States can—and must—outdo Joe Biden on policing reform

(File: Getty)

Despite running on a platform that touted police reform as a high priority, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris offered weak prospects for the prioritization of real, urgent reform during their campaign. It wasn’t until almost halfway through his term that President Biden signed an executive order he claims will advance “effective, accountable policing” and “enhance public trust and public safety.” In reality, this order merely reestablishes existing policies, at best laying a foundation for future reform—primarily at the state and local level, where most daily policing is done.

The order is correct to focus on policies like emphasizing de-escalation training, restricting no-knock entries, limiting transfer of military equipment, and improving technology and data collection. However, it does not go far beyond the scope of legislation passed by Congress nor does it egregiously overstep into state and local agencies. This is good from a separation of powers and a federalism standpoint, but leaves much to be done by states to enact true reform.

Because federal law enforcement only encompasses about 100,000 of the nearly 700,000 law enforcement officers nationwide, the bulk of policing is left untouched by the executive order, aside from federal grants outlined that agencies may apply for, tied to the enactment of certain policies. Therefore, while there is no mandate in the order on state and local police agencies, it is critical that states and localities step up to the challenge and outdo Biden on advancing lasting reform.

Such action on a state level is politically popular. In June of 2020, an Associated Press-NORC poll found that 95 percent of Americans believed police reform was in some capacity necessary. Since then, there has been a shift in public sentiment toward accomplishing this and protecting public safety through increasing, or at least not cutting, funding for police, which is an integral part of successful policing reform, because improving practices requires appropriate resources.

Some states and localities have successfully implemented important policing reform measures, including decriminalization of low-level offenses, employing pre-arrest deflection and post-arrest diversion courts, standardized use of force protocols and mandated officer use of body cameras. However, they aren’t nearly widespread enough to tackle the problems seen in communities over the past year or so effectively, namely the approximate 30 percent increase in homicide offense counts nationwide from 2019 to 2020, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A little-known but staggering statistic is that on average, police only spend about 4 percent of their time working cases that involve violent crime. Given the rise in violent crime—homicides included—across the country, effective use of police resources is critical. Often, this requires reform to ensure that officer time is being used to keep communities safe and protocols are in place to improve police-community relations that are critical to solving violent crime.

For example, a recent study from Princeton found that positive police interactions—which advanced police legitimacy in the eyes of the community—increases rates of case closure by improving the willingness of community members to work with law enforcement. Reforms contribute to police legitimacy because they help to show that police are truly there to protect and serve.

The decriminalization of low-level offenses reduces negative police encounters, body cameras increase transparency, and giving police discretion to divert low-level offenders or those struggling with mental health from the system entirely allows them to enforce the law and care for the public at the same time. Smart, public safety-focused reforms help to increase community trust in police, contribute to case closure and help reduce violence.

Additionally, the end goal of reform—less violence and protected public safety—is popular among voters as well. According to a Morning Consult poll, 78 percent of voters believe violent crime to be a major problem and 73 percent say that belief is increasing. President Biden even recently claimed that the latest primary elections prove more must be done to address violent crime and gun-related violence, calling on states and localities to invest in hiring and reforming police departments.

Although the Biden administration executive order points an arrow in the right direction, it doesn’t automatically solve the need for police reform. In order to effect real change, reduce violent crime and protect public safety, states and localities must take responsibility to ensure the 600,000 officers not covered by the executive order are held to a standard no less than “protect and serve.”

Sarah Anderson is the associate director of the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties program at the R Street Institute. Jillian Snider is the policy director of the Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties program at the R Street Institute, an adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired New York Police Department officer.

Tags Joe Biden local law enforcement police reform violent crime

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