Police Reforms Make Progress Against Entrenched Opposition

Every time cops denounce reform efforts it is evidence of a win.


This past weekend, a package of modest police reform measures went into effect in Washington state a year after high-profile incidents of police misconduct, including the killing of George Floyd, sparked protests across the country and reinvigorated efforts to transform how law enforcement does its job. But months after the new rules regarding police tactics, oversight, hiring, and discipline gained the governor's signature, opposition continues—especially among law enforcement ranks. It's a reminder that those working in the new environment aren't especially happy with change, and they may continue their opposition long after reformers and the public move on to other concerns.

"The governor signed legislation that will create an Office of Independent Investigations that reports to the governor, prohibit certain uses of force and will require more thorough oversight requirements for hiring and for reporting misconduct," Democrat Gov. Jay Inslee's office boasted in May.

Not included in the package was a much-debated proposal to trim qualified immunity protections against civil liability for police misconduct. Laws of varying degrees of effectiveness in addressing that court-created doctrine have passed in Colorado, Connecticut, and New Mexico, always in the face of stiff opposition from police and their allies.

Lawmakers also failed to pass "a measure to authorize the state attorney general to prosecute cases of police deadly force, a bill to increase the minimum age of police recruits and a requirement that police departments with at least 15 officers to have a community oversight board," according to NPR.

So, the measures that became law were modest ones intended to ban the use of chokeholds and other dangerous restraints, limit the use of tear gas, and restrict the acquisition of surplus military equipment. The measures also seek to assure independent investigations of allegations of excessive force, strengthen civilian oversight of police, emphasize de-escalation, and require officers to intervene when colleagues use excessive force.

The new rules also address the training and certification of police officers. In the language of recent months, this is very much police reform and not police de-funding. Not that those working in the targeted profession are happy about the situation.

Last week, at a press conference called by law enforcement leaders from across eastern Washington, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich claimed chaos among the ranks of his deputies.

"The reason that we are in chaos, the reason that no particular legal advisor in this state actually agrees with each other right now is that the legislature of the state of Washington chose to craft laws and did not invite the law enforcement leaders to the table to even discuss these issues," Knezovich insisted. "And now we hear from legislators that we are overreacting, that we don't understand the laws, that we don't understand the intent, and you're right. We don't."

"Nor do we understand the 'why' behind all these changes other than the emotion behind certain high-profile instances involving police which are the minority instances that happen in this community across the United States," he added.

But "high-profile instances" including the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor didn't happen in isolation. They came after years of abusive behavior, minimal accountability, militarized policing, and perceptions of disparate treatment of people based on race—and racially biased enforcement simmered long before the events of 2020.

"About seven-in-ten whites (71%) expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in local police to treat blacks and whites equally, compared with just 36% of blacks," Pew Research reported in 2015.

Amid last year's protests (which were at least partially brought to a head by the social and economic pressures of COVID-19 lockdowns) and wide publicity about police misconduct, public confidence in law enforcement dropped to a record low level. The conditions seemed better than ever for finally reforming the way police go about their business.

But, as the reaction of Washington law enforcement illustrates, resistance runs deep in the ranks of law enforcement. Far from Spokane, Philadelphia's police union threw its weight against a district attorney it saw as insufficiently pro-cop. Despite losing that battle, the union keeps reform bottled up in its contract negotiations with the city. In California, police unions openly grease the pockets of state lawmakers as the legislature approaches a vote on a proposal to make it easier to discipline bad cops. In Kansas City, Mo., it's the Board of Police Commissioners suing to block the mayor's plan to distribute some of the department's responsibilities to other agencies.

Nationally, police organizations lean hard on members of Congress to prevent consideration of reforms to qualified immunity and even to codify the doctrine into law, further reducing police accountability for misconduct.

Opposition to change is entrenched among those directly affected: police and their supporters. Meanwhile, the constituency for reform is less organized and has competing concerns. With violent crime rising around the country after a year of lockdown-induced economic pain and social disruption, a survey of Detroit residents finds a greater emphasis on public safety than on reforming how police do their jobs. Likewise, Gallup finds rising confidence in police among African-Americans, though it remains very low at 27 percent (last year it had plummeted to 19 percent). Concerns about crime can make people more tolerant of flawed anti-crime efforts in a world in which risks must be balanced. 

Obviously, though, there is still support for transforming law enforcement. The passage of reform measures in Washington and elsewhere demonstrates that it's still possible to make positive changes. That window will remain open so long as something like 60 percent of Americans favor doing more to hold police accountable, as found in an April ABC News/Washington Post poll. A June survey of residents of Milwaukee found distrust of police and majority support for transferring some of their responsibilities to social services agencies.

Uphill battle it may be, but the new rules for police in Washington and reforms elsewhere in the country (some moderate, others more serious) show that change remains not just necessary, but achievable. There's no question that it's frustrating to have to fight public employees to get them to offer better treatment to the taxpayers who fund their paychecks. But every press conference where police union bosses, sheriffs, and police chiefs denounce reformist efforts is evidence of a win.