As the 2021 legislative session begins, there are a number of bills dealing with police reform. One is being touted as a bipartisan solution. It requires implicit-bias and de-escalation training, while requiring officers to step in if a fellow officer is acting inappropriately. The question is, will this bring police accountability?
Last week, it was announced that the city of Miami police department will no longer be monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice. The initial agreement was put in place in 2016 after seven fatal shootings of young African-American men over eight months in 2011. Though the city was in compliance in that there were no further shootings, non-fatal incidents of excessive force are still a concern.
Meanwhile, Javier Ortiz, a Miami police captain known for making a string of offensive and racist comments, has cost taxpayers $565,000 so far in several settlements because of excessive-force complaints. Despite the number of bones he has broken, complaints, racist comments and incidents, he has not been prosecuted or fired.
Jesus Menocal, of the Hialeah police force, faces a string of charges based on allegations that he used his authority to pressure young women into having sex with him. Although federal prosecutors have moved forward with criminal charges, Miami-Dade prosecutors refused to prosecute him on the same set of evidence. He is now facing life in prison for sexually assaulting six women and underage girls — with more survivors continuing to come forward.
Officers in Fort Lauderdale were cleared for shooting peaceful protester LaToya Ratlieff in the face with a rubber bullet. The department’s own protocols were clearly violated, yet there was no accountability.
The department’s training manual states officers should shoot at a person’s head with rubber bullets only if deadly force is warranted. Video from the scene showed Ratlieff was stumbling away when the officer shot her. Two different officers who were caught on a body camera laughing and cursing after shooting rubber bullets at protesters were suspended for one day for violating the department’s policy against “vulgar, obscene or offensive language” while on duty.”
None of these cases reflects a lack of training. There were policies in place governing use of force. Training will not change officers who think it’s funny to hurt the people they serve or who hold racist views. Many departments already have implicit-bias and de-escalation training — it’s nothing new. Miami Police had to implement these trainings as part of their agreement. De-escalation is a good first step, but accountability is everything. If bad actors aren’t punished, then there never will be community trust in the system.
The devil is in the details of the new bill. If de-escalation training is required but is an unfunded mandate – meaning the Legislature doesn’t set aside any money for it — we will not see the results needed. On the flip side, money may be provided as funds for general training for police departments. Will there be any quality control to ensure that this is a robust de-escalation program — like the one used in Camden, New Jersey — as opposed to a feel-good one-day event with no real implementation afterward?
Training without a cultural shift is useless. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. If 20 percent of the officers cause 80 percent of the problems, then the only way we will see a change is if those 20 percent are being held accountable.
If the argument as to why police-shooting cases are not being prosecuted is that there is a problem with the law (vs. an unwillingness to charge these cases), then the law needs to be changed. There are two ways to do it — through legislation or through case law, where judges issue rulings. It brings us back to the importance of the filing of such cases — with evidence — as a tool for change.
None of this is brain surgery. The Kerner Commission report on policing in 1968, which identified poverty and institutionalized racism as drivers of violence in communities of color, and the 21st Century Task Force on Policing of 2015 give similar recommendations. The Legislative Black Caucus released a package of bills, including Sen. Randolph Bracy’s bill to make dashboard and body cameras mandatory for all police departments. There are clear solutions as long as our legislators have the stomach to pass them. Unfortunately, this has not been the case so far.
Accountability changes behavior. Without the prosecution and/or firing of bad police officers — without allowing them to be rehired — we will never see the change we seek.
Melba Pearson is an attorney specializing in criminal justice policy and civil rights. She is the director of policy and programs for FIU’s Center for the Administration of Justice.