Five Misconceptions About Police Reform

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Scene from Los Angeles protests, May-June 2020. Courtesy National Police Foundation.

In the 14 months since the death of George Floyd, state legislators across the country have introduced 3,000 police reform bills and executive orders, the House passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and at least 50 large cities have reduced their police department budgets. Clearly, this is no fleeting moment.

Yet while the appetite for police reform among advocates and policymakers alike has remained remarkably strong, many of the most popular reforms settle for quick fixes rather than research-backed measures that would have deeper, longer-lasting impacts.

The Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing recently reviewed more than two dozen of the most common policing policies. A diverse body representing both law enforcement and advocates working to reduce police violence, the Task Force reached consensus on a broad range of recommendations.

Along the way, we uncovered several misconceptions that are interfering with sound decision-making on police reform. Here are five of them.

Misconception #1: Banning no-knock warrants prevents dangerous unannounced entries by police

In March of 2020, Breonna Taylor was killed when Louisville, KY police stormed her home, breaking the door off its hinges and firing a volley of shots. The tragic event prompted eight states and several localities to enact measures restricting search warrants. While that impulse is understandable, those measures alone will not reliably prevent unannounced police raids.

That’s because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Banks (2003) that officers can lawfully knock once and wait as little as 15 seconds before entering a residence.

Warrants executed in the middle of the night with a tap on the door will likely replicate the same element of surprise associated with unannounced raids, which have led to fatalities of both residents and officers. Legislation restricting no-knock warrants should include bans on these so-called “short knock” warrants.

Warrant executions should also require thorough threat assessments, which include a confirmation of the correct address, validation of information obtained through informants and intelligence about who lives at the address, including whether any children may be present.

Misconception #2: Duty-to-intervene policies are all we need to end police misconduct and save lives

The Minneapolis Police Department had a “duty-to-intervene” policy on the books for four years prior to the night when Derek Chauvin took George Floyd’s life as three officers stood by and watched. Rules requiring officers to step in when they witness their colleagues engage in misconduct are essential.

But such policies alone won’t be fully effective without buy-in from line supervisors and leadership at the top. Indeed, intervention policies are unlikely to change officer behaviors absent strong accountability mechanisms that are swift and certain, sending the message to all officers that standing idle amidst wrongdoing is not tolerated.

The blue wall of silence in policing is well established. While policies may chip its surface, breaking it down requires addressing the underlying culture that makes officers believe it’s safer to stay silent than speak up.

Toward that end, supervisors must model the behavior they seek and officers who intervene should be publicly commended.

Misconception #3: Implicit bias training curbs racially biased policing

The rate at which Black motorists are stopped by police is nearly twice that of Whites, despite the fact that officers discover contraband at equal rates for both groups. These sobering statistics underscore the critical need to winnow out biases in police officer mindsets, behaviors and actions.

Implicit bias training is designed to do just that, yet while such training was found to be successful in changing attitudes and intentions, it has not yet been shown to affect officer behaviors or interactions with community members.

We do know that training officers to behave in a “procedurally just” manner – treating community members equitably and respectfully – can improve police-community relations. Similarly, studies of de-escalation training, which teaches officers how to avoid or defuse conflict, show it may reduce use of force, public complaints and officer injuries. Both of these trainings, which advise officers to slow down, listen carefully, and communicate clearly, may help officers identify their biases and refrain from acting upon them.

Misconception #4: Chokehold bans substantially curtail police killings

The death of George Floyd brought into sharp relief the dangers of restraints that restrict airways. In the months since Floyd’s death, 46 big cities have banned or severely restricted chokeholds. This is as it should be, considering the risk of harm related to the misapplication of such holds and their cruel and inhumane nature.

Still, data on police-involved fatalities of community members reveal that asphyxiation is the cause of death less than one percent of the time. Given that, prohibiting chokeholds and other neck restraints will not make a big dent in police killings.

More fruitful: recruiting the right people for policing jobs and training them as problem solvers and guardians rather than warriors who adopt a “them against us” mentality.

Misconception #5: Police spend substantial time responding to mental health calls

One in four people killed by police have some type of mental health condition. It stands to reason that reducing police contact with such individuals can prevent at least some share of deaths. But officers spend a very small share of their workdays responding to calls related to people experiencing mental health issues.

A recent study of nine agencies found that officers spent less than two percent of their time responding to such calls.

The misconception that police are inundated with mental health calls is key as cities contemplate shifting certain roles and functions to non-law enforcement actors, such as mobile crisis units staffed by mental health clinicians.

Offloading such a small share of a patrol officer’s responsibilities should be relatively easy to support financially.

However, officers will continue to encounter people experiencing mental health crises in the course of routine patrolling, and some will be armed. This makes it critical that officers be trained in how to identify people experiencing mental health crises and to interact with them in a manner that defuses the situation rather than exacerbating it.

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Nancy La Vigne

As these examples illustrate, it’s easy for erroneous beliefs about policing to take hold at a time when policymakers are scrambling to adopt reforms.

To prevent this, and ensure policy changes produce intended results, let’s respect the complexities of these challenges and let data and research show us the way.

Nancy La Vigne, a criminologist with expertise in a wide array of criminal justice reform measures, is Executive Director of the Task Force on Policing at the Council on Criminal Justice.

One thought on “Five Misconceptions About Police Reform

  1. Interesting to note that all of the misconceptions are focused on rule-based approach to Safety: an approach that most people who look at Safety in aviation, medicine, and industry reject, arguing that developing a continuous “culture of safety” approach is the way to go.

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