Checking in on police reform
What has changed since the summer’s protests?
In mid-June, protesters marched through the streets of New Orleans calling for the city to defund the police department and shift the money to social services. Police Superintendent Shaun Ferguson responded by reviewing reforms his department had made in the last decade.
In 2010, the city asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate its police department for civil rights violations. The resulting consent decree provided an agenda of reform—banning chokeholds, emphasizing de-escalation techniques, and requiring cops to issue a warning and exhaust alternatives before opening fire—that the department has followed since. Ferguson said New Orleans was “well ahead of the curve when it comes to effective police reform.”
The protests that swept through major cities this summer after the officer-involved deaths of several African Americans have eased in many places, but police reform remains a hot topic. Many states and cities have enacted policing changes since then. But, so far, the reforms have satisfied neither extremists who called for defunding police departments nor police advocates who want to see changes to officer training.
On June 16, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for greater law enforcement transparency, more de-escalation training for officers, and a program for social workers to help police interact with crime victims, homeless people, and the mentally ill.
Meanwhile, at least 22 states enacted police reform laws.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed a bill banning officers from using chokeholds in most cases and preventing departments from hiring police previously fired for misconduct. California banned all police chokeholds and allowed the state Department of Justice to investigate police shootings. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, also signed legislation to limit chokeholds, ban aggressive training programs, and require new training on crisis resolution.
Cities and counties have enacted local reforms since the summer, most banning riskier types of restraints or increasing police accountability. Some reduced the size of the police force or budget.
Three cities saw more drastic changes.
New York City reallocated $1 billion from the police department to education and social services and disbanded the department’s plainclothes unit, leaving such officers only on the transit system.
In Austin, Texas, the city council voted to reduce its police budget by about a third, cutting several new cadet classes and unfilled police positions. Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, responded by threatening to send state police to provide law enforcement in Austin.
In Minneapolis, the city council voted in June to dismantle its police department and replace it with a new public safety system. By late September, however, it had released no plans. Council members who supported the idea said they stood for it “in spirit” and the move was “up for interpretation.” On Oct. 2, the city council approved a series of community surveys and public forums to begin shaping a new model of policing.
Advocates for extreme changes are disappointed. “It’s a positive that we were able to prevent increases in budgets,” said Scott Roberts of the organization Color of Change. “But it’s not what we were looking for.”
The reforms haven’t pleased police advocates such as retired officer Randy Petersen, either. Petersen, a researcher with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, thinks politics, not public safety, motivated many of the changes.
If public safety was the priority, he said, departments would focus on police training, not cutting funds and stretching remaining officers thinner: “You cannot possibly think with any seriousness that you will get an improvement in policing that way.”
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