If we want to fix law enforcement, we first have to fix what we’re asking them to do on a daily basis.
We do want law enforcement to catch murderers, to investigate sexual assaults, to follow-up on robberies and burglaries, and to enforce things like domestic violence court orders so that we don’t have to resort to essentially tribal family or neighborhood alliances to do so.
But very little of a police officer’s job is actually doing these sorts of things because we as a society use them for all sorts of activities that even the best examples of society would strain to do well, and we’re not recruiting the best examples of society to police us now.
1. We have to decriminalize drug possession and use.
I can’t think of any single factor that has made cops lazier and more disruptive in communities than the ability to invade people’s homes or vehicles and arrest them on possession charges.
It’s completely atrophied the skills of policing that an officer ought to have, such as keeping violence down and de-escalating interactions because the reward is that you find something that is in itself illegal. It takes a lot of work to solve and then prosecute most crimes. Even burglars with stolen items have to be tracked down and work has to be done to establish that what they have was acquired by illegal means.
Prosecutors who have the option of pursuing multiple charges often use drug charges as leverage, either dropping them to get a plea to something else or using them to get an easy conviction. Easy drug convictions have likewise skewed the criminal justice system toward facile bullshit that punishes the poor and people of color while not doing anything to actually combat drug addiction or its effects.
2. We have to divorce revenue-gathering from law enforcement.
If asset forfeiture were no longer tied to drugs, that would help in itself, but especially with traffic stops, officers are doing it because they’re expected by their city to get a certain amount of money in fines and penalties.
Now, there is a legitimate interest in our roads being safe, including making sure drivers aren’t intoxicated or distracted and that vehicles aren’t broken in some way dangerous to others. But a rich person has nothing to fear from speeding, and would rather just take the ticket every few months and pay it off than not get everywhere as fast as they want. As is well known, it ends up being a burden on the poor, often forcing them to pay to private companies far more than they would have otherwise, and allowing police to arrest them on warrants for unpaid fines. A
s with bail bonds, fines should be based on a person’s ability to pay them, similar to the Norwegian system, and this would immediately solve the problem because wealthy people would not want police to have an incentive coming after them to make up municipal shortfalls.
3. We have to invest in non-violent emergency personnel.
People call police for all sorts of things that they’re not trained to do. Whether they have guns or just clubs, they’re not necessarily going to be equipped to handle mental welfare checks or people overdosing on drugs.
It may be possible to train all officers better until they are able to do these things, but there ought to be an opportunity for people who are unable to handle a situation themselves to call a professional to help without having it on their conscience that those professionals are likely to abuse or kill someone. It would be a dangerous job, but so is lumberjacking and nursing. Humans are capable of surprising virtue.
4. We have to invest in afterschool and summer school programs, personal housing for homeless people, and mental welfare in general.
If children have things to do, especially those most at risk because their parents can’t afford to pay money to look after them while the parents are at work, it will have an effect immediately on the sorts of petty crimes bored kids get into and into the future because they won’t be getting arrested and pushed further into a trajectory of anti-social behavior or developing skills useful for crime but not so much putting on a resume.
If homeless people have their own place to sleep and keep their things, if they can have an address to apply for jobs, if social services can be concentrated on those areas in particular, you’re spending money up front instead of having police be called to ‘deal with’ people asleep in front of businesses or “causing problems”.
And relatedly, we want to spend money on people dealing with issues of mental health before they need to go to the hospital or we jail them for crimes almost by definition we know they aren’t responsible for committing.
5. We have to be OK with having fewer police.
We can train them better, compensate them better, and hold those we do have to higher standards, but there will be fewer bodies available to do work that’s not a priority. As it is, insurance companies rely on police to determine who was at fault in traffic collisions, but if no one is seriously injured, maybe police aren’t able to do that.
Police reports for burglaries might have to be filed online, and graffiti or vandalism probably won’t lead to an officer coming out. That’s already a reality in many areas for other reasons, but it would have to become the norm.
6. We need local civilian oversight and a federal bureau devoted to police misconduct.
If we can do the other things to make it easier for police to do their real jobs, then we should be able to much more strongly punish them when they step out of line.
For smaller events, local civilian oversight should be enough. Complaints about an officer’s tone or use of force in an arrest should not be internal matters where we expect police to do the right thing among themselves. They’ve demonstrated they’re not trustworthy in that. A civilian oversight board would be complicated in its own right, but should operate on a standard of guilty until proven innocent when it comes to complaints.
By that I mean, if there’s a complaint about you and you “forgot to turn on” your camera when the interaction happened, that should be taken as evidence of malfeasance in itself. Police officers need to be Caesar’s wife in these things.
But, for more serious accusations and offenses, it should be a federal investigation, likely through the Civil Rights Division and prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorneys, because they’re the absolute best in the country and not beholden to local law enforcement to make their cases or be re-elected. In an administration like this one, we wouldn’t be able to rely on that federal bureau, but that would still be a step forward from what exists at present.
In return for federal criminal justice funding, local agencies would also need to report police-involved shootings and homicides, and use of force statistics, as part of their Uniform Crime Reporting numbers. To make it meaningful, if it could be demonstrated that these numbers were intentionally skewed by local departments, they’d be on the hook for back-pay, similar to lying about your unemployment.
That’s not going to solve everything, but it would go a long way toward re-orienting the incentives of the people involved away from violence and abuse of people in favor of public safety.