Opinion: Change that is good for police and community members

Words have significant meaning, and the current arguments around messaging related to policing in America have distracted us from the real opportunity: to adopt policing policies that are good for law enforcement and our communities.

As a former sheriff, I understand why my colleagues in the field have reservations when lawmakers discuss “reforming,” “defunding,” or even “abolishing” the police. The United States has the finest criminal justice system in the world. This doesn’t mean it’s perfect or that there isn’t room for improvement. With that in mind, as many states and Congress consider policing reform, we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Whatever term you use to describe the changes needed in policing, the goal is to improve it in ways that will benefit both communities and law enforcement. Here are some ideas with a proven track record of helping rebuild police-community relations.

Police budgets and quality training

As much as 85% of most police departments’ budgets are spent on personnel – salaries, pensions and benefits such as health insurance, leaving little funding to improve the quality of policing and build trust with the communities they serve. That might include training to develop core skills such as conflict resolution, investigation techniques, and how to better manage interactions with individuals facing mental health or substance use issues. These are rarely, if ever, focused on at the police academy or funded for annual training.

Many law enforcement agency budgets are dependent on fines, fees and forfeitures, a system subject to abuse that endangers law enforcement officials’ relationships with the communities they serve.

In my 24 years’ experience, from patrol to executive, I’ve seen it happen all too often. These types of perverse funding mechanisms need to change. Police budgets must be funded adequately by elected policymakers to make training and professional development the cornerstone of public safety improvements – and this funding should not come from sources that law enforcement is required to collect.

Collective bargaining

Police unions have come under increased scrutiny in recent years given their perceived or actual influence in the officer disciplinary process.

Collective bargaining agreements should exclude training standards, policy implementation, officer discipline and binding arbitration related to officer discipline and use of force. Unfortunately, collective bargaining of the disciplinary process within individual police departments has led to a growing concern that such contractual provisions undermine the ability of management to deter misconduct and impose appropriate discipline and hinders accountability with the public.

Openness and transparency

Embrace transparency for effective communication between law enforcement and the community in which police officers serve. Developing a model that offers a safe place for complainants without fear of retaliation helps identify criminal or unethical behavior, policy violations and ineffective leadership while providing the public with an independent and impartial voice.

Accountability

Improvements in accountability and best practices should not come at the sacrifice of constitutionally protected due process rights of citizens and police officers. We need a standardized decertification process for law enforcement officers accused of misconduct that is transparent, fair and considers the officers’ due process rights.

Overcriminalization

Today we have about 5,000 federal criminal statutes on the books and countless more at the state level. Each state should create a commission to examine and identify all criminal laws that are redundant, unnecessary, or overbroad. In Federalist No. 62, James Madison warned that “all the repealing, explaining, and amending laws, which fill and disgrace our voluminous codes” can leave citizens unable to know what the law is and to conform their conduct to it.

Expansion of LEAD Programs

Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Programs or “LEAD” Programs can help reduce jail populations and offer better treatment programs for inmates and detainees with mental illness and drug addictions. It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much diversion programs can save communities, but incarceration is costly compared to community-based treatment. For example, in Detroit an individual with mental illness in jail costs $31,000 a year, while community-based mental health treatment costs only $10,000 a year.

Crisis Intervention Teams

Another key component is crisis intervention teams that focus on a safe conclusion to incidents related to mental health. Research shows that these teams are associated with improved officer attitude and knowledge about mental illness. In Memphis, for example, the use of crisis intervention resulted in an 80% reduction in officer injuries during mental health crisis calls. Some communities have found that crisis intervention teams have reduced the time officers spend responding to mental health calls. This puts officers back into the community more quickly and will produce cost savings. 

Amid the crises of the past year, law enforcement agencies have made continual improvements in the response and services it provides to communities. We must continue to look at opportunities for improvements as we continue to serve the public.

Rather than imposing radical, top-down changes, we must be realistic about the challenges and systemic problems while also seeking to improve the effectiveness of officers who work in one of the best criminal justice systems in the world.  

NEXT: No simple answers for police leaders tasked with training law enforcement

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