Across US, states answering cries for police reforms

Largely overshadowed by the emotional protests demanding police reforms, a wave of legislation and executive orders has been enacted at the state level in the past two years.

Patrick Semansky/AP
In this April 23, 2015 file photo, members of the Baltimore Police Department stand guard outside the department's Western District police station during a protest in response to Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore.

The week that Freddie Gray died in a Baltimore hospital in April 2015, while the city burned and protesters across the country demanded police reforms, legislators in Colorado were gathered to deliver just that.

The Colorado lawmakers were grappling with 10 bills aimed at instituting reforms of law enforcement policies and procedures, ranging from restrictions on the use of chokeholds to the collection of data on officer-involved shootings.

Half of Colorado’s “Rebuilding Trust Package” – as Democratic lawmakers there dubbed it – failed that week, but Gov. John Hickenlooper went on to sign five of those bills that year, followed by two more (refashioned from failed 2015 bills) in 2016.

And Colorado is only one example of states taking a serious look at judicial reform in the wake of the national debate around policing and police violence – particularly in communities of color. Nevertheless, these legislative efforts have largely been overshadowed by the protests that have precipitated them.

In 2015 and 2016, 34 states and the District of Columbia enacted at least 79 bills, resolutions, or executive orders that changed policing policies and practices, according to a report released by the Vera Institute of Justice. That’s almost four times as many as the 20 passed between 2012 and 2014, a Vera spokesman says.

In recent years, it has been left to individual departments to enact reforms if they deem them necessary, or – when especially troubled departments are either unwilling or unable to change – to the US Department of Justice, typically via a court-ordered “consent decree” that requires departments to implement certain reforms.

The emerging role of states in policing reform is critical, says Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation and the former chief of police in Redlands, Calif., since they can strike the perfect balance between being close enough to the streets to understand specific local policing issues and solutions, while having the broad authority to pass laws that affect every policing agency in their state.

“States are the sweet spot between the federal government passing laws and the 17,000 communities [with law enforcement agencies] passing laws,” says Mr. Bueermann.

Creating consensus

If enough states legislate reforms, he says, it could contribute to a national consensus on what constitutes good policing policies.

“If you get 50 states to develop a national coherence around what constitutes good policing,” he adds, “we would take a quantum leap forward in helping people understand the values of policing, the challenges police face every day, and police departments would better understand how they have to reform their own operations.”

Ever since black teenager Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014, public scrutiny of police conduct has simmered at a high heat, boiling over into protests and riots after new controversial incidents. After Mr. Brown, there was Tamir Rice (in Cleveland) in November 2014, then Walter Scott and Mr. Gray (in North Charleston, S.C. and Baltimore, respectively) in April 2015, then Alton Sterling and Philando Castile (in Baton Rouge, La., and Minnesota, respectively) in July 2016.

With each incident, pressure mounted on state legislatures to act, says Ram Subramanian, who co-authored the report for the Vera Institute.

“Given the events since Ferguson, I’m not that surprised that states have done the things they’ve done in last few years,” he adds.

Red state reforms

While states long have passed laws around policing and law enforcement, he notes, the volume of legislation is a real departure. “It seems like there was a clear issue that had surfaced,” he says, “and a critical mass of state legislatures felt like they needed to respond in some way.”

Reforms that legislators have passed include the following:

• banning the use of chokeholds (in Illinois)

• mandating data collection on traffic stops and officer-involved shootings

• developing guidelines for body-worn cameras

• creating requirements for crisis intervention training

• increasing transparency in investigations into the use of lethal force

California has passed the most legislation, with nine different bills being sent to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk in 2015. But even deep-red states chipped in with significant reforms. Tennessee passed laws that require law enforcement agencies to report on law enforcement-related deaths and prohibit racial profiling. Nebraska passed a law that changed the procedures for investigations into fatal police encounters, and ordered police departments to develop policies on the use of body-worn cameras.

Six states also passed laws establishing “blue alert” systems – similar to Amber alerts, they are designed to coordinate action to identify, locate, and apprehend a person suspected of killing or seriously injuring a police officer – in 2015 and 2016, joining 21 others that had already done so.

Waiting for federal action

This is all coming as President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions begin to reverse the Obama administration’s legacy of aggressively investigating and reforming police departments. Mr. Sessions has ordered a review of all federal consent decrees – years-long, court-ordered reform agreements made between the Justice Department and individual agencies – and last week the Justice Department tried, unsuccessfully, to delay the implementation of a consent decree in Baltimore.

Indeed, in recent years, before the current wave of state-legislated reforms, states had been more than happy to wait for the federal government to swoop in with reform programs when necessary, says Bueermann, but that seems to be beginning to change.

States had “in many cases abdicated their responsibility in the hope that the federal government would step in,” he adds.

Only time will tell whether the legislation being enacted will actually be successful. Bueermann describes what states are doing as building the plane while it’s taxiing down the runway for takeoff. But he does believe states have reached a tipping point when it comes to policing reform.

All this legislation “needs to be accompanied by sufficient financial resources to do an adequate scientific evaluation of whether or not that legislation was effective,” he says.

The good news, he adds, is “we now have enough state legislatures who are recognizing that there is a need for police reform, and that they have a role to play in that.”

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