Seven Ideas for Reshaping Policing in America

There is a flood of police reform proposals in the works across the U.S., driven by the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer later charged with his murder and by the massive protests that followed. With polls showing big increases in the number of people agreeing that Black Americans are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system, a cities, states and the federal government have rushed to consider or adopt changes, though an effort in Congress bogged down in partisan disagreement. Even ideas such as defunding police departments that were on the political fringe before Floyd’s death are now getting serious consideration, at least in some form. Here is a summary of some of the key ideas in the debate.

Ban chokeholds

The term chokehold generally refers to any police technique designed to restrain someone by restricting the flow of blood or air through the neck, as happened to Floyd, who died when the officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Chokeholds are already banned by some police departments but are still sometimes used: the 2014 death by asphyxiation of Eric Garner in New York City occurred despite the fact that chokeholds were banned by that department in 1993. The City Council in New York and the state legislature in June both passed bans that make the use of chokeholds potentially a felony. House Democrats have proposed a national ban that would make the use of chokeholds a civil rights violation. A bill drafted by Republicans in the Senate instead called for encouraging departments to do away with chokeholds by conditioning grants from the Justice Department on steps to restrict the practice.

End no-knock warrants

Protesters have been demanding an end to warrants that allow police to enter a premises without warning, citing the killing of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician who was shot in her sleep by members of the Louisville, Kentucky, police during a drug raid based on a faulty address. No-knock warrants became widely adopted during the so-called War on Drugs. The idea is to make the raid safer for police by giving them the element of surprise, and to prevent suspects from destroying evidence while officers wait to enter. By one estimate, police around the country conduct as many as 20,000 no-knock warrants per year. Critics say they lead to a disproportionate number of shootings by police, and can go tragically wrong. As the result of Taylor’s death, the Louisville City Council banned no-knock warrants. Senator Rand Paul, of Kentucky proposed a “Justice for Breonna Taylor Act” that would prohibit no-knock warrants nationwide, while requiring police officers to wear body cameras when carrying out search warrants. The House bill would ban no-knock warrants in federal drug cases, while the Senate bill called for collecting data on the practice.

Seven Ideas for Reshaping Policing in America

Improve training

A common refrain has been for calls for improved training, usually focused on racial bias and what’s called de-escalation. The goal of implicit bias training is to get officers to confront underlying prejudices that can shape the way they do their jobs. De-escalation training is meant to give police better techniques for defusing potentially dangerous situations. The police in Jersey City, New Jersey, recently announced that it would use federal reimbursement payments for its coronavirus testing to pay for giving all its officers de-escalation training.

Impose a duty to intervene

In Minneapolis, three police officers witnessed Floyd’s death without taking action. They were later charged with aiding and abetting the killing. Rules mandating a “duty to intervene” require that officers take action to stop a fellow officer who is using force inappropriately. Police chiefs and sheriffs from Dallas, Burlington, Vermont, Ithaca, New York and Charlotte, North Carolina, say they are in the process of putting such rules in place.

Limit ‘qualified immunity’

The legal doctrine known as qualified immunity protects police officers and other government officials from being held liable in civil lawsuits unless they are proven to have violated what the Supreme Court described as “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In practice, that means police officers are immune from lawsuits unless their actions had been specifically found to be illegal in a prior case. In the Senate, Mike Braun of Indiana, a Republican, introduced legislation that would effectively reverse the burden of proof by requiring police officers to cite a relevant law or court case showing their conduct was authorized. Those calling for reform say qualified immunity makes suing the police almost impossible. In one case, a plaintiff was bitten by a police dog while sitting on the ground with his hands up. The police won immunity because in the only relevant prior case the plaintiff had been lying down. The House bill would sharply curtail the ability of officers to use the defense.

Rein in police unions

Critics often cite work rules won by police unions as major obstacles to accountability in brutality cases, and many chiefs complain that arbitration procedures set by contracts limit their ability to punish or fire officers who abuse their authority. Many records of disciplinary proceedings are sealed, making it possible for officers fired by one department to sign on with another.

‘Defund’ the police

While this slogan has become common at protests around the country, it stands as shorthand for a wide range of proposals. The city government in Minneapolis is pursuing the complete disbanding of its police department, not just in reaction to the killing of George Floyd, but also because of poor performance fighting crime. Elsewhere, defunding means spending less on police overtime and equipment and more on mental-health care, housing, education and violence-prevention initiatives. The justification for diverting law enforcement funding toward those purposes is based on the premise that a robust police force is not the only way to prevent crime. The mayors of Los Angeles and New York have both proposed cutting money from the current police budget to direct it toward social services.

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