Police Reform: The Good and the Bad – Gary Sasse

Police Reform: The Good and the Bad – Gary Sasse

Monday, June 29, 2020

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Providence Police Steven Pare and Chief Hugh Clements PHOTO: GoLocal

George Floyd’s death by a Minneapolis policeman has again drawn attention to the need to get rid of bad cops, reform law enforcement and deal with racism.

Today, our nation is vigorously debating how to improve police practices and strategies. Numerous proposals have been made to improve and professionalize law enforcement operations. These range from limiting the power of police unions, abolishing qualified immunity that protects officers from civil liabilities, banning chokeholds, disclosing an officer’s disciplinary records, enhancing de-escalation and legal training, coordinating police work with health and social services, upgrading both hiring qualifications and starting pay, and defunding police departments.

With the exception of defunding, the other reform deserves serious and thoughtful consideration.

Defunding the police would be both foolhardy and dangerous.

Personnel costs usually make up the largest share of a law enforcement agency’s budget. Manpower is needed to investigate and prevent crimes. Residents and businesses are painfully aware of the importance of a police presence. How many businesses providing needed jobs to area residents could continue to operate in communities lacking adequate police protection?

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Defund the Police protest in Providence PHOTO: GoLocal’s Richard McCaffrey

Defunding police programs would also set-back efforts to improve policing practices. Investments in technologies as body cameras and crime mapping as well as training are essential for more accountable law enforcement.

Taryn Merkle, Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, best-summarized police defunding saying, “Indiscriminate cuts that do not target specific problems in police departments may actually undercut efforts to improve law enforcement.”

In public discourse, words have meaning that matter. Those advocating defunding police agencies are engaging in political hyperbole. This only plays into the hands of those who wish to divide us by making “law and order” a wedge issue in the 2020 election.

Holding officers accountable is indispensable in professional and fair law enforcement. According to the Wall Street Journal, the officer charged with murdering George Floyd had 17 prior misconduct complaints. Yet his personnel folder provides few details.

 In Rhode Island, a law known as Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights mandates the process for disciplining police officers.

Anything more than a two-day suspension requires a hearing before a three-person panel. One panel member is chosen by the accused officer, one selected by the chief of police, and third named by the other two or the Superior Court.

In 2015 the Providence Public Safety Commissioner observed, “While a felony conviction would trump this law, there are untold examples of officer misconduct that go unpunished because of it.”

Recently the Rhode Island Senate has named a task force to review the Law Enforcement Bill of Rights.

The doctrine of qualified immunity protects police officers from civil liability if they violate citizen’s rights. Reformers argue that this doctrine erodes police accountability. Ray Kelly, the former New York City Police Commissioner, contends that eliminating it “is a recipe for police inaction.” The doctrine should not be absolute, and it is incumbent upon both sides to find a compromise solution.

Events have created opportunities to increase confidence in the criminal justice system. Outlawing chokeholds, strengthening de-escalation and bias training, maintaining public registers of police misconduct and discipline, and coordinating social services with policing are examples of other common-sense actions that should be immediately considered.

To realize the full benefits of police reform the causes of crime cannot be ignored. In the war against inequity, attention must also be given to education and economic inclusion.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time because it is the key to unlocking economic opportunity.  In addition to police reforms, a Rhode Island constitutional amendment should be placed before voters to make access to educational opportunities an enforceable right.

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Gary Sasse is the Founding Director of the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University.

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Published at Mon, 29 Jun 2020 03:31:00 +0000

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