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Opinion – A conversation opener for police reform, now it’s your turn

Opinion By Leslee Kulba

Asheville – In 2010, the Village Voice published findings from secret recordings of police officers in New York City’s 81st Precinct engaging in unethical conduct, including the manipulation of charges to meet departmental targets. The whistleblower, Adrian Schoolcraft, was harassed by fellow officers, dragged from his apartment and committed to a mental hospital for six days, and otherwise prevailed upon to leave the department. The deputy chief who oversaw the abuses retired with a $135,000 pension.

The point is – as local jurisdictions around the country are taking the protests following the lethal use of force on George Floyd to be a mandate for police reform – no amount of new policies and procedures is going to reduce misconduct by officers flaunting existing policies. And, on the flip side, little is likely to change attempts by the usual suspects (criminals, anarchists, Marxists) to clamor for change to better accommodate their lifestyles.

The City of Asheville has opted to miss the state deadline for adopting its budget in order to reform its police department. The Asheville Police Department, now under the leadership of Chief David Zack, has already made strides in adopting the better recommendations from Campaign Zero’s #8CantWait movement. So, as government leaders call for “conversations,” to revision policing, here’s an icebreaker.

“Guiding Principles on Use of Force,” a report by the Police Executive Research Forum, recommended a paradigm shift of policing from a culture of confrontation to one of conflict resolution, while not compromising public safety. As Asheville City Councilman Brian Haynes recommended at a recent meeting, the APD could begin “demilitarization” by giving an accounting of the military surplus it has in inventory. A general complaint during the recent protests has concerned departments accepting from the Department of Homeland Security overkill military equipment like armored vehicles and grenade launchers, to presumably use against the citizens whose taxes paid for them.

Another overkill demonstration of force that could be cut to help a budget would be SWAT-like teams. Zack already said he is going to get rid of the city’s Drug Enforcement Unit.

Some think-tankers have suggested means of “defunding” the police while making excessive use of force a less attractive option. Most local governments payout of their general fund settlements and judgments pertaining to misconduct by law enforcement; it has been proposed that the payments come out of law enforcement budgets instead. Clark Neily of the Cato Institute even suggested officers carry insurance with premiums that go up with risky behaviors.

Another defunding option would be to resist taper grants pushed by the federal government. The city frequently accepts federal grants to fund the creation of new positions in the police and fire departments. The federal government pays the full price the first year but backs out over the next few years. Cities are tempted to accept the “free” federal money, whether they need the positions or not, and worry about paying the full load when it becomes a problem.

On the revenue side, “policing for profit” should not be encouraged to close any budget gap created by “defunding.” The term is used for perverse incentives like fines, fees, forfeitures, and quotas, which reward officers and departments for getting people in trouble, whether or not they’re actually up to mischief. In North Carolina, property deemed ill-gotten from or intended for controlled-substance trade may be seized by police forces for their own use or sale.

Then, there are questions about harassing people for being black. Ticketing a wage-earner going to work with a burnt-out headlight or expired tag only kicks a good guy when he’s down. Reasonable people will disagree on what should be included in a list of deprioritized crimes. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was long hailed for cracking down on the least of crimes; now, Campaign Zero is recommending the opposite.

Something else worth examining is the process of building a case, letting low-level flunkies go free if they rat on their superiors and so on up the line – except everybody knows where the kingpins live and they continue unimpeded forever. Meanwhile, people see prostitutes (not informants) getting in cop cars, and cops buying drugs (not collecting evidence). Increasing the risks for engaging in low-level drug dealing is usually enough to displace operations.
Everybody knows filling jails with low-level offenders isn’t the answer. Two talking points on police reform are: America puts more people in prison than any industrialized nation, and it costs more to hold somebody in prison than to give them a Harvard education. But are sworn officers the best people for connecting people with social programs?
Another call is for citizen oversight/review. Zack’s idea of a hotline for whistleblowers and disgruntled citizens is a good idea, but a jury of unqualified peers would be disastrous. Police are quick to say members of the public expect them to shoot the guns out of peoples’ hands, as they do in the movies, when in fact their job requires them to get awkward and make split-second decisions.
There are many other good ideas that pertain to putting responsibility for good behavior back on individuals and communities. But not to be lost in the conversations is fair data analysis. Denominators like per capita or per-incident and geographical lines are often selected to derive the desired political narrative. If officers are prohibited from patrolling “profiled” neighborhoods, “profiled” people could run a higher risk of victimization and possibly even become human shields.

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