Law Enforcement Reform Starts at the Bottom

If there is one thing that we have learned with all of the posts on social media, protests and news reports — the way that the government enforces the law needs reform. The media has been pivotal in providing fresh eyes with instances of over-policing and gross oversight among forces all over the country. It is painfully obvious that something needs to change but it is more than just at the street level. 

Shaun King, a writer, and civil rights activist recently released a podcast episode that talks about how reducing the number of law enforcement officers on the streets would consequently reduce the number of petty arrests and questionable interactions. Since officers are required to meet quotas and are sent out to police the public, that is exactly what they will do. 

In that respect, it is likely that the policing of disenfranchised communities will increase and people who need a hand up will be targeted for petty crimes such as fare evasion. Enforcing even the most minor offenses can cast a shadow on the perception of law enforcement. For communities that are experiencing ‘real’ crime, the people who live there may find it more beneficial to focus those resources on things like murder and sexual assaults. 

When a person is injured or killed by officers for something ridiculous, the spotlight shines directly on the state of our legal system. We often find ourselves questioning the law itself and the people who are tasked with enforcing it. Issues regarding mass incarceration, sentencing, cash bail and violations that require arrest are bigger components of an antiquated system that requires long legislative processes but changing how officers deal with the public is an easier topic.

 Law enforcement officers can exercise levels of discretion when determining how to deal with most minor offenses. If you are caught speeding, you may be able to just get a warning. Maybe you had too much to drink and are making a commotion in public, instead of being arrested for disorderly conduct you might be told to call an Uber and get on your way. Sending ten cops to arrest a teenager for $2.75 fare evasion versus giving him a warning or shooting an unarmed individual at a traffic stop because you think they may be too shifty out of nervousness should be considered an abuse of power. 

In many instances, it can appear being tasked with enforcing the law means that the enforcers are exempt from the boundaries awarded to citizens. Officers should be required to undergo rigorous training that includes: studying the law, constant psychological evaluation, higher education requirements and subsequent testing to maintain the authority to police the public. Certain jobs that require dealing with people in high stress situations (i.e. life and death) mandate that individuals in those positions get and maintain a professional license. They are required to report problems to a board and deal with any incidents accordingly. Since the job of an officer has so many components, candidates should be well versed and trained for all potential situations.

Maintaining a third party to ensure checks and balances should prevent officers from performing out of the scope of their duties. There is no guarantee that it will stop an officer from making a mistake or abusing power but a little extra training and oversight can save lives. Citizens need law enforcement to help maintain order in there neighborhoods and to be there to answer the call in times of need. The fear that some people feel when calling the police is justifiable due to publicized incidents of harm that were preventable.

Being a law enforcement officer comes with significant risks but those same risks translate to members of the communities they oversee. The authority figure is tasked with maintaining professionalism and exercising sound judgement. The only way to ensure that happens is to have education, consistent third party oversight and extensive training. Changing the legal system as a whole is a long road but making communities safer for officers and citizens alike is a change that is much more feasible in the foreseeable future. Eliminating the overt context of negative reinforcement and fear surrounding law enforcement may not be totally possible but aligning the two communities is safer for everyone.