While crime continues to dominate the news here and around the country, a small group of Democratic and Republican U.S. House members have been quietly working together on solutions that could bring federal help to smaller police departments across the country.
The Invest to Protect Act had 17 Republican and 23 Democratic cosponsors as of late this week, including Minnesota Reps. Angie Craig and Dean Phillips. The bill would provide a stable stream of funding — $50 million a year for four years — for critically needed investments in police departments with fewer than 200 sworn officers. That takes in about 95% of U.S. police departments.
Many of these smaller departments lack the resources for body cameras, the latest safety equipment and appropriate training. The spending would be targeted to four specific areas. Top among those are recruitment of quality candidates and retention bonuses to help keep existing officers. A similar measure is being considered at the Minnesota Legislature.
It's time to recognize that the majority of police officers try hard to effectively serve their communities and keep them safe. In bringing the outliers to justice and needed accountability, we cannot allow the entire profession to be demonized to an extent that it drives out good officers and demoralizes those who remain.
The federal effort is spearheaded in part by a former sheriff, Rep. John Rutherford, R.-Fla., a graduate of the FBI Academy who worked his way from patrolman to sheriff. While in that office, he developed a track record of using intelligence-led and community-based policing that made mental health issues a priority. The result? Crime dropped to a 40-year low in Jacksonville, with fewer repeat offenders.
What works is no mystery. Done correctly, policing keeps communities safer and builds trust. In turn, strong community relations help solve crimes. Well-trained, well-educated officers are critical to that mission. Research has shown that better educated and correctly trained officers are far less likely to resort to force, to fire their weapons and to lose their jobs due to misconduct. Nationally, the majority of citizen complaints is generated by about 5% of police officers.
We should find ways to support the 95% while aggressively working to root out those who have shown they do not deserve the authority a badge confers.
"It's been a really tough time when it comes to policing in our country and the rise in crime," Craig, who represents Minnesota's Second Congressional District, told an editorial writer.
"What I love about this bill is it speaks to a number of police training areas that deal with causes: getting the right kind of officers, giving them the right training and equipment, teaching them to take care of their own mental health because if they're not at their best mentally, we're not going to get the best from them. These are the kinds of things my chiefs are telling me will help."
The majority of police and sheriff's departments in Minnesota would be eligible. And the needs are greater than most of us realize. Dakota County, a large, prosperous suburb of the Twin Cities, managed to put body cameras on 52 deputies in 2020, but only now, with a $170,000 Department of Justice grant awarded in late January, will it be able to nearly triple the number of personnel using body cameras, including jail staff, investigators, court security and others.
"These departments are really strapped," Craig said. "Smaller departments just don't have the resources to expand searches for new recruits like larger departments do. They also are facing an uptick in retirement, and it's a struggle to bring on the right people who are going to exhibit the value and culture they're trying to create of accountability and transparency."
And yet, a recent survey by the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association found that half the state's law enforcement agencies lack the funding to adopt body camera programs, an indispensable tool for accountability.
The pandemic, Craig said, has exacerbated an increase in crime and the kinds of mental health calls that require even more training and transparency in they way they are handled.
There is also a need for appropriate training that teaches officer safety while also emphasizing de-escalation techniques and domestic violence response training. Officers also need access to mental health resources for themselves, to deal with the stresses that are a part of the job. This is why the proposed legislation has drawn the support of the National Association of Police Organizations, the National Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriffs' Association.
The Invest to Protect Act represents a smart and needed boost in public safety and police accountability.