Cops can't be allowed to police themselves if we want real criminal justice reform

  • Police reform is overwhelmingly popular, but basic reforms are undercut by police at every turn.
  • This is because police unions and departments create policy loopholes that essentially allows them to police themselves. 
  • This is how bad cops avoid accountability. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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Americans overwhelmingly believe that policing in this country needs to be substantially reformed. 

That doesn’t mean “defund” or “abolish” the police — those are non-starters across the demographic board, including among Black and inner-city communities. 

What people might call “common-sense” reforms — like making officer disciplinary records available to the public and teaching officers that they should not behave as if they’re occupying Fallujah — are far more popular. 

So why is it so hard to implement such sought-after changes to our approach to law enforcement?

Because instead of being responsive to community feedback and reasonable reform, police have blocked meaningful change. Even when changes are nominally adopted, police departments have far too much autonomy in setting and enforcing the policies that are ostensibly designed to prevent such abuses. 

Warrior cops, militarized police forces, and a culture of silence 

Thankfully, public calls for police reform have increased over the past decade and the “warrior cop” mentality has faced greater scrutiny — particularly after the militarized police response to the 2014 protests in Ferguson. 

The absurd imagery of small town police forces using Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles also brought national prominence to the federal government’s 1033 program, where surplus military equipment is donated to local police departments. Originally launched in 1990, President Barack Obama ended the program in 2015, only for it to be revived by President Donald Trump in 2017. 

And the public now has much greater awareness of things like “no-knock raids” — which have resulted in the deaths of innocent people when police knocked on the wrong door before kicking it down with guns drawn. Blessedly, most people don’t like the idea of armed agents of the state invading homes with impunity. 

Reforming or abolishing these practices would all be welcome changes to what was previously seen as “normal” policing.

But private organizations run by ex-cops still make money by training officers in the “warrior” mentality — which can be succinctly described as teaching cops to use deadly force without hesitation if they perceive any sort of threat. 

That’s how occupying soldiers are trained to think. But American citizens are not insurgents. 

Just as distressing is the prominence of former law enforcement in writing use-of-force policies, as well as the holes in systems that were ostensibly created to hold bad cops accountable. 

Who’s in charge here?

In Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, unarmed 20-year-old Daunte Wright was killed by officer Kim Potter (who also happened to be the former president of her department’s union) after apparently mistaking her handgun for her Taser. 

The department’s use-of-force policies were written by a company called Lexipol. 

With a board and founders that include former cops and lawyers who defended cops, Lexipol says it has advised on policies for over 3,400 police, fire, and correctional departments. That’s a lot of influence for a company most people have never heard of. 

Lexipol released a white paper titled, “Use of Force Policies: Dispelling the Myths,” that critics say provides the necessary loopholes for police to use as much force as possible without leaving the department with a liability risk. (According to Lexipol’s website, the company is now “reviewing and revising” the paper.)

Across the US, law enforcement policies are written in a way that cuts off reform at the heels. 

After decades of systemic police abuse in New York City, a Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) was established to investigate allegations of misconduct. If the CCRB substantiates the misconduct claims, an internal NYPD trial is held. 

But an investigation by the news site The City found that the NYPD’s commissioner overruled the NYPD’s trial judge 40 times in the past four years. This meant that cops who used illegal chokeholds or, in one case, pushed a person into moving traffic, faced no discipline whatsoever. 

What is the point of establishing an independent review board for police officers who commit wrongdoing if it can just be overruled by a cop? 

Another major impediment to improving policing is the overwhelming political power of police unions and the mafia-like code of silence among officers.

This was demonstrated in a recent Boston Globe investigation which revealed the Boston PD had good reason to believe one of its officers was a serial child molester, but he stayed on the force, eventually rising to police union president and allegedly abusing more children over the years. 

This doesn’t happen without a culture of complicity. 

What we need are more groups like the St. Louis PD’s Ethical Society of Police, who don’t see themselves in conflict with looking out for police interests while also holding their fellow officers accountable. 

We also need more Republicans to get over their relentless “tough on crime” posturing and insist that cops are not above the law. And we need Democrats to not fear being labeled “soft on crime,” or be so forever beholden to public sector unions that they won’t deploy significant political capital and say once for all that the way things have been done is not the way things should be done. 

In the meantime we’re in a hopeless cycle where politicians acquiesce to public demands for reform, only to have those incremental improvements undermined by the entrenched systems. 

Until lawmakers take on police unions head on, and give the public a true stake in holding bad cops accountable, “reform” will remain just a word.

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