Ignore the Headlines: Police Reform is Moving Ahead

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California last year enacted an extraordinary police accountability law defining as public records police investigative files in three areas of police misconduct: where an officer has been found to have been involved in the death or serious injury of a person, to have engaged in the sexual assault of a person while in duty, or to have been untruthful in a police proceeding.

The law, which took effect January 1 this year, cracks open the long-secret world of police misconduct, including the notorious practice of police “testilying,” in which officers lie in official reports or when testifying at trial. News media in the state have been busy since January filing public records requests for files covered by the new law.

The California law is only one manifestation of a burst of police reform nationally since the tragic events in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, involving new state laws, new local ordinances, important initiatives by two major state attorneys general, and reforms by progressive-minded police chiefs.

You wouldn’t know this if you only follow the national news media, which focus mainly on outrageous fatal shootings and beatings by police officers. Stories on police reform also cited the Trump administration’s cancellation of the Justice Department’s “pattern or practice program,” which had obtained judicially-enforced consent decrees mandating sweeping police reforms in troubled police departments.

In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, police reform is “not dead yet.”

State legislatures have been extremely active on police reform. A national survey by the Vera Institute found that in 2015 and 2016 34 states and the District of Columbia passed a total of 79 laws enhancing police accountability.

These laws reformed police use of force policies, limited racial profiling, mandated body-worn cameras, protected the right of citizens to record police officers at work, mandated data collection on traffic stops and arrests, and provided for independent investigations of police fatal shooting incidents.

Where did this burst of legislation come from?

The tragic events in Ferguson, Cleveland, Baltimore, and other cities had a profound impact on public understanding of the seriousness of police misconduct and the need for reform.[1]

The 2015 President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing added a powerful voice on the need for the police to legitimacy and to practice procedural justice in encounters with citizens. The result has been a national upsurge in advocacy and lobbying by countless people across the country.

City Councils Join In

City councils have also enacted important police reforms. St. Louis gained a new Civilian Oversight Board in 2015, and Sacramento created a Community Police Review Commission that year. Seattle passed completing the process of establishing creating three separate citizen oversight agencies: an Inspector General, a Community Police Commission, and a strengthened Office of Police Accountability.

Inspectors General also now exist in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Two state attorneys have stepped in to fill the void left by the Trump administration’s cancellation of the DOJ “pattern or practice” program. The Illinois attorney general sued the deeply troubled Chicago police department and negotiated a consent decree, which is now being implemented.

The California attorney general, meanwhile, agreed to serve as monitor of reforms in the San Francisco police department, in a program cancelled by DOJ.

Finally, forward-looking police chiefs across the country, recognizing the national crisis in police-race relations, have been leading the police profession with a series of recommended reforms. Since 2012, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has published a series of reports with recommendations on the importance of de-escalation (2012, the need for legitimacy and procedural justice (2014), the need to improve police training programs (2015), and a comprehensive strategy for limiting police use of force (2016), among other issues.[2]

Beyond ‘Lawful But Awful’

The Guiding Principles on Use of Force report, for example, calls on the police profession to go beyond the Supreme Court’s prevailing Graham v. Connor (1989) decision and develop more detailed use of force policies with provisions that would prevent shooting incidents that are “lawful but awful:” that is, shootings that meet the Supreme Court’s Graham standard but are wholly unnecessary and which shock the conscience of ordinary Americans.

The momentum for police reform is strong, with several focal points of activity. But this does not mean that success is inevitable. Powerful obstacles remain. Police unions have secured contract provisions and state laws that are major impediments to holding officers accountable for their actions. If there is an economic recession next year it would seriously strain city budgets and limit many possible reforms (training, to take one example, is expensive).

Sam Walker

Samuel Walker

The public may simply become weary and lose interest in police issues. Nonetheless, the current broad-based police reform movement can be sustained by a vigilant, active, and informed public, supplemented by a news media that digs below surface events and examines long-term trends.

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

[1] Ronald Weitzer, “Theorizing Racial Discord over Policing Before and After Ferguson,” Justice Quarterly 34 (2017, No. 7): 1129-1153.

[2] Reports available at www.policeforum.org at “Free Online Documents.”

One thought on “Ignore the Headlines: Police Reform is Moving Ahead

  1. Thanks to Sam Walker for the important contributions he has made over the years to improving policing in America through his advocacy for sustained change. There has been significant change over the past several years in use of force policy and training to de-escalate potentially violent encounters.

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