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US police union leader Ron DeLord.

The battle over police reform

Debates are raging over proposals and solutions for “reform” of police in the United States, but the situation is overwhelmingly complicated, writes police union leader Ron DeLord.

The major obstacle to change is that domestic policing is a function of the state and local government, with some 800,000 law enforcement officers working in more than 18,000 independent agencies.

The federal government does not have authority to mandate a uniform national code of conduct for all agencies on issues such as hiring, discipline, use of force and training. Reforming 18,000 agencies and 800,000 officers one by one is an impossible mission.

Today, American police officers are highly trained, better equipped and more diverse. Agencies with appropriate staffing levels, competent training, proper supervision and the right equipment and tools have proven to be effective at reducing crime. Nevertheless, there is intense turmoil over racial issues, hiring, training and enforcement tactics.

The public are looking at law enforcement officers and they don’t like what they see. Virtually every night, the national and local news lead with another police-shooting incident. Black Lives Matter and related reform movements are dominating the public debate over reform.

The simple answer appears to be that there is a disconnect between how the public expects its police to act and how the police are trained to act. One of the biggest challenges is how to reform policing while talking to the public about their often unrealistic expectations.

How are American police unions responding?

Most American police unions are heavily involved in politics at the federal, state and local levels. They make endorsements, raise money and, where it’s allowed, campaign off-duty for their preferred candidate. This makes sense when you consider that whoever gets elected will be making decisions about all aspects of their work.

Policies and decisions concerning academy training, discipline, in-service training and equipment purchases are controlled by elected officials who operate in the public spotlight while being pressured by the media, activists, police unions and powerful community groups.

In this complicated political environment, it’s not just the officers who take orders. Most police chiefs are political appointees who serve at the pleasure of elected officials. The chief may have an opinion, but he or she probably lacks the political muscle, and often the political will, to either support realistic reforms or debunk reforms that are just political pandering.

While they may be clueless about the ins and outs of police work, citizens are way ahead of elected officials when it comes to pushing for social change. Police chiefs and politicians have never been the leaders of the social change. The powerful movements that secured voting rights for women, passed four major civil rights acts during the Lyndon Johnson years, ended the Vietnam War, launched the Me Too movement, succeeded in legalising gay marriage and are having success legalising marijuana were all grassroots movements.

Some politicians, afraid they would be defeated in their next election, have joined the reform chorus. Sadly, many elected officials are pandering to the public with hastily drafted “reforms” that will do nothing to improve policing.

What is police reform?

It depends who you ask. A person’s race, age, religion, social class and political party are all factors. Are they urban, suburban or rural dwellers? What region of the country do they live in?

What we do know is that the police do not get to decide how they will police the community. In a representative democracy, the public via their elected officials make that decision. While police unions can try to talk to citizens and elected officials about their opinion on certain reforms, the reality is that this is not a decision officers or their unions can make.

Black Lives Matter and Campaign Zero have a strategy to demonise police unions as “the barrier” to reform, which is gaining support among elected officials, police chiefs, the media, criminal justice academics, labour unions, social activists’ organisations and a large percentage of the public.

Demonising police unions does nothing to create a better policing model for our communities.

In the end, the public will get the type of policing they desire, and will have to live with the consequences. Officers who can’t accept the changes can retire, resign or comply.

Are activists winning the battle?

Yes. Except for the narrow defeat of a repeal election of bargaining rights for San Antonio police in Texas, reform activists nationwide have easily won all reform initiatives on the ballot despite police union opposition.

The reform movement’s message is emotional and if you vote “for” the initiative you will get reform. In the San Antonio election, the reform activists had a simple message that “70 per cent of terminated SAPD officers got reinstated”. In fact, during the past 10 years, on average only one officer per year was reinstated by an arbitrator out of 2350 sworn officers.

The reform message was factually incorrect and misleading, and repealing bargaining would not have produced a single reform, but it was effective enough to get within 1 per cent of repealing the union’s bargaining rights.

So far, police unions continue to use messages centred around “we risk our lives” or “don’t defund your police”, without offering any reform options.

