Can Politics Handle Police Reform in 2020? An Expert Roundtable

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The deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police officers earlier this year launched what might be the largest mass movement in American history. Public support of the Black Lives Matter movement spiked, and in city after city, day after day, crowds gathered around calls to change American policing.

So far, little has changed. Police have continued to kill Black people at a higher rate than whites and high-profile officer shootings have continued to spark protests. While Louisville put an end to no-knock warrants like the one executed on Taylor’s home and few other accountability measures, a Kentucky grand jury decided not to charge any officers for her death. Activists and communities everywhere who want to overhaul law enforcement are growing impatient. “You can see folks on the ground starting to question, ‘how long is this going to take?’” said Tracie Keesee, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity, a think tank promoting police accountability and reform.

Why hasn’t the energy of the police protests translated into new laws and policies that might bring lasting change? Much of it boils down to politics. Police reform is complicated: Most police departments are locally funded and managed, with deep reservoirs of local support and influential unions; sheriffs are run at the county level, and other forces—and laws—are dictated by state or federal officials; and despite what changes on paper, culture matters too. There is no roadmap for how to legislate the sweeping set of proposals the summer has inspired, or even consensus on what level of government to target. Even advocacy groups don’t see eye-to-eye on their ultimate goals.

Is there a real political path forward for police reform, and if so, what does it look like? To understand what has blocked reform so far, and how change could happen politically, POLITICO Magazine convened a panel of experts with experience in government, in policing, in policy, and from both sides of the political aisle. The group included Keesee, a former equity and inclusion official for the New York City Police Department; Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul; Chanda Smith Baker, senior vice president for impact at the Minneapolis Foundation, where she has worked with state and city officials on use-of-force reforms; Tracey Meares, a Yale law professor and founding director of the Justice Collaboratory, a group of scholars working on research and empirical ways to reform policing; and Arthur Rizer, a former police officer and federal prosecutor who now directs the criminal justice and civil liberties program at the free-market R Street Institute.

The conversation was moderated by Darius Dixon, associate States editor at POLITICO.

In a wide-ranging conversation, the panel identified impediments to reform, including the power of police unions, the language reformers are using, the astonishing lack of national data about policing and the culture of law enforcement itself. They also gave us an idea of where reformers need to go next—and how liberals and conservatives might find common ground. First, the group agreed, they need to articulate just what communities want the police to do; then, they need to press for real federal oversight of local police departments. And they also offered a dose of reality: this might just be the beginning of the activist conversation, and it could be years before politics can help.

Darius Dixon: Let’s start with one of the summer’s big slogans: “Defund the police.” That sounds like a clear reform idea, but obviously it means different things to different people. It’s also turned into this rather frequent talking point on conservative television. Is there a single, common policy?

Tracey Meares: At a high enough level of generality, sure, there’s a common policy.

One way to describe what police do—and it’s only one way, and one thing that they do—is that they are emergency first responders with guns. Right? And so, if you think about that aspect of the job, then one way of thinking about a thing you can do is to is to imagine, well, what are the things that you want emergency first responders who are armed to do? Like, in New Haven, for whatever reason, if you have a construction project, armed police officers are detailed to manage traffic around construction projects at Yale. Why is that person doing that?

When you think about who is doing what job with what equipment, there are ways of shrinking the force, because other people can do that job, which is one direct aspect of defunding.

But then there’s another aspect of defunding that has to do with: Are we actually sending the people who are trained to do the things we want them to do in an emergency response context? Which isn’t really about defunding, per se. In fact, it could actually be more expensive, depending on what you want that person to do. And so, some clarity around that is useful.

We really need to decide what we want police to do. Police, as you understand that term.

One way of understanding that term is that it’s the armed first responders, but you could, if you’re going to be really academic about it, think about the state’s power to provide for the general welfare of citizens, which is the police power, by the way.

Dixon: I’m wondering if our other Tracie—Keesee—might chime in on this one, too. Is there some daylight between you two on how you define what “defund” has meant to the movement, and what the policy is?

Tracie Keesee: I don’t know if we’re at the common policy place yet. We just aren’t. The work is still too new, and we don’t know what it’s going to turn up.

But what I do want to go and sort of speak to is this process of determining what the demand is for the service. That is what [Keesee’s organization] the Center for Policing Equity (CPE) has really sort of fashioned out. It’s called a roadmap. It’s for out departments and our chiefs to start with that question. What’s the demand? And then, to have community also engage in that question. You need to define what you want folks to do. And what does public safety look like if that’s where we’re going? And if we’re staying with an armed response, what is their role? Because all of these things tie into everything downstream.

