We’ve seen it before: a scandal breaks in an American police department over excessive force, racial profiling, or unlawful searches or stops and frisks. The federal government threatens to sue unless the police department makes specific changes. But opponents argue that the changes the feds want will keep police from doing their jobs: fighting crime. The same argument is occurring now, in Oakland, California, with foes of reform saying that implementing the federal demands will keep police from fighting crime.
These assertions are simply untrue. They are excuses to avoid the hard and necessary work of reform.
For almost two decades, the U.S. government has had a new way to confront problems in police departments. In 1994, Congress enacted the federal “pattern or practice” law, 42 U.S.C. 14141, which allows the government to step in where an investigation shows that police are engaged in a pattern of depriving citizens of their constitutional rights. A bad incident, or even a few of them, aren’t enough; it has to be a regular practice. Where the federal government has stepped in — in Los Angeles, in Cincinnati, in Pittsburgh, and in other cities — there has been resistance, but eventually a package of reforms was agreed upon and put in the form of a federal court order called a consent decree.
That is where Oakland and its police department stand now: poised to moved toward reform under the proposed consent decree. But the agreement has attracted the typical opposition argument: police and law enforcement resources will be absorbed with compliance and paperwork, and real crime fighting will be neglected.
Not so, says Samuel Walker. Walker, professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Nebraska and the foremost scholar of police accountability in the U.S., points out that policing that follows the law and the Constitution actually enhances public safety in important ways. In his Sept. 26 article in the East Bay Express, Walker explains why public safety actually requires police officers to obey the law as they enforce it.
Is keeping crime under control forgotten in all this? No. Police experts from around the country know that constitutional policing is a necessary element of effective crime control. For more than 25 years, the community policing movement has maintained that controlling crime and disorder requires the police to have the trust of the people they serve. The police rely on neighborhood residents to provide information as victims or witnesses to crimes, and provide valuable insights into conditions in their area. Trust and cooperation are lost when the police engage in unconstitutional and unprofessional conduct…[Even a] single incident of police abuse has long legs and travels far. People not only do not trust the police, but, at its worst, police misconduct also generates fear of the police. Effective crime-fighting cannot work in such an environment.
The resistance to change argument here has a familiar ring for readers of Failed Evidence: change is too expensive, and it will interfere with getting the bad guys. It doesn’t wash with regard to science, and it doesn’t wash here, either.