It is yet to be determined if the intense calls for police reform and social justice are principally fueled by a contentious presidential election year or if the momentum behind public pressure for change will withstand political uncertainty. Building public pressure for police reform has transcended the political parties in the White House. The current demands for reform would most assuredly have shaped the next administration’s domestic agenda regardless of final presidential election results. This article examines aspects of police reform initiatives under a new administration.
The nationwide drive behind the 2020 police reform initiatives are unique in modern times. Unlike previous modern national police reforms, the 2020 initiatives are taking widespread root in city and local governments. An aspect of “police reform” at the local level is really changing public safety response to communities in general. In most jurisdictions, public safety communications specialists, dispatchers, only have three options for response to calls for service: (1) fire, (2) Emergency Medical Service (EMS), and/or (3) police. Therefore, if the 911 call for service does not clearly involve something burning or a medical emergency, the call is referred to the police, by default. These types of calls for service commonly include erratic behavior, suspicious noise, suspicious object, suspicious person, and various frivolous calls. Of course, a percentage of the calls for service are true police emergencies, but most are some form of public service.
Depending on departmental policies, dispatchers have little discretion to discern the veracity of the caller’s complaint and seldom are dispatchers afforded alternative options to a public safety response. As part of police response reform, many local jurisdictions are studying alternatives to police response. The Center for American Progress and the Law Enforcement Action Partnership have recently completed a study on 911 calls and offer insights into a civilian Community Responder Model. Jurisdictions like Eugene, Oregon have instituted community responder programs with positive results. Trained civilians are available to 911 operators to respond to quality-of-life calls and low-risk situations.
The presumptive President-Elect Joe Biden’s criminal justice policy calls for expanding federal funding for mental health and substance abuse, as alternative to criminal justice solutions. Specifically, the Biden policy proposes to “help police officers learn how to better approach individuals with certain disabilities” and “[social and mental health] service providers will respond to calls with police officers” to divert them to treatment, housing, or other social services.
In a July 2020 survey of police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), nearly half (48%) of the 258 respondent agencies reported experiencing or expecting budget cuts this fiscal year. The majority of the police agencies reported budget cuts of 5-10%. In the survey, Chief Michel Moore of Los Angeles (CA) Police Department stated, “Our challenge is to make sure that staffing is sufficient to meet our call load, and also sufficient to conduct community engagement, because building trust and relationships is really the core function of community safety.” Cutting budgets, as a police reform measure, fails to relieve demands on police to certain types of calls for service. High demand with fewer resources adversely impacts effective community engagement and increases risks to public safety as well as to police officers. In the PERF survey, Chief Joseph Bartorilla of Middletown Township (PA) Police Department observed, “When police turn into pure responders, with little to no proactive work, crime and disorder will almost certainly increase in just about every community, and especially in the mid- to larger-sized cities.” Cutting police funding absent reshaping the public safety response structure fails in serving communities with the greatest needs.
The Biden criminal justice policy proposes, in part, to concentrate on improving community-oriented policing with a $300 million investment to state and local departments through the Department of Justice (DOJ) Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. “Police departments need resources to hire a sufficient number of officers,” according to the Biden policy. As strongly reflected in Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate, the Biden policy proposes to apply police reform conditions to the COPS program funding. The Biden policy states, “As a condition of the grant, hiring of police officers must mirror the racial diversity of the community they serve. Additionally, as president, Biden will establish a panel to scrutinize what equipment is used by law enforcement in our communities.”
Trends & Reforms Related to Incarceration
An aspect of criminal justice reform movements focus on the incarceration rates in the United States. The Institute for Criminal Policy Research’s (ICPR) most current World Prison Brief for 2018 pointed out that the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate of 655 per 100,000 population. According to the DOJ Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) Prisoners in 2019 report, federal and state incarceration rates have been on a steady decline since 2009; dropping 17% through 2019. Reflecting the overall lowest incarceration rate since 1995, a trend that is in line with criminal justice reform objectives.
Public safety response alternatives and police discretion have a relational correlation to incarceration. Like the 911 dispatchers’ limited discretion in calls-for-service response options, police are also afforded limited discretion. Alternatives to arrest have been a focus of much of the public discourse on criminal justice reform. For example, public questions surrounding the tragic June 2020 shooting of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta during the police attempt to arrest Brooks for suspected driving while intoxicated. When Brooks was found by police asleep behind the wheel of his car in the Wendy’s restaurant drive thru line, police administered field sobriety tests and a breath test resulting in a recording of 0.108 blood-alcohol level. Brooks, who had been compliant with officers to the point of arrest, resisted and gained control of one of the officer’s electronic control device. With the less-lethal weapon, he fled and allegedly pointed the Taser at the pursuing officers when he was fatally shot.
In a 15 June 2020 interview, WUSA9 probed the police discretion question with former New York Police Department (NYPD) detective Kirk Burkhalter. WUSA9 posed the question, “Should incidents like this one, where he [Mr. Brooks] admitted to being intoxicated and offered up alternatives to getting home, end in arrest?” Burkhalter’s answer was “that’s up to the legislature,” adding that “generally speaking, that’s determined by statute.” Police officers’ discretion is subject to immediate supervisor review, departmental administrative or internal investigation, and potentially judicial review. Statutes and departmental policies have curtailed police discretion in the interest of accountability and transparency. Although police are expected to use prudent discretion as to the force used in an arrest, they have less discretion in determining whether to arrest or seek an alternative solution.