The debate is one of optics, emotions and perceptions, not facts. The reform activists’ message will fit on a bumper sticker. The police union message will be a fact-based thesis on why reform is unneeded and will require a full-page ad in the newspaper.

Some police unions have a bunker mentality and are tone deaf to the public demands for reform. Other police unions are actively participating in the debate and recognise they need to bend before they break.

What is making the debate difficult is that there is no agreed definition of reform or accountability. Reform may mean everything from no police, defunding the police or reimagining the police. Accountability may mean anything from every officer involved in use of force being sent to prison to creating a more transparent criminal justice system.

What is clear is that the US criminal justice system has been politicised to the point that any outcome is criticised as a failure to convict “bad apples” or a rush to charge and convict officers based on political pressure.

Should police unions be a part of the labour movement?

Police officers are blue-collar hourly workers and some of the most unionised workers in US. There are several police reform organisations and some labour unions calling for the elimination of collective bargaining rights and the right to a fair and impartial disciplinary hearing for the police.

Demands to isolate police unions fly in the face of the very concept of unionism. Today, there are hundreds of bills throughout the country to repeal law enforcement’s right to bargaining, restrict their due process rights and, in effect, make all police officers employees at-will.

Such efforts ignore why many police officers were afforded collective bargaining, Bill of Rights, civil service and due process rights originally, which was to protect them from political interference. If “deunionise” the police is successful, it will set the police labour movement back 100 years.

The argument for stripping police unions and officers of the rights all unions fight for is that police unions are protecting “bad apples". Remember, management recruits, hires, background checks, trains and supervises all officers. Officers understand that their actions have consequences administratively, civilly and criminally. Officers have no more protections than any citizen when it comes to criminal investigations.

If officers are to be held accountable for their actions, it is imperative they are protected from what they perceive as politically motivated charges.

A police union, like every other labour union, provides a member with a defence to make sure there is consistent enforcement of rules and regulations. Reasonable people can view the same evidence and disagree on consequences. That is why police unions support non-political due process evidentiary review by a neutral third party.

Will the current reform efforts change policing?

No. The police may be the most visible arm of the criminal justice system, but believing that sending a handful of officers to prison is systemic reform is a miscalculation. Despite hundreds of reforms being passed at the federal, state and local level, with hundreds more being enacted daily, the entire reform effort has been piecemeal and ineffective at best.

The strategy appears to be to concentrated on the actions of individual police officers and creating a belief that if more officers are convicted criminally, or made to pay civil damages, it will send a “message” to officers. We cannot convict ourselves into reform.

The elephant in the room is political pandering by elected officials who want to redirect attention away from the fact they have set the police up to fail by ignoring the underlying social ills that have been purposely placed on the police to save money.

Possible solutions

Now is the time for the federal government to make police reform a national priority and approve funding to force systemic reform.

Let’s start by creating a national databank of all sworn law enforcement officers in the country.

Second, adopt a uniform national code of conduct, use-of-force rules, minimum training standards, and issue a federal law enforcement licence to officers and agencies that comply.

Third, use federal funding to establish a model for police recruit training that creates a police college environment that lasts one to two years at a minimum – mixing academic education with physical training and tactics and embedding recruits into the community as a part of their training.

Let’s accept that the current military-style police academy training model is not working for us any more.

Change is coming whether we want it or not

The entire criminal justice system needs to change to make it equitable for all citizens. We need more funding for social service agencies to defuse many of the problems before police are called.

The George Floyd tipping point was inevitable. It was a matter of when, not if, police reform would become a national debate. The pendulum of change swings until it goes too far (defunding the police) and then it swings partly back (reimagining the police), but it never returns to its starting point.

Police unions must get out of the bunker mentality. Police officers are public servants, paid by taxpayers. Transparency and accountability are required. With few exceptions, the public has a right to know the disciplinary records of its employees and to trust that officers who have violated the rules, law or Constitution are disciplined.

Ron DeLord is a former police officer, local police union board member and chief executive officer at a state-wide police union in Texas. He is a licensed attorney, police union negotiator, lecturer at police seminars and conferences in the US, Canada and Australia, and author of five police labour books. For more information, visit rondelord.com.

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