Police reform — the best ideas are NOT mutually exclusive!

We are getting a lot of questions about things different elected officials can do to reform policing. So we’ve put together this quick guide to good ideas your elected officials at the city, county and state level can do. These ideas are all important but none of them “fix” the problem by themselves. We got here thanks to 100 years of bipartisan initiatives by city, county and state elected officials designed to make our police forces ever larger and expand the authority of cops into more and more areas of life. There is no single fix. As long as there are people who callously harm others, and as long as we retain a court system, we will have people assigned to the task of arresting alleged wrongdoers and bringing them before a judge. To make sure those people work in the interest of justice and safety for all, we need many changes.

So what are these good ideas, and who can do them?

City officials can do the most to reform police.

City officials should:

  • “Sunset” the police department and its budget. This is an idea borrowed from a longstanding Texas state process in which every agency undergoes a bottom to top scrub of all its activities and funding every 12 years. City officials should break the police department’s activities down, decide which activities should continue as “sworn officer” duties, which could be better performed by a different department (mental health experts, addiction counselors, social workers, etc.) and which are no longer necessary. Austin recently passed this resolution launching such a process which could be used as a model in other Texas cities.
  • Imagine alternatives and start building them. For example, our friends and neighbors have been trained by police to “see something, say something” by calling 911. That framework has led people to call the police for almost any kind of problem or conflict they face, or any time they see something that seems even modestly out of place to them. This leads to police calls steeped in racial bias, police calls for problems police can’t solve, and police calls for family situations that result in arrests and create new problems. There’s an urgent need to identify community based alternatives to address these situations – violence interruption programs, mentoring initiatives, family support services, expanded social-worker capacity. And as the police budget gets cut, these alternatives can be funded with that money!
  • Pass a use of force resolution that will guide a rewrite the General Orders with input from the community. The General Orders are the police rule book. If its not against the rules, officers cannot be disciplined for it. Do you want to end shooting at people who are running away, or ban chokeholds? These are rules in the General Orders. Do you believe police should only use deadly force against people in self-defense or defense of another against an imminent threat? Do you want to implement mandatory de-escalation? Should the use of force be proportionate to the behavior of a subject or the crime he or she may have committed (stop shooting people over minor offenses)? These changes can be made in the General Orders. Austin recently passed a resolution limiting use of force and military equipment that you can use as a model. And check out this initiative from the Police Executive Resarch Forum on implementing a de-escalation policy.
  • Reform the police academy curricula and the training that existing officers take to update their skills or learn new skills. There is, unfortunately, a mass market of military-style police training that inculcates an “us” vs “them” attitude and answers every question with a different type of lethal or less lethal equipment. Instead, officers need better communication skills, an understanding of the history of policing in America and its roots in segregation, expanded training in de-escalation, and an understanding that sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. This will be an involved, long-term process, but it’s super important.

State lawmakers can reform police duties, conduct standards and accountability laws.

State Representatives and Senators should start drafting bills to:

  • Reform the duties of police. It should NOT be a duty to arrest all people for every crime on the books including traffic offenses or littering — but it is. Instead, police should be required to issue a citation and send you on your way for the vast majority of minor violations — traffic infractions, city ordinance violations etc. This has been called “The Sandra Bland” bill, because Sandra Bland was yanked from her car at taser-point over failure to signal. Meanwhile, nowhere do the duties of police include a duty to intervene if another officer is killing someone right beside them.
  • Reform the standards for police conduct. State law authorizes police to use lethal force. These provisions allow lethal force even when a subject is offering no resistance. Further, state law relies on a legal standard — the objectively reasonable officer — that has allowed officers to do things most of us would find unconscionable. State law can prohibit certain police conduct for all agencies — end the use of tear gas, prohibit chokeholds, prohibit shooting at fleeing people or cars. And state lawmakers should strictly limit the use of militarized SWAT raids and no-knock warrants. A bill to do that was filed last session and needs to pass.
  • Reform the special protections making officer misconduct hard to address in the first place, and ensuring that discipline is often overturned on appeal. In Texas this is largely contained in Chapter 143 of the Local Government Code, and this chapter needs a significant rewrite. Did you know, for example, that if an investigation against an officer takes longer than 180 days, the officer cannot be disciplined? Or that officers can see the evidence against them before making a statement? Or that a history of misconduct cannot be taken into account in the normal promotions process? Or that most disciplinary action is a secret and cannot be released to taxpayers, victims or the public? Texas’ body camera law needs to be amended to delete a special right to see all the body camera video before making a statement. Nobody facing a criminal charge would get this accommodation. Accountability can be improved if state law mandates police departments have a clear and complete “progressive disciplinary matrix” that lays out the consequence that will follow from specific types of misconduct.
  • Reform “riot” laws dating back to the 1960s. Protesters in recent weeks have racked up “riot” charges under provisions of state law that may violate the constitution and certainly need to be revised. Under Texas law, any group of seven or more people may find themselves charged with rioting and face serious criminal penalties if their activity “disturbs any person in the enjoyment of a legal right.” So we can protest in Texas, but not if our protests disturb any one.
  • Create transparency. Reforms passed by Texas lawmakers in the past two sessions have started to open up the black box of police shootings statewide but there is a lot more to do. Under the “dead suspect loophole,” Texas law allows the details of an investigation about a dead suspect (including investigations of officer-involved killing of that suspect) to be permanently “closed” and never revealed to the public. Further, there is a need for statewide information about all use of force, not just force that results in a death or serious bodily injury. Texas racial profiling reports now require departments to report use of force at traffic stops, but not other use of force. And finally, state law allows cities and counties to keep body camera video a secret. Body cameras were intended as a tool to increase trust between police and those they serve, but they do not increase trust if police only release video that helps the officer, and don’t release video that shows misconduct.
  • Encourage new uses for state public safety grant money to help victims of crime with needed services. Most police money comes from local officials, but federal dollars funnel in through state grants and Texas has some of its own state-based grants that police departments can get. In most cases, this money is not earmarked for sworn officers. Many crime victims report feeling abandoned by our criminal justice system, which is not designed to help crime victims rebuild their lives after a traumatic event. Tell your lawmakers to direct state dollars to social services for victims.

County government can reform sheriff departments, jails.

County officials should:

  • “Sunset” the sheriff department and its budget. This is particularly important in rural or suburban counties where there may not be a large urban police department and sheriff deputies have a larger role in day to day policing.
  • Reduce the size of the jail. Evaluate the most common charges that bring people to the jail and identify problems that could be solved “pre-arrest.” Throughout Texas the top charges that land people in jail are typically related to mental illness (and our state’s lack of infrastructure to address mental health problems,) alcohol and drug use, and family disputes. In all these areas, there are better ways to address the social problem than an endless cycle of arrest and jail. Unlike city officials, county officials have to pay the main cost — the cost of keeping up a jail — when we make police do too much.

Other officials also have a role. The elected sheriff is in charge of the General Orders for sheriff deputies. Even constables have rules for their sworn staff. Many school districts have their own police. School district officials are also responsible for the rules that bring city police into the schools when kids misbehave. It took everyone to get us where we are today, and it will take everyone to reverse course.

In the coming weeks, we will push out actions you can take to encourage your lawmakers to file good bills, and encourage your city and county officials to change policing at home. Look for our next email action, coming soon!