Public sentiment on police accountability appears to have taken a definite and welcome turn, best witnessed by the competing proposals emerging among the two political parties at the state and national levels.
Many will find fault with the congressional and legislative proposals, for going too far or not far enough. What’s important is to keep the pressure on, to demand the uncomfortable discussions, the challenges to the status quo, to let those in power know that this time, the public will not forget.
Here are a few guiding principles we think should be present for police accountability efforts to be substantive and meaningful:
Modify qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is what shields police officers from lawsuits involving misconduct. At the federal level, Democrats want to amend misconduct statutes to make it easier for courts to find officers personally liable for civil rights violations, while Republicans have suggested a decertification process. There’s room for compromise here.
End mandatory arbitration. This is a big one, and a change the Star Tribune Editorial Board has long suggested for law enforcement. Police chiefs who impose disciplinary action often find it reversed by the mandatory arbitration process. This seriously undermines the chief’s authority, though it does not lessen his or her responsibility for what happens.
Independent excessive force investigations. Whether it’s the state attorney general or a state agency, it’s worth considering whether an independent authority should stand at the ready to investigate cases involving excessive force. However, there should be immediate and mandatory reporting of such events at the state level, as well as a federal database tracking use-of-force incidents.
Retraining and culture change. There have been enough videos of police “takedowns” for even minor infractions and overly aggressive enforcement to show that the “us vs. them” mind-set has become truly threatening for portions of the population.
Demilitarization. Well-intentioned though it may have been, selling surplus war gear to police departments around the country was a mistake, in part because there appear to be too few rules developed around their use. The use of tear gas, rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades against Americans engaged in recent protests was too indiscriminate and injurious to ignore.
Greater flexibility to use non-sworn personnel. Make no mistake, police are needed, as the Editorial Board argued Sunday. But that doesn’t mean every situation requires an armed, sworn officer. The principles behind “defund the police” are worth looking at insofar as limiting the scope of what police must respond to and expanding alternatives for public safety.
Whatever measures are taken, they should reflect community input, particularly from communities of color. Some have done decades of work in this area, and their voices should be heard and valued. Gov. Tim Walz told an editorial writer that he has spoken with many such groups in recent weeks and is convinced that the need for bold, innovative police reform is urgent.
“We need reforms with real teeth,” he said. “Anything that doesn’t have real teeth is going to be seen as worse than doing nothing.”