Ways of Police Reform


When we talk about improving police we must understand that we are talking about improving 1/2 million police serving in 17,000 agencies.

Policing is and always has been a local endeavor. We Americans seem to dislike any kind of big government. So how can reform and improvement occur in our present situation? Who’s in charge? And what kind of improvement are we talking about?

There is something in both the practice and literature of policing that I think most of us can agree:

  • Police need to be honest, well-educated and trained, controlled in their use of force, be accountable and respectful and willing to work closely with those whom they serve.

If we can agree on that then there is some hope for improvement. But how? How is this accomplished? Let’s look at some ways we have already tried to improve our nation’s police:

1. Federal Oversight. This generally happens when a police department has been sued by the U.S. Justice Department  for violation of citizens’ civil rights and a settlement is made invoking a “consent decree” resulting in organizational oversight by a representative of  the federal judiciary. There are a number of cities today that are in such a situation; e.g., New Orleans, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Portland, Seattle and Albuquerque. During the last decade over 25 cities have experienced some form of involvement from the federal government.

2. National Standardization. There exists today and has been since 1979 an non-governmental effort to implement police voluntary practices and standards through accreditation process: the Commission for the Accreditation of Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Because it is a lengthly and costly process, states like Wisconsin have implemented their own non-governmental agencies. The Wisconsin Law Enforcement Accreditation Group (WLEAG) has been in existence since 1996.

3. State Standards. Most states set police hiring and training standards. (See http://www.cjtc.state.wa.us/). But few monitor how well various agencies are performing. Most set minimum standards and do not set what couldbe called  “professional standards.”

4. Specific Legislation. Over and above setting minimum hiring and training requirements, state and even federal legislation can be introduced  requiring police to do certain things. For example, in Wisconsin, the father was awarded a large settlement after his son was killed by police in his city. The man used the money to introduce  and pass a state law that required an outside agency to investigate police use of deadly force. No longer can it be an internal decision.

4. Civil Litigation. Following actions in which cities and states are sued by various individuals (and not by the Justice Department) various improvements can be initiated by plaintiffs as the result of an agreed-upon settlement. For example, how the nearly $6 million settlement in New York City to the family of Eric Garner drove review of the  “chokehold” used by city police.

5. Local Action.  From time to time throughout our nation’s history, various local or national activist  groups such as the NAACP or ACLU have either persuaded or forced police agencies to change or improve a policy or practice such as police oversight commissions and review boards. Recently, the St Louis (MO) County Executive has proposed minimum standards for all 57 municipal police agencies in the county.

6. Police Initiation. By far the changes, improvements and reforms that are either initiated or agreed-upon by police leaders as “best practices” or brought about by legislation or court-decision such as in Garner v.  Tennessee have the most chance of reforming a police practice and it being sustained. What we must all understand is the leaders matter — even more than we think. (Ed. Note: Deep down, I believe a new generation of police leaders will emerge out of this crisis and lead our nation’s police into a new era of excellence.)

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