We have not yet answered the fundamental question: Who and what is the role now? Who is responding and who’s doing what?

Dixon: Attorney General Raoul, what are the priorities in Illinois?

Kwame Raoul: I came to the attorney general’s office from the legislature, and our priorities are reflected in our budget and how we invest the taxpayer money that we’re charged with managing.

And so, as you think about the term “defund,” I think about it in two ways. I think about it literally in terms of dollars invested. So a recent experience in the Illinois attorney general’s office, is we sit on the board of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority. Illinois received a coronavirus-relief CARES grant from the federal government. Traditionally, we would guide a lot of the funds coming from the Justice Department to law enforcement departments.

But as we thought about how do we help people during pandemic, we advocated that some of those dollars that would traditionally go to law enforcement agencies should go to community-based organizations on the ground, in communities that are most heavily impacted by both the pandemic and by an elevation in crime.

And then, when it comes to reimagining the police, you’ve got to rethink how you deal with circumstances, whether it is crisis intervention training for police officers, or whether it is, as I tried to introduce a bill, prioritizing sending mental health professionals into situations where that is a mental health crisis and not necessarily a policing crisis. Or whether it’s both.

And then, it’s not clear if those changes will translate into reducing funding or increasing funding to police departments. For instance, of the things that we advocate for in the consent decree [a consent decree to follow through on reforms recommended by the federal Department of Justice after the Chicago police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014] is reducing supervisor-to-officer ratio. And that may translate into an increased investment, at least on that level. What it translates to as you look at things comprehensively, I don’t know; we haven’t done an analysis of everything we recommend in the consent decree to reflect whether or not it represents an increase in expenditure on law enforcement or a decrease. It may well be an increase.

Dixon: In Minneapolis, the city council unanimously backed a that would have disbanded the police and replaced it with something new. The city-charter commission has blocked it. Where does the city go from here?

Chanda Smith Baker: I think, how they started with the defund, divest, abolish—all of the languaging to me is one of the barriers. I think the city council jumping out, making a very declarative statement without being really prepared to answer the questions, and prepared to respond to the increased violence, was a problem. Because now we have increased community-level violence happening in Minneapolis, and you are now talking about defunding or divesting or abolishing a police department, which was very difficult for a lot of our community members to grab ahold of.

That reinforces that this is an ecosystem. It’s not one group or one player that can actually make the type of reforms that are needed. So I do think that them jumping out was bold—but without answers, it actually created a delay. So the charter commission essentially is delaying it from going on ballot and giving time, I would say, for us to think about a plan to do it right.

I think that there’s other places we can go. I’ll just add that I think one of the barriers is actually getting to an articulated vision of what are we talking about in terms of reimagined public safety and what are all the components.

Dixon: For the rest of you, is there another place where there seemed like there was some momentum and then things ground to a halt?

Arthur Rizer: Well, even on the federal side, we had some pretty robust reforms that were being proffered by both sides, and they kind of fell apart. I mean, if people actually even read the executive order from President Trump, it actually had some good stuff in there. It’s not going to be funded, but there was some good stuff.

Something that disappointed me: If you look at the 2016 Democratic platform on policing, and then compare that to Senator Tim Scott’s bill, they’re exactly the same thing. But for some reason, we couldn’t get anybody to support the Scott bill, and good reasons, bad reasons, whatever, but that was kind of a smash in my face politically. And then you know, even Indiana Senator Mike Braun’s bill on qualified immunity was pretty good. But it fell apart after he went on Tucker Carlson and got just obliterated.

But at the end of the day, going back to your first question, it’s really hard. It seems schizophrenic because we haven’t gotten our hands really around that first question yet. And so everybody is kind of running around trying to do something, but we haven’t defined what are we reprioritizing. And I think that right there is hard, until we actually say what do we want police to be, how do we reimagine what police should be, it is really difficult to try to come up with some solutions.

Dixon: So much of this conversation on police reform is coming from liberal cities. Is there a Republican-controlled city that has really shown some progress on police reform?

Rizer: Arlington, Texas, actually has a Republican mayor. They have been very forward-learning on police stuff. And even from the data perspective. And they’re always willing to be involved in studies. I mean, Vera Institute of Justice has been in there forever doing research and study after study after study.

Dixon: And Attorney General Raoul, obviously, there’s Chicago, but outside of Cook County you start getting more and more conservative.

Kwame Raoul: As I mentioned earlier, I’ve got this effort to enhance the police certification process or shift it to a licensing process akin to what we have for lawyers, that has a consequence for conduct unbecoming of somebody who should be a law enforcement officer in the state. And it’s being embraced by police chiefs from conservative cities. The most vocal people at the table on this have been Republican state’s attorneys.

