Police reform: If you want it bad, you'll get it bad

Police reform: If you want it bad, you'll get it bad
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Harrumphing in Washington, D.C. reached a crescendo this week as politicians from both parties bobbed for microphones in order to look like they’re “doing something” about police reform. In the White House Rose Garden, President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE applied his seismograph signature to an executive order outlining his ideas on the topic, while Republicans and Democrats in Congress uncorked their respective plans for solving all policing ills.

We suddenly have three proposals for changing the way police do business in the wake of George Floyd’s terrible death and the protests and violence that followed. The only reason these plans appear to have been hastily slapped together is that they were hastily slapped together. That’s what happens when politics jumps into the driver’s seat and pragmatism has to ride shotgun.

The authors of these measures, particularly the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, don’t appear to have any experience in law enforcement — and it shows. Proposed “reforms” largely fall into three categories, ranging from “inconsequential and won’t move the needle” to “makes some sense” to “are you kidding me?”

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More troubling is that these plans leave out real reforms that could improve the quality of policing nationwide. The whole exercise in Washington feels like theater, and that will not help achieve what’s really needed. 

We have a fine tradition in this country of rushed judgments and knee-jerk reactions when we’ve been face-punched by some terrible event. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 triggered an ill-advised war and an expansion of government powers we’re just now starting to reel back in. The financial implosion of 2008 triggered the rapid creation of overly restrictive legislation and regulation that later had to be partly unwound; those rushed reforms didn’t even hold anyone accountable.

The COVID-19 pandemic will become a case study of hasty and spectacularly draconian decisions based on limited and faulty data manipulated to fit partisan narratives in a presidential election year.

And, now, the killing of Mr. Floyd has become a watershed moment that is forcing us to examine policing practices. It’s a unique moment to truly hear the concerns of minority communities and take meaningful, thoughtful steps to address those.  

Or we can follow tradition and knee-jerk a bunch of stupid stuff into law that allows our politicians to slap each other on the back while the rest of us deal with the unintended consequences.  

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The various proposed reform measures include “reimagining” police services and/or “reprogramming” — defunding — police budgets, all written by people who are fortunate enough to not experience crime or fear in their own lives. For them, it’s easy to imagine not having the police around.

Here’s an exercise for any politician who wants to turn their imagination into reality: Rent a house in a high-crime urban neighborhood for a month, and publicly declare it an “autonomous zone” free from police response and interference, no matter what happens there during that month. Then, if you are still imagining a blissful life without police, we’ll listen to you. Until then, you’re just talking through your Starbucks latte cup and recklessly endangering the law-abiding in those troubled communities. 

Other proposals include the elimination or severe restriction of “no-knock” warrants. I once was the first one through the door on an early-morning raid of a heroin-trafficking house filled with armed men. As we approached the front door, I didn’t see any mayors, councilmen or members of Congress at my side. If I had, this is what they would have been urgently whispering in my ear: “Whatever you do, don’t ——ing knock!” Happily, the door was unlocked and we cuffed about a dozen before they could stand up. Everyone stayed safe and the neighborhood was much better off.  

The proposals also address things such as “choke-holds,” use of military equipment and qualified immunity. You can almost picture the authors of these “reforms” sitting around asking, “What else should we throw in here?” 

What they didn’t throw in was any kind of perspective.

Police in this country have encounters with about 53.5 million people each year and make over 10 million arrests safely. Bad encounters are infinitesimal in the scope of daily police activities. Proposals that needlessly paint with a broad brush, rather than dig in and focus on the common traits of bad actors, end up driving away the high-quality people we want acting on our behalf as law enforcement professionals — but maybe that’s part of the plan of the “defund” imagineers.  

Real reform might include ways to make it easier for police departments to get rid of poor performing, high-complaint officers who, at times, are inordinately protected by police unions. Real reform might look at incentivizing the use of the most highly qualified in the most critical roles; the “one-size-fits-all” police officer model is outdated. The skills needed to direct traffic, man a jail, do detective work or be on patrol are all different. 

Most of the controversial police events that roil communities start as routine encounters with individuals in normal life settings. Therefore, the most highly qualified and trained, well-educated, psychologically tested, highest-performing officers should be assigned those duties, at much higher pay scales than other police duties. 

The current proposals recommend better data-gathering and -tracking, which is commendable, but there has to be a realization that technology among our 18,000 law enforcement agencies is wildly uneven and generally lags far behind the private sector. It ain’t what you see on TV. Real reform could help in this regard.  

Law enforcement professionals should be held to account at all times. In fact, true professionals want to be held accountable. Reform should not be a static one-off lurching from one bad event to the next; it should be a continual striving — and for the most part it has been. Police executives over the past quarter-century have made impressive strides professionalizing police agencies and officers.  

Police reform should not be trivialized by slap-dash measures designed to feed a news cycle and provide political cover. Punishing and demonizing the many for the actions of a very few never has been a winning strategy in any setting. Let’s reimagine police reform that’s consultative, pragmatic and targeted at the actual rotten apples. We badly need to build trust of law enforcement within our minority communities — but we don’t need to do it badly. 

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.