The Biden policy proposes to federally decriminalize cannabis for medical use, as 16 states have done for recreational use and all but six states have legalized for medical purposes. In addition to cannabis decriminalization, the Biden policy proposes to “automatically expunge prior convictions.” The policy also signals an intention to expand federal funding into alternatives-to-detention courts, advancing a 2017 study by United States Sentencing Commission (Commission). Building upon alternative sentencing options provided in the Commission’s original 1987 Guidelines Manual, the 2017 study promotes the use of specialized courts and “problem-solving” courts as avenues for sentencing options and diversion, in lieu of incarceration. The Biden policy also provides considerable attention to juvenile justice reforms.
Three years ago, Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA) introduced the Safe, Accountable, Fair, Effective Justice Act (SAFE Justice Act in 2017) as comprehensive reform legislation to federal sentencing and the corrections system. The Biden policy urges passage of the SAFE Justice Act as an evidence-based path for reforms in sentencing, corrections, rehabilitation, and treatment. The SAFE Justice Act points to many state reforms that have reportedly resulted in effective deterrence, lower recidivism, focused incarceration on the most violent and dangerous offenders, combined with a range of release and diversion initiatives.
DOJ Investigations of Police Unconstitutional Patterns & Practices
During President Barrack Obama’s Administration, the DOJ expanded investigations of police agencies under the Law Enforcement Misconduct Statute (Title 42 United States Code §14141). The Biden policy proposes to “prioritize the role of using pattern-or-practice investigations to strengthen our justice system.” The Biden policy intends to push for legislation clarifying that DOJ’s pattern-or-practice investigation authority can also be used to address systemic misconduct by prosecutors’ offices.” Broadening DOJ authority to investigate patterns and practices of prosecutors’ offices signals a major change.
DOJ reform agreements with state and local police agencies, pursuant to §14141, have proven a useful reform tool since 1997, when Pittsburgh (PA) was the first city to sign a consent decree after findings of patterns or practices in an investigation of excessive use of force and other systemic issues. Critics, however, have pointed to the unsustainability of maintaining costly consent decree mandates. Others, like Superintendent Michael Harrison of Baltimore (MD) Police Department argue, “This consent decree, like New Orleans’, requires an intense makeover, a 100 percent makeover,” as reported by the Baltimore Sun in 2018. Harrison led two police departments through DOJ consent decrees. Some police executives realize that they are unable to garner the local political will to fund and support police training and community programs absent threat of DOJ oversight and potential litigation with costly consent agreement implementation and vigorous monitoring.
Change is Certain, Regardless of the Presidential Election Results
While there is much uncertainty in the avenues of police and, broader, criminal justice reforms, the one certainty about police reform is that services and procedures are changing. State and local police reform initiatives are pervasive and vary widely. The Georgia legislature sought to place a vote to abolish the Glynn County (GA) Police Department on the ballot, over the objections of the county commissioners, who ultimately prevailed in stopping the measure with a lawsuit.
The DOJ needs to lead the nation by promoting model policing standards with grants funding that builds upon the transformative successes demonstrated by COPS and Bureau of Justice Assistance programs. Congressional bipartisan support and funding is needed for data-driven, evidence-based enhanced police services. Incentivizing national best practices is far more effective in developing the kinds of “intense makeover” that Harrison achieved for two departments. Police reforms must be sustainable. To achieve sustainability, there must be buy-in by the community, the police, and broader criminal justice stakeholders. Police reform must be part of a wholistic strategy for criminal justice reform. With 18,000 police departments in the United States – each facing ad hoc, legislative micro-experiments in reform – the cost is already proving excessive in the loss of innocent lives to undeterred violence. According to a September 2020 update from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, “murder and nonnegligent manslaughter offenses increased 14.8%, and aggravated assault offenses were up 4.6%” in the first six months of 2020. The damage to professionalism in the police career fields will last for generations as the best, brightest, and most diverse of police candidates are deterred from investing their career choices in locally driven social experimentation.
As St. Paul (MN) City Council considers establishing a “community-first public safety commission,” assessing 911 calls for service is part of the public safety reform planning. The council recognizes the importance of evidence-based information to inform planning decisions. In a recent article, Council Member Rebecca Noecker noted, “I’ve been hearing loud and clear from my constituents, ever since the murder of George Floyd and the protests this summer, that they want us to take a completely systemic look at how we are ensuring public safety.” Council President Amy Brendmoen stated, “like teachers, police are really being asked to do everything these days.” Wholistic studies of community needs for public safety, by interdisciplinary subject matter experts and community leaders, is essential to inform strategies for realigning of police and other resources with community needs.
Professional associations, like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), the Hispanic-American Command Police Officers Association (HAPCOA), National Sheriffs Association (NSA), International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST), and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) are among the leaders in shaping police reform. These professional associations embody the experience and thought leadership to intelligently shape evidence-based change. Despite the wide-ranging views on approaching change throughout criminal justice sectors, a constant is the desire to improve police serves to all communities with trust and legitimacy across the nation.
This article is Part 4 of a four-part series on New Age of Police Reform. The next part will provide an overview of some of the intergovernmental challenges in police reform:
- Podcast – Law Enforcement’s Perfect Storm 2020
Part 1 – Introduction to the New Age of Police Reform
Part 2 – Building Community Trust Through an Inclusive Police Workforce
Part 3 – Police Accountability & Oversight: Redundancies & Opportunities
Part 4 – National Police Reform: Intergovernmental Friction & Cohesion