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A question after George Floyd: What do we want police to do?

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a four-part series that will examine policing in California following George Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests and calls for widespread reform. Part 1 examined how potential officers are selected. Part 2 explored how police officers are trained. Part 3 looked into the issue of police oversight. Part 4 probes into the calls for changing the police and what that could mean.

Americans want something different from the police departments they pay for.

“The world has changed in the past few months,” said Laurie Robinson, a criminology professor at George Mason University. “Since Floyd, there’s been a broad focus on fixing criminal justice.”

George Floyd, of course, died May 25, in Minneapolis, under a policeman’s knee. Over the next few weeks, as protests spread across the country, clashes broke out in which many Americans were subject to violence – also by police.

That wave of violence, according to Robinson and others, is why public opinion about law enforcement is changing.

Though polls show most Americans still hold police in high regard – and few support defunding police departments – they also show strong majorities believe police don’t apply appropriate force in all situations and don’t apply the law equally to people of all races.

To solve those problems, communities around the country are considering a wave of new ideas for their police departments: Citizen patrols? Technology-based traffic enforcement? No police force at all? Whatever the result, many say the current mood could lead to a bigger overhaul than the tweaks and adjustments that came during earlier waves of police reform.

And the answer might not be as simple as simply taking away a few police responsibilities. Modern policing means dealing with a range of social ills – addiction, homelessness, mental illness – that don’t touch on traditional ideas of crime but can pose a threat to overall public safety.

“There are times when police need to be warriors, like when they’re dealing with terrorists in San Bernardino,” said Robinson who, in addition to teaching at George Mason, served as co-chair of the Obama administration’s 2014 Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“But they need to not be occupiers of a community,” she added. “They need to be working to build community trust and legitimacy.”

So the public focus on law enforcement sparks some questions: What should be the basic mission of a police department? What, exactly, do we want our police to do?

Crime, safety, order

“As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve the community; to safeguard lives and property; to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder; and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality and justice.”

So begins the Riverside Police Department’s “Law Enforcement Code of Ethics.”

While the wording varies from department to department, the Riverside manual touches on what experts describe as the three basic roles for each of America’s 18,000-plus police agencies – prevent crime, maintain order and keep people safe.

In San Jose, the police department’s mission statement uses some of those exact words: “To promote public safety… to prevent, suppress, and investigate crimes… to provide emergency and non-emergency services.”

Few reformers argue against those ideals. And many say they should be part of any new models that might be adopted as police departments evolve.

But reformers and others also note that those ideals historically have been connected to some particularly ugly police behavior.

In the Jim Crow South, police often were tasked with keeping people of color separate from, and subordinate to, white communities. In northern cities, during the same era, police sometimes doubled as political actors, used by community leaders to coerce groups of voters to support specific politicians who, in turn, supported the police.

Union supporters, anti-war protesters, civil rights advocates – all, at times, have been targets of police violence carried out under the guise of preventing crime, preserving order or maintaining safety.

“I wouldn’t infer that there’s anything particularly unusual happening now,” said Jack Glaser, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley who studies police practices, in a June interview with Berkeley News.

“Black Americans have been encountering this for centuries. It is a steady-state problem.”

It’s also an old, persistent problem.

Police reform – or, at least, political demands for it – is ingrained in American life. The idea pops up routinely in the wake of civil unrest, high-profile police killings, or spikes in crime. Over the decades, dozens of committees have produced hundreds of reports, with everything from the Wickersham Commission of 1929 to the Christopher Commission of 1991 offering ideas aimed at fighting crime, helping communities and police coexist, or regulating police behavior.

The most recent big-picture effort at reform, the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, was, by many accounts, the most productive.

The effort – convened by the Obama administration in the wake of unrest that followed the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – took input from police leaders, civil rights activists, lawyers and academics, among others. The goals were ambitious: to reduce the use of force, increase data collection and transparency, and make police departments more responsive to all communities. In short, it was aimed at changing police culture.

The results weren’t trivial. In the past six years, departments around the country have started using body cameras, banned some dangerous restraints and begun to emphasize soft skills like conflict resolution.

