Police Reform — It’s not what you think

Special to WorldTribune, February 14, 2023

Commentary by Ann Schockett

In Memphis, five police officers were summarily fired from their positions and charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols. Video taken during the encounter sent shock waves through the country. The anti-police usual suspects were quick at work to proclaim this tragedy an act of racism, to demand that we defund the police, and to point to another example of jackbooted law enforcement.

The incident once again sparked the hue and cry for ‘police reforms’. However, a closer examination of the officers involved reveals important insights into how this and other tragedies might occur and the direction of policing over the last number of decades. It has rarely to do with racism but often to do with the federal government’s lowering the standards for hiring, education and training for not only the officers, but their supervisors as well.

Two of the Memphis officers involved were reportedly employed after hiring standards were lowered in 2020. That has become all too common for law enforcement departments across the country who have been forced to hire and retain less than desirable officers.

One of the contributing factors lowering the law enforcement bar started with consent decrees in the 1980’s and became more frequent with the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which permits the Department of Justice (DOJ) to act whenever it believes that a police department is engaging in conduct which violates constitutional rights. Law enforcement enters into an agreement with the DOJ or a lawsuit is commenced. Law enforcement is then required to enact changes in policing, many times altering the existing hiring and educational standards for employment. There are close to two dozen consent decrees currently in operation across the United States. Not all of this is negative. Many of the issues resolved have moved policing in a more positive direction eliminating discrimination in hiring and leveling the playing field. However, many changes have resulted with the public not receiving the professional policing they pay for, particularly so for inner cities and minority communities.

This, unfortunately, is not confined to those departments subject to Consent Decrees. The cry from many communities for ‘police reform’ has caused other departments to lower standards in regard to their constituents.

In many cases, the DOJ attacks recruitment and hiring plans citing discrimination of minority candidates specifying physical, written and educational standards. All well and good, but oftentimes standards are then lowered far below where they should be. Consent Decrees can also affect promotional standards within law enforcement departments, so they become saddled with supervisors who are ill equipped to monitor and intercede when necessary. It is these supervisors who oversee the daily performance of officers. If officers are acting improperly, it is up to the first line supervisors to take action. Incidents like the Memphis Police Department will continue to occur primarily due to a failure to supervise at the street level. Problematic law enforcement officers must be subject to immediate disciple and/or retraining or dismissal from the force.

The bottom line is that law enforcement departments do not have the resources to take on the federal government, so they become forced to make adjustments, some positive but others not in the best interests of the department or the communities they serve.

A second factor is that law enforcement departments and officers have come under fire under the banner of ‘Defund the Police.’ An already difficult job was made too challenging for a record number of officers who have decided to leave the force and retire or pursue other careers. The acclaimed New York Police Department was on pace to lose over 4,000 officers in 2022, and more for this year.

This is not unique to New York as departments across the nation are struggling to fill required positions often reaching out beyond their jurisdictions to entice candidates. Men and women who years ago would have sought out a career in law enforcement are opting for other employment venues. This is creating a serious shortage of viable applicants. Departments are turning to enticements to fill large personnel gaps.

Recently in Virginia, the Fairfax County Police Department was offering a $15,000 signing bonus. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that included $20 million for the Law Enforcement Recruitment Bonus Payment Program.

The reduction in law enforcement ranks has tasked many departments to re-evaluate what calls to respond to and therefore many low level crimes are shoved aside, or in some cases completely ignored. This sets up a pattern where the seriousness of crime will eventually surge putting more pressure on already depleted departments. Minority communities are usually the first to suffer these consequences.

I am in favor of police reform but not how it is now commonly defined. We need to reform the hiring and recruitment practices to employ the most qualified people regardless of race, gender, or religion; re-institute the requirement for a minimum of a post high school education; intensify training at all departmental levels; and eliminate candidates when background checks warrant it. Will that totally eliminate isolated abuse of power by law enforcement? Most likely not, since in every organization, problematic employees exist. But, with elevated standards and competent supervisors, those officers will be weeded out.

I am optimistic. I see a path forward by raising the law enforcement bar, not lowering it, and embracing high standards for a critically vital profession during one of the most volatile times in our nation.

Ann Schockett is immediate past president, National Federation of Republican Women