And it grows out of what they’ve had to deal with, the disciplinary problems that they’ve had to personally deal with. So, while many of the occurrences that have led to broader conversation have occurred in some of the bigger cities, it can and does occur in rural cities and conservative cities, as well—probably not to the same level because of the impact of race in all of this, but it still happens. And those who are at the helm have to deal with it at the local level.

Tracey Meares: It’s really hard to answer this question about what it is that police should do when we’re living in an evidence-free zone, which we are, right? So, let me give you an example of just how fricking evidence-free it is.

People talk about the fact that there are something like 17,000 to 18,000 law enforcement agencies across the country. Now, why do they do that? It’s not as if we know that there are 17,391, and then somebody’s rounding down or rounding up. We don’t know. Okay? It’s just, we don’t know.

Let’s think about schools. I was actually just looking at this data because my partner is a professor of education at Rutgers and I was actually looking at Department of Education data, and I can tell you that in 2015 there were 98,267 public schools. We know to the number how many there are. Why? Because the federal government requires each one of the these entities, whether public or private, actually, to register, provide certain information.

Like, how can you have a policy if we don’t even know what we’re talking about? We’re not even talking about what the individuals on the street are doing. We’re talking at the level of we don’t even know how many agencies there are. And the members of these agencies all carry guns. Think about that. Just think about that. Right?

You want to know what’s really important? Federal data standards mandating that all the agencies collect the data, knowing what individual officers are doing so that we can do audits, so that we can actually have a rationalized bureaucracy so people like Attorney General Raoul are in a position to potentially regulate the agencies in his state. He can’t do that, really, right now. And so, when we start talking about passing laws about use of force and so on, how is that supposed to be enforced when you have no data infrastructure? It is impossible.

So, then we end up having this conversation about back-end accountability all the time, which is where the qualified immunity conversation comes in. But if you’re actually going to make people do things, you have to have front-end accountability. You have to have rules. And you have to have a mechanism by which to ensure that people are following those rules, which requires audits and such, and we are not in any position to do this.

Dixon: Is there a way to actually make allies of police unions, to address some of this stuff?

Raoul: I’ll say this. There’s limited area of common ground. I think that’s in part because of the so-called democracy of how a union president gets elected. I don’t think it always reflects the sentiment of all of the rank and file. Some of that is the result of police union elections and then participation levels that aren’t across the board, right? There is unequal rank-and-file member participation. The members who don’t value reform and who have been on the force during an era in which there were fewer reforms tend to participate more in elections – thus determining who the president is. And so, the result ends up being more and more conservative union leadership with every election

But we’ve got to overcome that, right? In Chicago, the head of the police union with every election has gotten more and more extreme. So, to the extent that local departments are going to be handicapped by the collective bargaining agreements, we have to look at statewide and federal standards to create a system of accountability. That’s something that I’m trying to do right now, advocating for moving either to a more enhanced certification system or a licensing system.

So we’re having a good conversation around enhancing what we can do at the state level to overcome some of what can be achieved at the departmental level. We’ve got to get it through the legislature, and like earlier, there are going to be some legislators who are going to say, “Well, what does the FOP think about this?” but fortunately, we do have buy-in from those who are heads of departments and those who have to prosecute cases.

Currently in Illinois, you can be decertified as a police officer only if you get convicted of a felony or a sex-related misdemeanor. And so, you can have however number of misconduct findings against you and it won’t lead to your decertification.

We achieved creating a database similar to what’s in the Trump’s executive order in legislation I passed five years ago that, which tracks instances in which an officer either resigns while under investigation or is discharged from the department. This statewide database provides a mechanism to prevent bad officers from being rehired by another department. But that still falls short of the data that we need to collect on a statewide basis, for example instances of repeated misconduct that do not result in officers quitting while under investigation.

There’s a number of things we’re trying to collect data on by way of the consent decree, but that consent decree is only with the Chicago Police Department, and as mentioned earlier, we’ve got tons of police departments throughout the state.

Dixon: For Chanda Smith Baker, I’m curious about, in Minneapolis, what has been your experience with the police union there, and how receptive or confrontational they’ve been about reform?

Baker: So, the day following George Floyd’s murder, our chief, Medaria Arradondo, announced that he had fired the four involved officers. The president of the union came out and said that it was an overreaction and that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that. So it’s an adversarial relationship.

We have a reform-minded police chief who is our first African-American chief who, along with 10 other officers, filed a discriminatory lawsuit against the department, which they won, and then he has stayed the course, and now he’s leading. So, we understand that he is reform-minded, but he needs to have the infrastructure that supports decisions. When he is trying to do early interventions and when he needs to do discipline, it has historically not been backed by the union. And so, that’s a problem.

