To protect and reform: How to fix urban police departments

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What can be done to give us police who protect us and don’t mistreat the public? A couple of things.

After the death of George Floyd during a police encounter in Minneapolis three years ago on Memorial Day weekend, it sparked protests both salutary and sanguinary. Peaceful protests sometimes turned violent. And a national soul-searching began, including investigations into police procedures – such as the choke hold that killed Floyd – that have led to some reforms of police policy and procedure.

The official summary of a June 16 report by the U.S. Justice Department on the city of Minneapolis found that its police department :

  • Uses excessive force, including unjustified deadly force and unreasonable use of tasers;
  • Unlawfully discriminates against Black people and Native American people in its enforcement activities, including the use of force following stops;
  • Violates the rights of people engaged in protected speech; and
  • Along with the city, discriminates against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to calls for assistance.

On the converse side, the spate of “defund the police” efforts was bound to fail because citizens and businesses still need protection. Also on June 16, the New York Times headlined, “How ‘Defund the Police’ Failed: In Minneapolis and elsewhere, the movement faltered after crime surged and activists failed to build broad support for a goal that lacked a clear definition.”

All these developments have brought some city police departments into crisis. KCRW reported in April the Los Angeles Police Department has lost 1,000 officers the past four years, with hundreds more expected to retire or resign in 2023. That’s occurring as the city suffered an 11% increase in crime in 2022, according to data analyzed by USA Today.

Read the Pacific Research Institute’s Free Cities Center director’s column about police recruiting in The Orange County Register.

What can be done to give us police who protect us and don’t mistreat the public? A couple of things.

First, reduce the number of problems police are required to solve. “Right now, we expect police officers to solve every social problem out there,” Vittorio Nastasi told me; he’s the director of criminal justice policy at the Los Angeles-based Reason Foundation. “And we try to address social problems by making illegal all kinds of conduct that really doesn’t harm other people. A much more sensible thing to do, that would actually make policing effective, would be to focus on those behaviors that do actual harm to people. When the police respond to what is really not a safety issue, and then it escalates.”

Second, end qualified immunity. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “The doctrine of qualified immunity protects state and local officials, including law enforcement officers, from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right.” Nastasi argued the following: “There’s this idea out there that, if you get rid of qualified immunity, people will start suing police officers left and right, that they won’t want to do their jobs, and that would undermine public safety. But that isn’t the case.” He pointed to a new video Reason released on June 13, “Untouchable,” which details several instances of abuse by police, who then got away with no punishment.

In the video, Reason’s Joanna Schwartz explains:

The idea that’s been commonly stated – that officers are going to be bankrupted for split-second mistakes without qualified immunity – bears no relationship to reality, because officers are virtually always indemnified by policy or law, meaning the employer pays for those settlements. And…the Fourth Amendment protects against those split-second mistakes. So they don’t have those things to be worried about.

Ironically, sovereign immunity largely came from liberal U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s. But today, the documentary notes, it has been criticized by both conservative Justice Clarence Thomas and liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Perhaps the right case could lead the court to reconsider the matter, or at least impose some reasonable limits.

Third, train police better. Nastasi added that sovereign immunity often is abused when police say they hadn’t been made aware of proper procedures or constitutional protections for those brutalized. Training in such matters would reduce the likelihood a sovereign immunity defense could be used.

Beyond that specific problem, in November 2021 the Little Hoover Commission produce a report, “Law Enforcement Training: Identifying What Works for Officers and Communities.” Recommendations included finding the best methods used at the state’s 41 police academies; “restructure current curriculum to ensure it emphasizes the skills new officers need and gives officers appropriate time to practice” and “develop robust ongoing education for officers.”

Fourth, fix the homeless problem. Nastasi said police spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the crime and other problems caused by homeless encampments. Obviously that’s a complex problem everyone is grappling with. “Outlawing homelessness is not really going to solve the problem,” he said. “But building new housing would be a good place to start.”

They’re old standbys, but solutions include reforming the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and enforcing recent laws promoting more housing construction, such as Senate Bills 9 and 10 from 2021. It’s ironic how such cites as Huntington Beach are fighting the implementation of these reforms, impeding new construction, even as they complain about the homelessness caused in part by the lack of adequate housing. The homelessness problem isn’t purely a housing problem, but additional housing will reduce prices. Reforming CEQA will make it easier to build housing for the homeless.

Read the Pacific Research Institute’s Wayne Winegarden and Kerry Jackson discussing California’s misplaced homeless spending in CalMatters.

Fifth, fire bad cops. Some of that has been happening. The San Francisco Chronicle reported June 14, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training “is bracing to decertify or suspend 3,000 to 3,500 police officers each year for serious misconduct under a new state law, according to estimates from the commission.”

No issue vexes cities more than police reform. On the one hand, you don’t want high crime rates. On the other hand, you don’t want cops misbehaving with impunity. Three years have seen the beginnings of reform. It needs to continue until no one is afraid when he sees the blue-and-red lights flashing on his rear-view mirror. It’s an area where there should be true bipartisan support.

John Seiler is on the Editorial Board of the Southern California News Group.

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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