Local Governments Must Rein In Their Police Departments

Some progress is being made, but much more can be done.

Photo by munshots on Unsplash

Police reform has been a poisonous topic routinely dismissed in the halls of local government for ages. No local official wants to be in favor of making their city “less safe”. Even in the face of heavy criticism or tragedy, mayors usually put on stern faces and furrowed brows saying that while they condemn these actions, they are the work of a few bad apples or that these officers are overworked and stressed or that officers operate in intense situations every day or that essentially, police are just doing their job and any untoward action is the price of security.

Even today, it can be infuriating to see mayor after mayor sympathize with protesters while in the same breath decry looters, saying the police are just doing their job maintaining peace. NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo absurdly claimed recently that they hadn’t seen the now dozens of videos of NYPD officers harassing and assaulting peaceful protesters, yet somehow they are fully aware and briefed on the activities of supposed looters and thugs. Only when confronted with undeniable video evidence of two Buffalo police officers violently shoving an elderly man and severely injuring him, did both De Blasio and Cuomo have something to say on police conduct.

In Los Angeles, it took longer than it should have for Mayor Garcetti to finally acknowledge some of the missteps of the LAPD and only after immense pressure from activists, realize the need to trim the LAPD budget — one that amounted to about $1.8 billion or over half of the LA city budget in total. He and other council members received immense pushback from the LAPD police union saying Garcetti has “lost his damn mind” and that “you bowed down to Black Lives Matter. These police officers who are out here protecting the city — if not for them this city would be burnt down right now

Thankfully, the scale of the protests across the country in recent days has been hard to ignore, and some progress is being made in cities across the country. There is still a lot more to be done though, and you can bet that the pushback will only get worse.

There is no silver bullet.

As crazy as this all seems, this is a conversation that is long overdue and local governments must not shy way. America has a huge blindspot when it comes to men and women in uniform, which has allowed for some pretty heinous activity to occur all over the country. Cops and their unions are either dismissive or indignant at anyone questioning their conduct.

Currently, cops are given such benefit of the doubt that in most cases even clear video evidence of them using excessive force or engaging in serious unprovoked harassment isn’t enough. The cycle continues as bad cops are at the most fired from their department and rehired in the next city over. That has got to end.

There is no one thing that will fix the problem though. The solutions will be piecemeal and varied, but there are many ways in which cops can regain some trust back and remain truly accountable to the communities that they serve. Cops are a crucial part of society and that is all the more reason why their activity and conduct should be scrutinized to the highest degree.

An idea that has popped up a lot recently is whether we should treat police officers more like doctors or lawyers or pilots. All of these professions in their purest form should have no room for error. The system does a good job at not allowing for bad doctors or bad pilots or bad lawyers. We force them to be licensed. There are years and years of schooling required and heavy consequences if they mess up. The same should apply to cops.

Additionally, how police conduct themselves should be under consideration. Banning the use of chokeholds or similar maneuvers that can result in cruelty or even death. Reforming union contracts and ending qualified immunity, which can make it almost impossible to hold cops accountable. Empowered civilian oversight boards are another solution as well as ensuring that bad cops aren’t prosecuted by local officials, who they work with every day and have a vested interest in not pissing of their police departments.

Police unions must be either reformed or abolished.

Believe me, as a Democrat, it pains me to write this, but police unions all across the country must seriously reassess their actions and rhetoric. If they don’t, they should be abolished. Take what happened to New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris. Alex Snyder, writing for CNN, reports, “Among the most notable politicians to reallocate their campaign donations is New York State Sen. Michael Gianaris, who says he donated $16,650 in contributions to bail funds and mutual aid after Fernando’s spreadsheet made the rounds…Gianaris said even though the decision wasn’t a reflection on police officers on the whole, he’s received threats from police saying they will not respond to 911 calls if he should ever need to make one.

Using someone’s public safety as a bargaining chip seems counter intuitive to the mentality of protecting and serving, and simply put is wrong. Sadly, this channeling of righteous indignation plays out in cities across the country at even the faintest whiff of reform. A police union in Boston accused one of their District Attorneys of exacerbating tensions, by saying “you put our lives and the safety of our great City at risk when you implicitly call for and condone violence.” To her credit, the D. A., Rachel Rollins, responded to the criticism by labeling it as “White Fragility”. Similar situations are playing out across the country in Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, New York City, Philadelphia, and many other cities.

And often this fury isn’t borne out in reality. Police logic usually follows one of two tracks: they are doing the best they can in dangerous conditions and/or they are doing the best they can with not enough city support. Both are misleading if not outright false.

Policing isn’t that dangerous.

This isn’t saying that there isn’t danger involved with policing. There is most certainly an element of danger to the job, but the vast majority of police interactions with someone will be nonviolent with little to no risk to the officer. I did a scan of a half dozen websites that listed some of the most dangerous jobs. Police didn’t show up at all. You know what did? Pilots, fisherman, loggers, garbage collector, and farmers.

Police departments are bloated.

The irony of policing and its relationship to a city is that in a perfect, abstract world a city should mark as a metric of success how few times police are called to resolve a conflict. Ideally, a city that has fewer 911 calls, fewer tickets or citations issued, etc. means that the crime rate has gone down and citizens are generally following the law. This then should mean that less police are required and budgets should be going down as the city sees fit to reinvest that money into other buckets.

Essentially, this means that as the crime rate falls, so should police budgets. That hasn’t been the case.

Police budgets have actually exploded in recent years even with a precipitous fall in violent crime. This says a lot of things about how we view the role of police in society as well the perverse incentives that exist that make police and police unions envision a world that is worse than it is in the name of job security. There is a strong argument to be made that we need less policing, not more.

We need to rethink the role of police in society.

Imagine a world where police weren’t the only solution to ensure enforcement of the law. What if instead police were only used in extreme cases, while lower level calls were redirected towards mental health experts, therapists, pastors, mentors and other professionals far better equipped to diffuse situations? What if serious investment was redirected into schools, job training, mental health support, job placement, and rehabilitation centers in the hopes of steering as many people as we can to avoid the criminal justice system in the first place?

This is by no means a complete solution, but that’s why sustained pressure is needed at the local level and why local elections matter. This is ongoing work to remove the rot that has infected all levels of our justice system. We’ve made a good start. Now, let’s keep going.

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