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excerpted from: André Douglas Pond Cummings, Reforming Policing, 10 Drexel Law Review 573 (2018) (215 Footnotes) (Full Document)


Andre Douglas Pond CummingsLaw enforcement killing of unarmed black men and police brutality visited upon minority citizens continues to confound the United States. Despite protests, clarion calls for reform, admitted training shortcomings and deficiencies among U.S. law enforcement officers, conferences, summits, and movements to reform policing, the solution to ending undisciplined police violence and the hostile killings of unarmed minority individuals at the hands of U.S. police seems to elude us. Why should this be? The United States is home to some of the most creative, innovative, pathmarking, and course-changing thinkers the world has ever known. This challenge--police killing of unarmed minority citizens and law enforcement brutality--could be one that this nation can solve; that is, if there is a political and moral will to do so.

This article proposes a radical restructuring of United States law enforcement policies, procedures, and applications in order to address this critical challenge. After comparing some of the nation's most innovative police reform efforts, this article will provide policymakers, legislators, officers, leaders, judges, and lawyers the most effective reform efforts and best thinking that have been implemented to date in connection with saving the lives of residents who face danger from those trained to protect and serve them. This article may serve as a signal to a potential sea change in failed police practices that have endured for decades in the United States.

This proposal unfolds as follows:

Part I describes the historical evolution of policing practices in the United States, including the influence of slave catchers in the South during the slave trade and tracing back to the nation's founding. This historical analysis will demonstrate the deep-seated bigotry and race-hatred that influenced many early law enforcement practices throughout the nation.

Part II reviews the historical racial difficulties and will reflect on how they manifest today, where policing in many departments still centers around controlling black and brown individuals.

Part III then surveys some of the most influential and innovative police reform efforts that have been undertaken by cities, municipalities, and states around the country, particularly those that are revolutionizing policing in a way that recognizes the historical racism and seeks to reform policing in a meaningful and human-centered way.

Finally, Part IV recommends a battery of policies and reforms that may deeply influence the way policing is conducted currently and provide a better way forward. The Article ends with concluding thoughts.

. . .

Police brutality and law enforcement killing of unarmed black men at times seems indecipherable and inevitable in today's environment. Because law enforcement in the United States traces its evolution back to slave catchers and anti-black control of freed black men, rooting discrimination and race hatred out of American policing can sometimes appear unattainable. Still, in a nation that promises in its founding documents that “all” people are created equal, battling for equality and humane policing seems a mandatory call for those that believe in that equal promise.

Glimmers of hope are available in cities like Cincinnati where community problem-oriented policing has taken root and significantly reduced crime, harassment, and police brutality against minority residents. Further hope can be seen in Cincinnati (and hundreds of other cities across the U.S.) where a Citizen Complaint Authority has been created (or, similarly, citizen police oversight boards), some with subpoena and discipline power, to review police action and provide oversight and direction to police chiefs. While early evidence is mixed as to their effectiveness, a Citizen Complaint Authority or similar citizen oversight board offers a community the opportunity to reform policing in concert with community norms and expectations. Courage can be taken when considering that the police academy at the University of Illinois employs a cultural bias training program that challenges new hires to confront their own biases while learning about the history of racism and discrimination against minorities in U.S. policing. Optimism is attainable when reviewing the Use of Force Project and recognizing that if police forces will adopt careful policies in connection with using a gun against the citizens they are charged to protect, then significant reduction in citizen and police injury is possible. Officers in Spokane are learning de-escalation techniques on their own, suggesting that if police training is fundamentally reformed in police academies across the country, then a new day might dawn where police officers are trained to cool down tense situations instead of adding fuel to already heated scenarios.

If there is the political will to value and preserve human life above all other considerations, then reforming policing in the United States is possible. Reform efforts must focus both on who is hired to become police and on how those new recruits are trained. Both hiring and training must change drastically, as described above. A further reform must focus on changing the retention policies of national police forces that close the revolving door of failed police officers finding new law enforcement jobs after engaging in unfit conduct. This revolving door must be forever locked. We can also change the law as a primary reform effort, reframing “use of deadly force” away from the “fear for life” standard and toward a standard of valuing human life above all else. Finally, police agencies from coast to coast must accept and embrace demilitarization. Tanks, battering rams, flashbang grenades, and military-style raids must become a thing of the past. Military style policing is antithetical to community problem-oriented policing. As Cincinnati learned well during its evolution from “broken” to “model,” they cannot co-exist.

If in fact these reform efforts are adopted, then it is possible that the anti-black foundation that continues to actualize American policing can be rooted out and a new, humane policing model can emerge.

Visiting Professor, The John Marshall Law School (2017-18); Associate Professor of Law, University of Arkansas Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law; J.D., Howard University School of Law.