Editor’s Note: Jason C. Johnson is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund (LELDF), a nonprofit educational organization that defends accused law enforcement officers, and he served as deputy commissioner of the Baltimore (Maryland) Police Department between 2016 and 2018. An attorney, he is a graduate of the 251st session of the FBI National Academy. James A. Gagliano is a member of the LELDF board of directors and a retired FBI supervisory special agent. He is a CNN law enforcement analyst and adjunct assistant professor in criminal justice and homeland security matters at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the authors; view more opinion articles on CNN.
As retired law enforcement leaders with a combined half-century of policing experience, we share the national shock and outrage over the senseless death of George Floyd in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers. All four cops involved have been arrested and charged.
And while honorable policing professionals condemn their extrajudicial conduct, our system of justice demands due process considerations and presumption of innocence for anyone charged with a crime – regardless of their chosen profession.
In addition, reflexive calls from some corners to defund or abolish the police are foolhardy and dangerous. Qualitatively improving the policing profession, not disassembling it, is the best means to prevent such senseless tragedies from ever happening again.
Federal lawmakers must find the courage to implement and fund a series of long-overdue reforms that effectively reset, and make uniform, professional standards. This is the only feasible and realistic path forward.
Defunding or dismantling the police means different things to different people, but largely, those who call for it are asking for money to be divested from the police and instead put into community initiatives like for education, jobs and mental health services. While these are important, those advocating for the most extreme end of the spectrum – fully dismantling policing as we know it – ignore the reality of its impracticality and risk, namely the fact that we would still need a reliable system that can prevent and investigate crimes.
While people with considerable means tend to reside in gated communities with private security or in other less threatening environments, the most vulnerable among us – many inner-city and at-risk communities – endure staggeringly high crime rates.
Defunding will have an adverse effect on citizens most in need of police protection.
Despite the police misconduct cases that get national attention and the countless others that should but don’t, it’s important to know that many police officers do honor their commitment to protect and serve. But across the nation, individual departments labor in complex and confusing networks of disparate professional standards, training and policy guidelines.
If we want to reduce incidents of police misconduct, improve police-community relations and make neighborhoods safer, we should “professionalize” the police, ensuring that officers are well-paid, appropriately trained and highly accountable.
A contributing factor to the trust deficit between police and their communities is related to the fact that data collected on police use of force encounters is often incomplete or nonexistent. Until 2015, when The Washington Post took up the cause, there existed no credible, reasonably-comprehensive aggregation of deadly force incidents in a nation that soon celebrates its 244-year birthday.
In 2018, the FBI announced that it would officially launch a database that would track use of force incidents in January 2019, but the data has yet to be publicly released.
And the fact that individual police agencies are under no compulsory order to report use of force incident details, forcing journalists and the FBI to scour open source outlets for necessary data, serves as an obstacle to transparency and accuracy. Federal funds should be contingent on individual department cooperation in a use of force database, where incidents should be reported in a timely, accurate manner.
Nothing less than a concerted federal effort must commence to build and shape a cohesive, effective, consistent and professional system of state and local law enforcement agencies.
This must be a committed, cooperative, collaborative effort enjoined by federal law enforcement – the Justice Department and the FBI – as well as the activists clamoring for change and reform. It may begin with a series of summits for ideas, and then must result in lasting and impactful change because “defund the police” is not a serious solution.
But, just as conceptual interpretations of community policing initiatives remain in the eye of the beholder, police reforms are viewed through individual prisms influenced by the context of individual life experiences. There is talk of congressional action, such as the formation of a police reform commission, of federally mandated body cameras for police officers, and a federal prohibition on the use of chokeholds by police.
But even if these reforms were adopted today, no immediate discernible change would occur in the state of policing. We view these ideas with some skepticism. It’s also crucial that the public understands that police encounters can result in harrowing, existential struggles that require split-second reactions and in extremis decision-making.
Consistent training guidance will be paramount in ensuring when and how an officer may apply a particular restraint hold. Reforms like this must not be knee-jerk or reactionary.
The first order of business to reform policing should be to establish a national framework that supports recruiting, training, and retaining police officers of the highest caliber. Consistency across our nation’s 18,000 law enforcement organizations should be achieved in such a way that the qualifications, technical and tactical, of every officer in every community reflects our shared values.
Getting there can and should happen, but it will require federal action on several fronts.
Police recruiting efforts have reached a tipping point of crisis. Local law enforcement organizations simply cannot attract enough minimally qualified candidates. Bigotry aimed at the profession remains a pernicious, persistent recruitment obstacle. We know this from countless conversations with qualified recruit candidates who have expressed concern over how the profession is currently viewed. Uniformed cops continue to exist as appealing assassination targets. Recently, we’ve seen this in New York, Baton Rouge and Dallas.
We need bipartisan legislative and community efforts led by faith leaders and local activists to reverse this troubling trend and elevate the pool of police applicant talent – in numbers, diversity and qualifications. A robust national public relations campaign – similar to military recruitment advertisements – showcasing the police profession in a positive light could aid in attracting a diverse pool of applicants earnestly pursuing a noble calling.
Federally funded tuition reimbursement programs which have been successful in past cases – as with the Peace Corps and the teaching profession – would incentivize college graduates, a key demographic to expand in professionalization efforts, to consider policing as a career option. This would help in reducing the burden of educational debt on a large group of young Americans and fill police ranks with eager, college-educated officers.
New recruits and experienced officers alike must receive top-notch training in communication, de-escalation and use of force. Local agencies often lack the expertise or basic resources to develop such training. National standards should be developed and mandated by the Justice Department, requiring a significant investment in uniform scenario-based training in these areas.
The Justice Department should also mandate internal accountability structures that are systematized and made standard across the nation. Data collection and analytics designed to flag particular officers for additional training and supervision, based on complaints and other key metrics, are essential to providing “early identification” of problem officers and fostering trust with communities.
Developing such detection systems nationally and mandating compliance at the local level with federally-funded technical assistance could happen if we made the commitment and could work to restore public confidence in a more efficient way.
Enacting hastily assembled legislation in the wake of the Floyd tragedy – though well-intended – only gives the hollow appearance of police reform and does not serve anyone’s best interest. Only thoughtful, bold action will begin to mend the growing national divide between the police and the communities they serve.
Let’s commit to funding reform measures. Now is the time. Our police and our nation demand it.