governor. But that didn’t keep Chauvin off the streets.
One systemic problem: The political power, zeal and mindset of police unions, which can all but tie a department’s hands in attempting to remove repeat offenders.
Police unions use their money — the power of political donations — to protect their members’ jobs and, given the nature of those jobs, to keep them out of jail. They win contracts with cities and counties that include tools that defeat transparency and accountability. National legislation aimed, to the extent possible, at breaking unions’ hammerlock on these issues — for example by vesting chiefs or local independent review boards with the authority to override the unions — will occasion a mad battle on Capitol Hill, but it is the fight worth having.
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Another systemic issue: wagon-circling and self-protection endemic to an us-versus-them attitude. A viral video from June 4 shows two officers in Buffalo, N.Y., needlessly push — assault — a 75-year-old man. (They have claimed he is a career agitator, which may be true, but still wouldn’t justify the unreasonable force.) The officers were promptly suspended without pay and the district attorney filed charges, but not before the officers filed a blatantly false report, saying the victim had tripped and fallen. All 57 of their colleagues resigned from the Emergency Response Team in protest of the suspensions (they are seeking reassignment within the department).
Body cameras turned on all the time would go a long way toward undermining falsified reports. So would adopting a one-strike-you’re-out firing policy for false reports. And chiefs need to hit back hard at wagon-circling conduct. These policies would, again, require disempowering police unions.
As to the much more far-reaching idea of “defunding the police,” I think some caution is in order. Shifting some responsibilities away from police to other specialists is logical and appropriate. For example, in Eugene, Ore., a team of medical and mental health professionals is dispatched to answer certain emergency calls. But the experience of the best and most engaged community policing programs suggests that what well-trained officers bring to situations — including the prospect of force — can help keep the peace.
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Defunding proposals also cut directly against policies that underlie some of the biggest success stories in contemporary policing, where more involved and broadly skilled officers aim to become partners rather than occupying forces in the communities they work in. Civil rights attorney Connie Rice pointed out the gains community policing has made in Los Angeles in her Times op-ed Tuesday. Or see the many reports that attest to a turnaround in Camden, N.J., that started seven years ago.
It looks like Minneapolis will now adopt a root-and-branch restructuring of its police force. It’s a virtue of our federalist system that we have the ability to conduct experiments in different policies in individual jurisdictions that then feed the national agenda. What happens next in Minneapolis may tell us how and if “defunding the police” should inform legislation in Congress.
The best development that could come out of the horrific killing of George Floyd would be reforms instituted locally, in statehouses and at the national level that would enact a true zero-tolerance policy for bad cops. To quote Chris Rock, “Some jobs can’t have bad apples.”
Harry Litman is a former U.S. attorney and the host of the podcast “Talking Feds.” He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.
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