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Legislatively Speaking

It’s Not Perfect But It’s Progress

Lena C. Taylor

Last year, I came across a report entitled “The Evolution of Modern Use-of-Force Policies and the Need for Professionalism in Policing” written by Arthur Rizer and Emily Mooney. The first paragraph of the report read as follows, “The American people delegate to the police the authority to enforce criminal laws and promote public safety. As part of that delegation, we give officers the power to use force and even violence—that is, force applied to the body—to accomplish those goals. This practice is familiar to us, but, it is in deep tension with our system of limited government, that prizes personal autonomy and liberty. That tension can only be maintained by careful application of rules and procedures that restrain the use of force, and by instilling humility and care in the police themselves. Unfortunately, existing guardrails against excessive police use of force are far too weak.”

Lastly, the report said “Almost all large police departments (and most smaller ones) have use-of-force policies that define a continuum of force that can be applied to suspects in varying circumstances.” While the report went on to discuss the pros and cons of training, other efforts and diversity in hiring, the authors deemed that most attempts to get a handle on accepted practices and standards around police use of force, continued to come up short.

The article did talk about the culture of police departments, the militarization of police equipment, and even the way the public was viewed by officers. This is an age-old conversation that we have tried to address. Right now, we require law enforcement agencies to have policies regulating the use of force by police. These policies are required to be available to the public. However, often the policies seem vague. Frequently, lay people are left with more questions than answers about how and when varying types of force is deployed.

While George Floyd’s case in Minnesota was not the first time, I questioned use of force policies. It was a clarion moment when I questioned the role of other officers, in addressing issues and questions of how to handle use of force concerns within their own departments. Since Mr. Floyd’s death, we have learned that two of the officers, had only been on the job for a few days. The majority of us questioned why the officers didn’t stop officer Derek Chauvin, from kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, it seems as if these rookie officers were unsure, if they even could speak up.

An example of reform is Senate Bill 120 which requires use of force policies to provide the instances in which use of force must be reported, how to report it, and a requirement that officers who engage in or observe a reportable use of force must report it. The bill wouldn’t have saved George Floyd. It doesn’t deal with real-time inappropriate use of force and an officer’s responsibility to stop it. But what it does do, is help support officers, who want to do the right thing by shielding them from discipline for speaking up. It’s not perfect, but it’s progress.

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