I Can’t Breathe: Some Proposals for Police Reform

The following commentary was submitted to our Unit by Kathleen Piper and Jack Radey.

We have come to a historical moment, when in the course of a few months the issue of racist police violence has fired the imaginations of people all over America, and the world.  It represents not so much a reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but the overflowing of a cup that has been filled to the brim with the blood of Americans, mostly young, unarmed African American males.  It has become evident that there are very few cases where police officers who have killed an unarmed person have suffered any consequences for doing so whatsoever.  

These proposals are put forth with the understanding that police play an important role in our society, and that the majority of policemen are men and women of integrity, not criminals.  We believe that reforms like these are vital to effective policing, where communities see the police as their protectors, not a threat, and where police see the communities as people they serve, not threats.

  1. Screening.  Studies have shown that most cases of inappropriate police violence are committed by a small number of officers.  Vigorous and rigorous efforts should be taken to screen out applicants for police work who have personalities that tend towards violence, impatience, and physical aggression.  In this regard, serious thought should be given to being especially careful in hiring military veterans recently returned from combat.  Similarly psychological screening should be applied to current officers, and those found to have serious propensities for violence to be removed from duties that involve them in interactions with the public.  
  2. Disarmament.  Police sometimes face dangerous situations, and weapons are sometimes appropriate.  But there is little justification for police appearing in the streets more heavily armed than our soldiers overseas.  An officer clad head to toe in black armor, helmeted, gas-masked, wearing combat gear, armed with a long baton, heavy pistol, Taser, shotgun, assault rifle, and hung with dazzle flash grenades, tear gas grenades, and the like, is far more likely to look on civilians as threats, rather than the people to serve and protect.  Armored vehicles, automatic weapons, and guns designed to fire “usually-less-than-lethal” projectiles are not appropriate for dealing with peaceful protests, or minor law infractions.
  3. De-escalation.  Doctrine and training tell officers to quickly get situations “under control”, often by raised voices, barked orders, followed all too often by violence to suppress any resistance, even simple questioning.  Officers must be trained that it is far better to keep things calm, and reach their objective slowly, than to use escalation and force to get there quickly.  The Eugene Police Department, to its credit, has implemented training of all of its officers in de-escalation tactics.  There have been no studies undertaken, however, to see if these methods are being implemented in the field.  This should be done.
  4. Independent Investigation and Prosecution.  It has been amply demonstrated recently, if anyone had any doubt, that district attorneys are not the appropriate persons to investigate and prosecute police violence.  The State of Wisconsin recently enacted legislation requiring that every instance of police violence against citizens be investigated by an independent prosecutor appointed by the State Attorney General’s office, rather than district attorneys or police internal affairs departments.
  5.  Accountability.  Instances of unjustified police violence must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  There must be consequences for those who violate the law, or the law is meaningless.  Once officers who break the law and brutalize or kill civilians are subject to serious penalties, instances of unlawful police violence will be dramatically reduced.  The current epidemic of police killings and brutality is the direct result of the near total lack of sanctions for such behavior.

There are two other proposals that have been made to deal with the current situation.  While these can have some good effects, they do not touch the heart of the problem.

  1. Training.  The notion that you can educate officers not to have racist notions, or to use excessive force against civilians, is an illusory one.  Sensitivity classes can help some officers, especially trainees, but veteran officers with entrenched attitudes who are required to attend such classes typically emerge with the same attitudes they went in with.  The danger exists that conducting such classes can be used as a fig leaf for doing nothing about the real problems.
  2. Body Cameras.  Again, this can be helpful, and in some cities has been shown to sharply reduce the amount of complaints about police violence, and to reduce the number of serious incidents.  But in other cities it has been shown that it is precisely those officers who have the highest number of complaints filed about them tend to have their cameras “malfunction” precisely at the time they enter into a difficult situation.  And the Eric Garner case has clearly shown that having clear video evidence of a police killing produces no more justice than if there had been no camera at all.
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