In the wake of understandable public outrage sparked by the troubling death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, federal lawmakers find themselves under considerable pressure to advance proposals aimed at improving police-community relations. While there are good reasons to be skeptical of many of the most popular reforms being advanced, members of Congress should consider reforms aligned with five broad principles:
1. Recruit an increasingly more professional workforce
Particularly as police agencies across the country report recruiting shortages and retention issues, the need to fill police ranks with high-caliber officers is paramount. The U.S. armed forces provide a potential model. Potential military recruits with four-year and advanced degrees are able to join as commissioned officers, which often translates to a quicker and more-promising promotional track. Police agencies should explore a similar pilot program, which, by offering a quicker and more reliable track to investigative and/or managerial roles to college and advanced degree-holders, can attract high-caliber recruits.
2. Train with an emphasis on legal knowledge
Law enforcement officers must make difficult decisions in the field, which often require the application of legal doctrines to the facts available to them in real time. Minimizing—through more extensive, and continuous, legal training—instances in which police err in making these decisions will benefit police and citizens alike. And encouraging officers to, when feasible and advisable, explain events to those they deal with, as those events unfold, may help ease the tensions inherent in intrusive interactions.
3. Reveal activity with broader adoption of body-worn cameras
The wider adoption of body-worn cameras (BWCs) is an idea that enjoys high levels of public support. Though in use across the country for many years, BWCs have not been universally adopted. As of 2016, just under half of U.S. police agencies had acquired BWCs. Though police critics often propose cameras as a way to moderate police misbehavior, the available evidence does not suggest that BWCs will reduce police uses of force. It does, however, seem to suggest that BWCs reduce frivolous citizen complaints, while also aiding in criminal investigations and prosecutions.
4. Constrain with express authorization for no-knock raids
The execution of search and arrest warrants is an exceptionally important, and sometimes very dangerous, task for American police—particularly given the proliferation of both legal and illegal gun ownership in the United States. However, troubling stories of children injured by errant flashbangs, and of private citizens firing on police under the mistaken impression that they were unlawful intruders, illustrate the dangers involved in no-knock raids—raids in which police forcefully enter a dwelling (often late at night or in the early morning) without first knocking and announcing themselves. One potential reform in this area would be to require commanding officers to submit a written declaration, based on actionable intelligence of a potential threat to officers, that such a raid is the most prudent tactical option.
5. Document with better and more-consistent data collection
Crucial to both the public’s understanding of law enforcement, and the betterment of policing practices, is the availability of reliable data that policymakers and analysts can assess in their attempts to answer important questions. Among those questions: the extent to which violent crimes are committed by offenders out on bail, and how resource deployment decisions affect crime in hot spots. With CompStat, the New York City Police Department illustrated how data can help inform important internal decisions. So, too, can more data better inform the analyses of those studying issues of public safety.
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