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First, one might agree that education should be on the top of the list when it comes to police reform. Start immediately at the ground level, where future police officers are initially trained. There are plenty of local community colleges, trade schools, and universities specializing in training people interested in criminal justice.

Unfortunately, in the last decade or more, police reform has become a recent hot topic following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans. Their deaths continue to pressure lawmakers for police reform.

Whether these are to address a few “bad apples” or to change the system, police reform involves the process of transforming the values, policies, culture, and practices of the institution so that the police force can carry out its duties with respect for the rule of law, human rights, and democratic values.

What are the Goals of Police Reform?

There are two primary goals of police reform, according to the international foundation DCAF, the Geneva Centre for Security Sector Governance. These are:

1. To improve police capacity and effectiveness, and

2. To improve the integrity and accountability of the police.

These goals can be further expanded into the following objectives:

  • To improve performance of legal duties through enhanced efficiency and effectiveness so that public resources are used properly
  • To modernize and/or update procedures, legal frameworks, training, operating procedures, and codes of practice
  • To ensure everyone has access to security and justice through equal treatment and opportunities
  • To promote integrity and address corruption through effective complaint mechanisms, removal of incompetent or corrupt officers, and training
  • To provide balanced and relevant information about the roles and responsibilities of the police, activities, and results, and funding and expenditure
  • To cooperate with different local and national law enforcement agencies, and other security actors (military, border authorities, civil defense forces, and intelligence)

What Are the Phases of Police Reform?

To achieve these goals, police reform undergoes four main phases:

1. Strategic assessment (or pre-analysis)

This phase involves gathering information to establish a baseline against which progress will be evaluated later on. The police, in consultation with various stakeholders within the organization and throughout society, will identify the underlying problems within the institution, how these are perceived by the different stakeholders, and rally support and resources.

2. Strategic planning

Based on the analysis of data gathered, this step involves developing a plan with clear goals, roles, and timetables. In addition, this phase will also set up mechanisms for monitoring, reviewing, and evaluating the reform’s success

3. Implementation

It’s time to execute the plan in partnership with various stakeholders. These stakeholders include:

  • The police for internal control and supervision
  • Independent oversight mechanisms, such as human rights institutions, for external oversight
  • Civil society, including the media, academia, and other civil society organizations, for public oversight
  • Judges and prosecutors for judicial oversight
  • Local and national members of the Executive for political oversight and control
  • Legislature for legal framework and legislative oversight
  • The international community, including donors and human rights organizations, for external support

Successful implementation will depend on a number of factors, including time, financial and human resources, political support, effective internal and external communication, performance management and reward system, and committed leadership.

4. Evaluation

This stage involves monitoring progress, assessing success, and identifying any challenges that need to be addressed. Political leaders and the rest of the community will show support for reforms that demonstrate tangible benefits.

Police Reform Throughout American History

Generations of Americans have been discussing the topic of police reform for decades.

It started with limited success due to external commissions, such as the Wickersham Commission, leaving implementation of reforms solely to the police.

The first breakthrough came with a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, particularly Mapp v. Ohio in 1961 and Miranda v. Arizona in 1966, which laid the framework for the national standards for policing.

Then came civilian review boards, which are permanent external oversight agencies that were supposed to improve police accountability. But unfortunately, they focused more on individual complaints rather than on addressing broader issues that could have resulted in long-term improvements for the institution.

In 1981, the United States Commission on Civil Rights suggested the implementation of early intervention programs that would spot potentially risky behaviors and take preventative action. The methods used were inefficient, so more indicators are now used to determine risk factors.

To reduce abuses and hold the police accountable, the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act allowed the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division to file suits against local law enforcement agencies, shifting the focus on the organization instead of just the individual police officer. 

The early 2000s and 2010s saw the focus of police reform shifting again to de-escalation, community policing, evidence-based policing, and civilian oversight of police work.

Recently, police reform has once again resurfaced following the murder of George Floyd. In particular, the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 aims to fight racial bias, excessive force, and police misconduct. Other reforms ban no-knock warrants and chokeholds.

Why Police Reform Is Important

It’s undeniable that the police are more abusive and violent to Black Americans. Yet, you hear stories about these unfortunate incidents in the news frequently.

According to the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch, the “police kill about 1,100 people each year, a large disproportion of them Black.” For example, in the Mapping Police Violence database, a police officer is three times as likely to kill a Black person than a white person. In addition, the NGO further stated that the police also disproportionately target Black people in “massive applications of lower-level violence.” These include dog bites, “less-lethal” weapons like a taser, unnecessary stops and searches, and harassment.

The reason for this abusive and violent behavior? Police are not equipped to handle societal problems, such as poverty and mental health. “The community brings its problems to the police to work out solutions within the community, but the police don’t have any of the tools that we really need to solve these problems,” said Brooklyn College professor Alex Vitale.

“This inevitably leads to unnecessary violent encounters and harms overall safety, particularly Black and brown communities,” John Rahpling, senior U.S. criminal legal system researcher at Human Rights Watch, added. 

To address this issue, the NGO recommends that the U.S. local, state, and federal governments “move beyond superficial changes and fundamentally rethink public safety” by transferring investments from policing to social services and local economic development, reducing the scope of policing and holding abusive officers accountable. New York University law professor Barry Friedman also recommends transferring duties from the police to more qualified professionals, including traffic enforcers to facilitate the flow of vehicles in a busy street or counselors to deal with mental health issues.

Human Rights Watch believes that shifting investments from the police to community services will not only address underlying societal problems but also create an independent oversight of police, thereby improving public safety and reducing police abuse or violence.

*This article is informational only. Does not support or deny any causes. Does not express the opinion of this blog, the websites mentioned, or the writers associated.

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