The relationship between police and the public they serve may not be broken but is certainly damaged. It is also repairable.
By adopting thoughtful reforms, emphasizing de-escalation training and narrowing the scope of police authority, communities can ensure public oversight of law enforcement while also easing the burden that weighs heavily on officers’ shoulders.
Some view the police as a force for oppression and violence, not the “protect and serve” heroes of cop shows and children’s books. For others, police are honorable, dutiful and brave, people willing to risk their lives to keep the public safe and the last line of defense from criminals and other malcontents.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, as it so often is. Gallup last year found only 48% of Americans had confidence in police, the lowest in 27 years, and there’s a vast difference in attitudes based on race.
The murder trial of Minnesota Police Officer Derek Chauvin was not a litmus test of these attitudes. Chauvin was captured on video kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for more than 9 minutes, even as bystanders begged him to stop. Chauvin was responsible for Floyd’s death and the jury merely confirmed what the nation saw and knew.
The evidence was clear, the case compelling. There was no gray area. Even the staunchest supporter of police will concede that Chauvin’s behavior was reprehensible and deserved punishment.
They also claim Chauvin was a bad apple and bristle at the idea he represents a deeper rot in law enforcement. Yet Chauvin had 18 complaints filed against him and was twice formally disciplined before his brutality against Floyd last summer.
It would be similarly irresponsible to say that Chauvin’s actions are emblematic of every officer who wears a badge. There are law enforcement officers who have no business in a position of authority, but many, many more who are diligent and determined public servants.
So how should communities, such as those in Hampton Roads, chart a course that protects and empower good officers while ousting those who cannot be trusted?
Begin with oversight that is capable, independent and transparent. Citizen review boards and other public bodies that review and investigate complaints helps ensure accountability for law enforcement and bolster public trust in police.
Emphasize de-escalation training, which several regional departments and sheriff’s offices now do. In Windsor, where in December two officers drew their guns, issued threats and pepper sprayed an Army lieutenant during a traffic stop for which there was no crime, the police chief this week announced several reforms for his department that include a program about de-escalation strategies and implicit bias. That’s progress.
The larger project should be to narrow the scope of police authority to better reflect a community’s needs and expectations for law enforcement.
Recall that in the aftermath of a 2016 shooting that killed five of his officers and injured nine more, then-Dallas Police Chief David Brown urged officials to rethink the extraordinary burden shouldered by law enforcement.
“We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Brown said. “Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
Every community needs professional police who will be asked to do some dangerous tasks because there are dangerous people out there who should face justice inside a courtroom.
But communities must prioritize the areas that require police and decide which do not. Narrowing the scope of law enforcement authority reduces the demands on officers and ensures better outcomes for the public.
By clearly defining which infractions do, and which can be best addressed throughout alternate means, we can help restore trust and pride in law enforcement that serves the public honorably.