Keesee: There is a movement going on here within unions, and it’s happening because of the affinity groups inside of police departments where Black officers and women who are stepping up publicly who historically would not do that as active officers, voicing the fact that they are not happy with endorsements and political alignments. And it’s something that you would not historically ever see, and not at least feel as if your work life is not going to be threatened by it.

There are some unions in California that have led the changes that they need to happen in California. So, it’s not all unions. I want to be careful with that because it’s not all unions.

But you have national-level unions that have charter membership and the national often does put the locals in a bind because they go and they do certain things, and they do not necessarily mirror the makeup of that particular union group or that particular department. But I want to be careful about how much power we really lay on top of that, because when the community begins to understand what the collective bargaining process looks like, why those things are done in secret, and that those things get approved by the full council only after agreements have been made … It’s the governance structure of all of that in which a community has to become involved. They truly need to understand why contracts are done a certain way.

Dixon: New York’s police union endorsed Donald Trump a few weeks ago. Chicago’s police union endorsed Trump on Friday. These are police departments that are responsible for largely Democratic cities, right? So where do these endorsements send the relationship between the police and the communities, when the police unions are endorsing Trump?

Rizer: I think it really highlights this disturbing transformation that has happened, from law enforcement as a means to an end into an end in and of itself. And that right there comes down to a thing that—I keep saying this—it’s all about culture. Because police culture is rotten and until you can fix it, we can’t fix these problems.

One of my questions I asked officers in my research was: “Do you want your kid to be a cop?” And Dr. Keesee, I think that when you were a cop, I bet if people asked you that you might have said “no,” but you would have said, “Because it’s dangerous. Because of the high divorce rate. Because yadda-yadda-yadda.” You know what they say now? “The public hates us.” That was like 80-something percent of my interviews said that. “The public hates us and I don’t want my kid to be faced with that.”

Another really quick piece of data, and this I think highlights everything that I have found. This is a series of questions. I asked officers, “Do you have a problem with militarization? Do you have a problem with officers dressing like soldiers, carrying military-grade equipment?” And they said—the vast majority of the officers—86 percent said, “No. I have no problem with that.”

Okay. The second question was, “Do you think it changes their perception of themselves?” The vast majority of officers said, “Yes. It makes them more aggressive. It makes them more assertive,” which is just code for more aggressive. It makes them look like they’re harder targets.

Then a third question, which I think pulls everything together, “Do you think it changes the perception the public has about your officers?” and they almost all said, “Yes. It scares them.” So, smush those three questions together: “We don’t care. We know it makes them more aggressive. And we know that it scares the public.” That is a cultural issue—and until you fix that, everything that we talk about, it’s really hard.

Dixon: Chanda, I wanted to get your take on diversity of police forces. One of our reporters talked to Lori Lightfoot in Chicago, and she said, “Well, I’m not for defunding the police because it means fewer officers, and those fewer officers are more likely to be that more diverse class that’s been more recent,” and she doesn’t want to lose that. And with the George Floyd situation, there were at least two officers present who were people of color. Where would you say that conversation is in Minneapolis?

Baker: You know, I don’t know. It’s a flawed argument because it is about culture, and we’ve seen evidence of Baltimore, where all the way through with Freddie Gray you had officers of color; you had a Black prosecutor, you had a Black mayor, and you had a Black chief. And so, we’ve got to address culture. Again, I think we’re solving for multiple things. We do need to have a police force that is more reflective of communities, that is true.

I guess to me, still, it’s about how do we have the right things in place that get us to the culture we need to have? Just like, how do you even address anything? Like, every other place I know has a discipline policy, but we can’t call it that? We have to call it “coaching”? What is happening here that folks are so sensitive about language? How do we get to the bottom of it if we can’t even talk about the truth? Right? But everything is about positioning before we can really get to the crux of the argument, or to the discussion.

Keesee: On the diversity piece, we’ve got to get back to this, right, because this has been the fix since policing was in play. And one more time, putting people of color—Black folks, specifically—into a culture that does not want them there and to asking them to survive is not going to get you what you need on the other side of this.

And so, it’s more than just, well, is diversity important? Of course it’s important. And of course you want to have it. But you shouldn’t have to have it at the cost of you determining whether or not you need to protect your life or speak up. That in itself should be a flag, but this is not the first time.

That should be a flag to a whole bunch of people that there’s a bigger problem at play here. And if you want to talk about, if the fix is let’s diversify the department, please tell me where you’re going to recruit from. Because you had problems recruiting black folks and women before—where are you going to get them from now?

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