Robinson, the criminologist who co-chaired the task force, said a study taken since her group issued its report found many of the nation’s biggest police departments have changed their policies on use of force and training. Critically, she noted, police shootings among the 47 biggest departments fell by 21%.

“I do think there was change after Ferguson,” Robinson said. “For a lot of leaders of police departments, it was definitely an awakening.”

The Ferguson shooting, and other high profile police killings, began the shift in public opinion that has accelerated after the death of George Floyd.

“Before Ferguson, most of my students were pro-police,” Robinson said. “Since then, I’d say most are skeptical.

“I don’t know yet how they’ll be vis-a-vis Floyd, but it didn’t inspire more trust,” she added.

But the Ferguson-sparked task force, like other reform efforts, was aimed at adjusting police departments; tweaking organizations and operations that have been fundamentally unchanged for decades.

The argument of the past few months, after Floyd, seems to be bigger. The phrase “defund the police” – chanted during many protests – has evolved into a broader push to reimagine how police departments work and what they should be trying to do.

“I don’t know if that’s what should be done,” Robinson said of the defund push. “But I do think people might be looking for a bigger reset, for something new.”

Mission creep

Addiction, mental illness, abject poverty; all have all become police issues. As a result, the government’s primary liaison to people who can’t get off drugs or who suffer chemical brain imbalances or who are so poor they can’t afford shelter is usually a police officer.

That role is a drain on everybody involved.

Federal data shows that only about 5% of the roughly 10 million arrests made in the United States each year are for crimes of violence, threats of violence or significant financial damage. The vast majority of all other police contacts involve people of color and people without a lot of money.

“There’s enormous cost to those arrests,” Robinson said. “That’s true for the people involved, for taxpayers, and the police themselves.”

For Greg Stults, a retired high school teacher in Oakland who has two sons connected to law enforcement, reform shouldn’t necessarily mean a totally new mission for local police.

“Not sure I’m into defunding anything,” Stults said.

But he does see an opportunity to help police focus on crime and safety by improving their role as social workers. And a lot of police experts, including George Mason’s Robinson, agree.

“As we think about the defunding question, we need to think, in a practical way, about who handles issues related to homelessness, addiction and mental illness,” she said.

A few communities have already done exactly that.

Since 1989, the city of Eugene, Oregon, has routed calls related to homelessness and mental illness to unarmed social workers instead of police. In 2017, the last year for which data is available, the program known as CAHOOTS saved taxpayers in Eugene – a city of about 171,000 – about $12 million. Also, less than 1% of those calls required police referrals.

In Portland, Oregon, a similar program, Project Respond, has trained non-sworn officers to handle mental health interventions and route people to appropriate health care. And police departments in Denver and Houston are using similar tactics.

In Minneapolis – the city where George Floyd died – leaders recently launched a year-long project to reinvent the police department.

In California, several cities also are experimenting with new visions of policing.

Oakland and Berkeley, for example, are both considering programs that would reduce police contact with the mentally ill.  A recent budget proposal for the Los Angeles Police Department includes the idea of taking some traffic enforcement out of the hands of police. In San Francisco, police are setting new rules for calls involving non-violent crimes.

And in San Jose and Santa Ana, among others, residents have asked city officials to consider shifting police funds to social programs.

New rules

Going forward, any push to rethink the mission of police departments in California figures play out against a backdrop of tighter state regulation. At least two dozen bills being discussed in Sacramento this session would change police operations.

Some of the ideas under consideration would redefine what constitutes excessive force, adjust the way police control crowds and beef up public disclosure of officer misconduct. One proposal would call on officers to intervene with other police if they believe excessive force is being used.

For some of the people who spoke out against police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death, steps toward reform are welcome.

“You know, George Floyd was being held because of (an allegedly counterfeit) $20 bill,” said Alexa Sanchez, a Santa Ana waitress who in June attended several protests in Orange County.

“I don’t know what the rules should be, but we’ve got to be able to do better than that.”

Source: Orange County Register

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