Our purpose

Within our reach: national police reform

Sharon Sayles Belton, Partnerships and Alliances

For decades, community leaders, politicians and law enforcement executives have been in dialogue about advancing public safety, reducing crime, and restoring the public trust in law enforcement, an honorable profession. Sadly, the history of policing in the United States and persistent accounts of excessive use of force against people of color and other protected classes by law enforcement has hampered progress and reform.

Many civic and community leaders thought the crisis in policing had come to a head after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9, 2014. In response to the civil unrest, former President Barack Obama launched the 21st Century Policing Task Force, which produced recommendations for reforms. Many of the reforms remain unaddressed and accounts of excessive use of force continue in cities across the country.

Mounting tensions came to a head on May 25, 2020, when millions of people around the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. The cruelty of Floyd’s death expanded the ranks of citizens calling for police reform. Law enforcement professionals and politicians across the country were quick to denounce the actions of former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin and affirm the commitment of law enforcement to protect and serve the public with honor and integrity.

Their statements were met with skepticism, anger, civil unrest and violence – perhaps in part because there has been little meaningful change in policing practices despite decades of promised change. Some reforms were championed at the local level, but they lacked scale and were undermined by new reports of excessive use of force and other abuses.

There was optimism that public outrage over Floyd’s murder would fuel passage of the George Floyd Policing Act of 2021. But the rhetoric of the “defund the police” movement politicized the reform conversation and ultimately derailed passage of any federal legislation.

States including Colorado, Iowa, New York and Connecticut were among the first to adopt legislation that prohibited certain police tactics like chokeholds, required new training standards, and improved civilian oversight of the police. These were great first steps, but they represent only a fraction of reforms needed to address the challenges with policing.

The lack of federal legislation has resulted in a patchwork of state and local laws. Many police chiefs nationwide acknowledge that their departments should reflect the communities they serve and recognize that standards to guard against race, gender, class and cultural biases are also needed. Recently retired Minneapolis Police Chief Medaria Arradondo believes that mandatory de-escalation, implicit bias and duty-to-intervene training are essential to police reform. Another idea involves the creation of a national database that collects officer-involved shooting and use-of force data, which could lead to better policing. Finally, a nationally sustained misconduct database would promote officer accountability. Mandatory training should be standardized and fully funded, and law enforcement agencies must be required to submit their data to the national database.

Stakeholders’ organizations like the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) and the National Law Enforcement Museum’s CALEB project have created forums for law enforcement and the public to come together to share ideas about new models for policing in America. Those forums must include discussions about better public policy solutions for social problems that are often left to the police to address as well as meaningful intervention and crime prevention initiatives.  

I remain optimistic that legislators, law enforcement leaders and community members will come together and identify common ground to strengthen public trust in policing.  

There are many ways for us to provide input and get involved. We should.

The safety and security of our communities is the responsibility of all of us.  

Sharon Sayles Belton is the former Mayor of Minneapolis

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