Boost police accountability to help improve urban policing


The ways to reform police to protect the public from both criminals and bad cops are well known. They just need to be implemented and maintained.

Especially as crime has increased in many cities the past two years, Americans want safe streets, but with responsible policing. They don’t want to get mugged, but also don’t want abuses such as the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD in 1992 or the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police in 2020.

What can be done? Before his death in 2014, at the Orange County Register one of our sources on police reform was Joseph D. McNamara, called a philosopher-policeman, and the former police chief of Kansas City and San Jose. During his tenure at the latter, from 1976-91, it was the safest large city in America. Just before he retired in 1991, McNamara called for the resignation of LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, whose brutal policies led the next year to the King beating and riots.

McNamara especially opposed the militarization of police, including the overuse of SWAT teams and even armored-personnel carriers. After Michael Brown was killed by officer Darren Wilson in 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri, McNamara wrote police must “recalibrate current militarization policies, in which officer safety is paramount. The fundamental police duty is protection of life. Officer safety should never supersede democratic policing…. What justification do the police have for killing an unarmed suspect? The answer is always: None.”

In the spirit of McNamara, a recent report was released called “A Better Path Forward for Criminal Justice,” produced by a joint task of the liberal Brookings Institution and the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

Among the reforms it called for:

  1. Change police culture to protect civilians and police. This is a McNamara-esque reform. “Police have to be of the people and for the people,” the study urged. “Often times, police officers talk about themselves as if they are detached from the community. Officers often view themselves as warriors at war with the people in the communities they serve.”
  2. End or at least reform qualified immunity, which, according to a definition by the National Conference of State Legislators, “protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.” The Brookings-AEI study found, “Though police chiefs might not say it publicly or directly, we have evidence that a significant number of them are quite frustrated by their inability to get rid of the bad apples … and discipline and terminate officers who deserve to be held accountable.”
  3. Union reform. The study is careful here, urging only, “Unions are important. However, the … union has become so deeply embedded in law enforcement that it obstructs the ability for equitable and transparent policing, even when interacting with police chiefs. Police union contracts need to be evaluated to ensure they do not obstruct the ability for officers who engage in misconduct to be held accountable.”

But this doesn’t go far enough. What needs to be done is ending collective bargaining with the unions. Especially in California, the cop unions’ political campaigns, paid for ultimately by member dues coming from taxpayer-supplied salaries, dominate races at the city, county and state level.

According to a June report on the OpenSecrets website, which tracks campaign spending, “Police unions and associations have spent over $48 million on state lobbying and contributed almost $71 million to state-level candidates and committees in the last decade alone…. California politicians attracted more contributions from police unions and their affiliates than any other state since 2012 with $38.5 million.”

Anyone who challenges the preeminence of union power, such as working for pension reform, gets blasted as endangering the public and becomes the target of vicious hate ads. The favored elected officials then stall needed reforms.

The ways to reform police to protect the public from both criminals and bad cops are well known. They just need to be implemented and maintained.

John Seiler is a member of the Southern California News Group’s editorial board and a writer for the Free Cities Center. This article is reprinted from the news group’s special section on cities.


Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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