Why Police Reform isn’t Dead: The Case for Optimism

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police protest

Baltimore protest against police shootings, 2014. Photo by Bruce Emmerling via Flickr

When then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions in March 2017 ended the Justice Department’s “pattern or practice” program, many police reformers lapsed into despair.

The program involved investigations of violations of peoples’ rights by local police departments and then negotiating consent decrees mandating reform.

The 40 consent decrees and settlements that were initiated under the program since 1994 made notable improvements in previously troubled police departments.

Many experts wondered who would now take the lead nationally in police reforms.

The mood of pessimism was reinforced by the continuing incidents of outrageous police shootings of people, who were disproportionally African American. Had the reforms spurred by the tragic 2014 events in Ferguson, Missouri, accomplished nothing?

Despair not. Police reform is alive and well across the country. You just have to look in the right places. The argument here is developed at length in an Illinois Law Review article.

First, since Ferguson there has been an outburst of police reform ordinances and laws across the country. A Vera Institute report found 79 separate state laws in 35 states in 2015-2016 alone.

Five states passed new laws either limiting certain types of force (e.g., chokeholds) or mandating training for all offices. Several others enacted laws to prevent racial profiling in stops of citizens. Nine states passed laws to improve police handling of mental health-related incidents. An astonishing 27 states enacted laws related to police body-worn cameras

Nine states, meanwhile, passed laws requiring police departments to collect data on officer-involved shootings, traffic stops, and other critical police actions. A Texas law now requires each police department to post detailed information of police shooting deaths on their web sites (see Houston).

City councils have also been very active. Seattle, Chicago, and New York City have created Inspectors General, independent oversight agencies with professional staff that investigate issues of concern in their local police departments. Seattle, meanwhile, created a permanent Community Police Commission, which can recommend new or revised police department policies.

Pathbreaking Reports

A group of reform-minded police chiefs, meanwhile, has made important recommendations related to the control of officer use of force, de-escalation and tactical decision-making, and more effective methods of training. Their group, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has published a series of pathbreaking reports in the last several years.

A 2015 PERF report on training blasted the profession for its over-emphasis on force and control issues, while devoting little to officer communication skills. A 2016 PERF report on use of force urged use of force policies that are actually more restrictive than what the Supreme Court requires.

The PERF reports are based on the current work of police departments. Each one is based on a meeting of police chiefs and commanders who report on what they are now doing in their own departments. In short, they provide a window into the law enforcement profession in the process of change.

Sam Walker

Samuel Walker

In short, the evidence is clear: police accountability-related police reform is alive and well. Stat legislatures, city councils, and many police chiefs across the country are active in controlling police use of force, making departments more open and transparent, and providing for community input into police policies.

Sam Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He welcomes comments by readers.