It is time to take action at a national level on police reform. A new proposed House and Senate bill does just that.
As former U.S. Attorneys who served during the Obama Administration, we worked with advocacy groups, victims, community groups, and police to hold individual officers accountable and to implement department-wide reforms. We used laws like the federal pattern and practice statute passed during the George H.W. Bush Administration after the Rodney King case to address unconstitutional policing practices within entire departments, and we worked to implement the recommendations of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which reimagined police officers as guardians of the community instead of warriors of the streets. We have been deeply disappointed to see the current leaders of the Department of Justice abandon this effort. As recent events have made clear, ignoring the problems associated with policing in America will not make them go away.
Inexcusably, it took the death of George Floyd in police custody to galvanize a movement, but we are heartened by the thirst for change that has swept the country. Millions of Americans of every race have marched and demanded further reform. And they are right: we must change our vision of public safety that, for too long, has perpetuated policing that endangers black and brown people rather than protecting and serving them.
That’s why we support the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, which would give the force of law to much of the task force’s vision. The bill includes some obvious improvements, such as data collection, training in implicit bias and de-escalation, and a legal duty for other officers to intervene. In addition, from our experience in federal law enforcement, several other provisions stand out.
First, the bill would improve police accountability by eliminating the requirement in criminal civil rights prosecutions that an officer acted “willfully.” That high and rare standard was first applied to police misconduct in 1945 when a divided Supreme Court reversed the sentence of George Screws, a Georgia sheriff who beat to death an African-American man who stole a tire.
The Court added a requirement that required prosecutors to prove the sheriff — and defendants in all cases since — had “an evil motive to accomplish that which the statute condemns.” As a result, even when an officer has knowingly used excessive force, the “willful” standard is a major and inappropriate obstacle to successful prosecution. To be sure, police officers need the ability to safely perform their difficult and dangerous jobs. But we must hold them accountable when they knowingly and unnecessarily use violence against people they are sworn to protect. We think “knowing” misconduct is the right standard to achieve that balance.
The bill would also provide funding for state Attorneys General to engage in systemic police reform. This important local empowerment is critical when the federal government fails to exercise its own authority to do so, as occurred in Chicago when the current Administration abandoned a pattern and practice case and the state had to step in.
Other key provisions of the bill would condition a police department’s receipt of federal funding and grant money on ending dangerous and potentially fatal police practices. Chokeholds, for example, involve pressure to the throat or windpipe that restricts the flow of oxygen to the brain or hinders breathing and led to the tragic deaths of Eric Garner in New York and George Floyd in Minneapolis, among others. Many departments already prohibit them, and they should be outlawed.
Similarly, to be eligible for federal funding and grants, police departments would have to fully embrace uniform standards for video monitoring technology, such as dashboard and body-worn cameras. The law would also require federal law enforcement officials to use this technology. Accurate documentation of how police do their jobs shouldn’t turn on the fortuity of a bystander with a cell phone. Dashboard and body cameras provide the best evidence of an incident and promote justice — whether it’s proving excessive force by police officers, capturing the criminal conduct of suspects, or disproving false allegations of police misconduct. And dashboard and body cameras, with proper privacy protections for members of the public, also encourage positive behavior by officers who know that their words and actions are recorded for the world to see.
Through our work with police departments, we know first-hand that most officers enter public service because they want to help others and protect their communities. But when one officer abuses his power, it tarnishes every badge. Earning and keeping the public’s trust is the most important skill a police officer can have. It makes policing safer, and it makes neighborhoods safer. Trust gives witnesses confidence that they can share information with the police to solve crimes. It gives juries confidence that they can believe an officer’s testimony. It leads to recruiting and retaining idealistic, committed, and diverse people who share the passion to protect and serve. But when that trust erodes, its absence undermines the safety of the public and respect for our system of law.
This bill will not fix everything. And as with all lengthy pieces of legislation, we don’t all agree with every provision. But the Justice in Policing Act would make meaningful changes in the way we police. It would loudly and resoundingly recognize and acknowledge that we have had enough. We urge Republicans and Democrats in Congress to pass this reform and the Administration to enforce it, as well as the laws currently on the books, before we lose more lives and more trust.
It is long past time to heed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to all of us as Americans to feel “the fierce urgency of now.”
Editor’s note: Conner Eldridge is an attorney with Eldridge Brooks Partners in Rogers. He is a former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Arkansas during the Obama Administration and was the 2016 Democratic U.S. Senate nominee in Arkansas. He and 62 Obama-era U.S. attorneys signed this op-ed in a national publication. The opinions expressed are those of the author.