What current police reform efforts lack: A call to federalize

"Defund the Police" written in yellow on road
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Suppose we reimagined the nature of American policing? And suppose we started by acknowledging that local policing has been a failure in this country since its origins in the 19th Century? From slave patrols in the South, to controlling the ‘Dangerous Classes’ in the North, the foundations of local policing were built on the assumption that state-sanctioned coercion was to be weaponized by the white and wealthy against the poor, black, and brown.

And while the House recently passed a comprehensive police reform bill, it still largely aims to control the “downstream” aspects of policing: use of force, restraint holds, methods to hold police accountable. It doesn’t address the structural features of local policing that produce such uneven policing service across the U.S.

And so, at this crossroads, I pose the radical question: Why not disband most local police forces and federalize them? Not under the seemingly obvious choice of the Department of Justice — which would simply perpetuate policing’s singular focus on crime fighting — but under the U.S. Public Health Service.

Instead of spending the $115 billion it takes to annually fund local policing, states could voluntarily cost-share to fund policing under the U.S. Public Health Service, an arrangement that could realize many benefits.

First, the Public Health Service — with the help of a national advisory board of expert practitioners, community members, and academics — could standardize policies, training, recruitment, and hiring processes across the U.S. Moreover, federalization limits the ability of known “problem” officers jumping from one police department to another due to lack of data sharing across agencies. Perhaps most importantly, bringing local police under the authority of the Public Health Service would give policing the attitude adjustment it needs to start viewing itself as a key institution in advancing the overall public health mission of the United States.

The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service is charged with protecting the health of the nation, particularly in vulnerable and under-served communities. These tend to be the very communities in greatest need of protection by police, but which often require protection from the police due to disproportionate rates of deadly force, K-9 deployments, and serious misconduct.

Federalizing the police under the Public Health Service would allow us to realign our crime fighting strategies with our public health goals; and it would increase the capacities of both institutions: Police would still “fight” neighborhood crime but through a lens that emphasizes public health, recognizing that high-crime communities are often unhealthy communities. And the Public Health Service would control a national workforce of locally deployed police officers who could case find, contact trace, and help educate the public on how to slow the spread of highly contagious diseases.

The Public Health Service falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and already has some “regulatory” authority embedded into its 11 professional divisions. A new professional division of Policing and Community Safety could easily integrate into the Commissioned Corps’ existing bureaucratic structure and would elevate policing to a true profession that could finally see itself for what it is: A social determinant of health.

To many Americans the idea of a nationalized police system is anathema because policing in the U.S. has always been organized at the lowest levels of government and championed as highly responsive to local communities. But which communities, precisely, are we talking about? Surely not the one in which George Floyd was murdered, or the one where Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back. Besides, several big-city police departments in recent years have operated under federal control in the form of consent decrees — i.e., Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia — due to unlawful use of force and stop-and-frisk practices. Rather than use the federal government as an occasional instrument of police accountability, we should federalize local policing and reimagine its role to specifically include community health.

Federalizing most local police departments surely would be complicated and messy — but likely not as difficult as creating an entirely new cabinet department in less than two years, as the Federal Government did with the Department of Homeland Security, in response to the September 11 attacks.

The convergence of a pandemic and the protests against police in response to the killing of George Floyd demonstrate how public health and policing intersect with one another in America’s most vulnerable and under-served communities of color.

If ever there were a time to initiate a national conversation about how policing and public health might work as a singularity to advance health and reduce crime, now is that time.

Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head of the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of “Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department.” Follow him on Twitter @rjohnkane

Tags community policing Defund police Law enforcement Police police reform Public safety U.S. Public Health Service

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