Headlines lately have been filled with news of the recent rise in violence: In Baltimore last month, there were 43 homicides and dozens of shootings. Homicides in New York City and Chicago are up about 15% and 18%, respectively, compared to last year. After 20 years of successful policing that had reduced crime to record lows, are we in danger of seeing a return to what we experienced in the 1990s, when there were high murder rates, and our streets seemed to be owned by criminals? Unfortunately, I believe it’s possible.
Presently, police forces in more than 30 cities are either under investigation by the Department of Justice or have signed consent decrees with the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. The allegations are that those departments have either engaged in brutality or have deprived citizens of their civil rights. In spite of the fact that use-of-force complaints, and civilian complaints of all kinds, have been down, it appears that the DOJ under former Attorney General Eric Holder was on a mission to reform policing in the United States.
As I’ve written before in TIME, this War on Police is causing a demoralization of police officers throughout our country. Our new attorney general, Loretta Lynch, has an opportunity to fix this.
It’s clear that a very small, and I repeat, a very small number of police officers engage in brutality. It’s possible that there are departments that systemically do as well. But out of 18,000 police departments in the United States, those instances are rare. Those officers and departments should be the targets of investigation and reform. But it’s important to remember that the majority of police do their jobs effectively and at great risk.
When talking heads, pundits, activists, and our own elected officials use a broad brush to paint our nation’s police as out of control and in need of reform, the result is a change in the way police do business. Officers who in the past would aggressively pursue criminals might begin to back off as they see their jobs and their family’s economic security at risk. As politicians pass more and more laws restricting police actions, criminals might become aware that the probability of arrest is lessened, and they may no longer fear police. We are beginning to see the results of those dynamics today.
Does the imposition of reform by the federal courts and the Department of Justice work? In its current form, it does not.
Through consent decrees and court orders, federal judges grant outside monitors broad powers to oversee and report on certain functions at police departments. Some of these court orders can be more than 100 single-spaced pages. They outline in minute detail what is required of the police department to come into compliance with rules for reform, actions which can take more than a decade to accomplish.
Oakland, California, has had a court-appointed monitor for more than 12 years, and yet violence is at all-time highs, and complaints from citizens continue to come in. Detroit has had a federally mandated monitor for more than 11 years, and the story is similar. The cost of these programs has been in the tens of millions of dollars.
The way monitorships are set up now seem to provide the monitor a disincentive to help reform the police. As long as monitors say the departments are not in compliance, they continue to collect fees.
It’s essential that this system be changed to include goals and milestones not only for the police, but also for the monitors. We must have metrics in place to ensure that the monitors are as, or more, motivated than the police departments to accomplish reform. I urge our new attorney general to consider such a change.
Trust between our police officers and the communities they serve is essential. But we should never ignore what good, effective law enforcement has accomplished over the past 20 years. Those of us who watched too many innocent citizens lose their lives, and lived in what seemed to be lawless cities where the criminals controlled many neighborhoods, know it could happen again.
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