This commentary was originally featured in The Hill on February 23, 2018.
The modern flashpoint of police and community tensions might have been Ferguson, and a cluster of high profile incidents within a year that fanned the flames. Now over three years removed from the incident, time has softened some of the high emotion of the issues, and conservatives have the opportunity to lead the way on policing reform.
Emotion-driven reactions, such as a reflexive defense of or attacks on the institution of policing are minimized with the normal healing that distance in time provides, and opens the door for a real dialogue on the issue of policing reform.
The role of the police in a free society is to protect rights and preserve peace. The police are a unique duality in American government, being the only part of the government with the authority to use force against a citizen not yet convicted of a crime. They are both a part of the community and a part of the government.
Ideally, the police are viewed by their communities as not only legitimate in their authority, but as an integral part of the community itself. When this relationship is damaged, when their legitimacy is diminished, the police will struggle to be effective. When the community does not trust the police, they will not provide information on crime that the police need in order to solve problems. The community may look to itself for security interests, even from within its own criminal element.
With “community policing” being a favored buzzword, it is important to recognize that there is no standardized definition of what it looks like in practice. Every community has different needs and expectations for its police, and ideally should have some input into how they are policed. Because of this, a universal model of policing will always be elusive, but the goals need not be.
The goal of community policing is the absence of crime and disorder, not the number of tickets issued or arrests made. Evaluating our policing services properly can incentivize good outcomes and lead to innovation in how to achieve it. Writing tickets and making arrests is easy to quantify, both in raw numbers and in revenue generated, but do not necessarily achieve the goal of crime reduction or community relations.
Conservative policing reform is about improving our policing functions of government. It is not anti-cop to hold our police accountable, but rather it is consistent with conservative scrutiny on government power. Seeking areas to make the police more effective and efficient while preserving, or in some case returning, our individual rights is consistent with conservative values and traditional respect for the law enforcement function and institution.
What we should look at
Policing is a local issue, and this is where it must remain. The police are accountable to their communities in a way that federal law enforcement is not, with predictable results in encounters with both. Law makers at every level have the opportunity to make policies that improve police and community relations by giving the police good policies to work with.
Discretion is absolutely essential in policing, but this requires that the various options we give our police be good ones. If a police action is reprehensible, but also legal, then it is the fault of the breadth of discretionary behavior more than the police as an institution. If it is already illegal, then the police officer or agency responsible need to be held accountable.
Some of the shootings that have shocked our collective conscience in recent years have resulted in acquittals of the officers involved. Reviewing our hiring and training practices, and demanding use of force policies that are more restrictive than current jurisprudence requires are not unreasonable demands and could prevent these incidents from happening in the future, or at least provide a mechanism to hold an officer accountable for actions that society deems egregious. Moving from the current objectively reasonable standard to a proportionality of force standard could be achieved in this manner.
Examining the militarization of our civilian police forces is another area conservatives should support. There should be a clear line between our police and our military, they have different functions and objectives. Blurring this line is detrimental to the relationship between the police and their communities. The federal government’s 1033 program is something that local municipalities should strongly scrutinize before allowing the utilization by their police agencies.
The availability of “free” military weapons and equipment can encourage a police agency to circumvent the normal appropriations process that is a natural check on acquiring such equipment. There is no doubt that there are times when such equipment is needed, and nothing else will suffice, but those times are rare. The constant display of military hardware and uniforms can have no other effect than to shift the internal police culture toward an emulation of military culture in other ways as well, something that can be remedied by prudent use and storage of such equipment coupled with local oversight of acquisition and use.
Conservatives need not shy away from pursuing policing reforms out of reverence for our police officers. Improvements in policing can only help our police to safely and effectively perform their vital service to our communities, and ensure our freedoms and our rights are protected in the process.