Commentary: Reforming Policing While Preserving Law Enforcement

Chris Denson

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

Systematic reform within the criminal justice system has become prevalent in the public discourse in the wake of recent events, including the tragic deaths of three African-Americans: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and, here in Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery. The ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, as well as rioting and looting by those seeking to exploit a fraught situation, have raised further questions about effective policing among law enforcement agencies.

The Minneapolis City Council’s intention to disband its police department in the wake of Floyd’s killing has led to “defund the police” efforts in at least 16 cities. Municipalities are now asking hard questions regarding the role of law enforcement officers in policing the very communities they serve.

There are good policies worth pursuing that will enhance accountability for law enforcement and judicial systems while respecting the difficult nature of the work required of these positions.

Transparency is critical to establishing and maintaining trust between law enforcement and the community.  Currently only two states, Nevada and South Carolina, mandate body cameras for law enforcement personnel. Georgia leaves that to the discretion of local jurisdictions. In 2015 and 2016, the Georgia Legislature passed two laws stipulating how long to retain body camera recordings and that they should be made available upon request.  

Still, local departments can take further steps to engender trust. In Cobb County, Sheriff Neil Warren responded to public concern over conditions for Cobb’s jail inmates by hiring an outside law firm to “review five years' worth of complaints alleging discriminatory practice, use of force, deadly force or neglect.”

Transparency includes disclosing all credible allegations of wrongdoing, even if the accused personnel remain unnamed pending an investigation. Publishing the findings is another principle of good governance and community confidence.

State law should also clearly define legal standards of excessive force. As U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) observed, “I don’t want to be out there just saying police are bad. ... It’s sometimes sort of like our soldiers, put into a bad position by bad policy.” Clearly defined protocols and procedures help delineate between good actors and bad. Once these excessive actions are clearly defined, it is imperative to hold the bad actors accountable.

Further, as stewards of the public trust, law enforcement officers should not be eligible to resign in the face of immediate termination and gain employment in another jurisdiction with a “clean record.” All law enforcement personnel should also undergo de-escalation training at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center (GPSTC) or Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council (P.O.S.T.) to help decrease the number of these heightened situations before they even begin.

Finally, reforms should include ending the “militarization” of police departments. The 1033 program, signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, allows local law enforcement agencies to acquire excess Department of Defense military equipment. Besides creating the perception that community police are military troops occupying neighborhoods, one study reports a correlation among local law enforcement in their utilization of the program and an increase in fatalities from officer-involved shootings.  To achieve community engagement as a driving force in policing, removing military equipment from law enforcement is an excellent start.

Left undefined within the current “defund the police” movement is how exactly the void would be filled. What happens to these already-fraught communities if traditional police roles are filled by state and federal law enforcement agencies with no ties to the community?

There are challenges to address in our judiciary and law enforcement systems, and it is critical the response aligns with the root causes of the problem without undermining the morale or motivation of those who have made the commitment to preserve and protect our communities.