As a former policeman, I know America’s law enforcement officers have hard jobs. They make tough decisions in high-pressure situations, sometimes with life and death consequences. We need to ensure they’re well trained, trustworthy, and of sound character. We also need laws and rules of conduct that encourage the best outcomes, and we can’t ask them to do the impossible. Now is the right time to re-examine whether we’re accomplishing this.
When I left field and orchard work at the age of 19, I was fortunately entrusted with helping to guarantee public safety — first as a radio dispatcher and later a police officer in Toppenish, Washington. I still carry fond memories of the camaraderie inherent in the job, the sense of achievement in solving crimes, and the satisfaction in seeing justice achieved on behalf of victims. My father and mother proudly attended the ceremony the day I graduated from the police academy.
When I first completed the academy, I rode with a training officer, observing and learning. In the first few months of police work, some of the things I saw bothered me. Patrol units were encouraged to keep a close watch on taverns frequented by Latinos, and drivers departing at closing time were stopped regularly.
On its face, that sounds like a good idea as a way to prevent drunk driving. Unfortunately, we were discouraged from keeping watch at taverns frequented mostly by white customers. As a result, Latinos were cited for driving under the influence in much higher numbers than their white counterparts. I observed as fellow officers responding to an altercation were quick to book Latino offenders, while citing and releasing white offenders — or even allowing them to “walk it off” after confessing to assault.
I genuinely admired and respected the police chief, my boss and a good man who recognized the value of adding an officer who could improve outreach to the city’s growing Hispanic community. I told him it was in his power to change these inequities. I didn’t ask for tougher treatment of the public based on their skin color, nor did I ask for more lenient treatment. I requested that it be equitable.
He responded positively and made changes to the department policy manual regarding equal treatment under the law, changes that were well received by my colleagues. The situation improved when officers made a more determined effort to treat everyone impartially.
A two-tiered system of enforcement — wherein punishments disproportionately affect the less affluent — hurts communities, building resentment among the people the police are charged with protecting. The answer isn’t to eliminate law enforcement. That would guarantee lawlessness and predation of innocents. We need proper leadership to make effective change.
What does that change look like? Many ideas are being put forward, and we need policymakers to engage in an open debate that leads us to the best ones. But these three will move us in the right direction.
1. Transform police culture. Most police officers and law enforcement leaders across the country — people who risk their lives to serve and protect their communities — know that use-of-force policies must change. They are also rightly frustrated that many police union agreements protect bad actors from facing the consequences of their decisions.
2. Remove bad incentives such as civil asset forfeiture and qualified immunity, a judge-made law that prevents law enforcement officials who violate people’s constitutional rights from being held accountable for their actions. We must also reform the federal 1033 program that encourages police to treat communities like militarized combat zones rather than shared neighborhoods.
3. Eliminate unnecessary criminalization. As a society, we’ve aggressively criminalized behaviors we’d like to see less of, without considering the ramifications. We don’t even require adequate intent standards when charging and convicting people. Over the past 40 years, we’ve added 300,000 federal crimes to the enforcement burden that police officers carry, making the job far more difficult. We must enact robust federal and state overcriminalization reform.
The vast majority of the nation’s police take on this risky assignment because they are committed to keeping Americans safe, regardless of their skin color or other characteristics. They deserve laws that make sense, processes that help them succeed, and a system that allows them to focus on real threats to public safety.