The Black Lives Matter policy agenda is practical, thoughtful — and urgent

Last week, the leaders of Black Lives Matter* released a series of policy solutions to address police killings, excessive force, profiling and racial discrimination, and other problems in law enforcement, called “Campaign Zero.” Critics and police organizations have portrayed Black Lives Matter as radical, anti-police, and anti-white. But the policies Campaign Zero is pushing are none of those things. Instead, they’re practical, well-thought out, and in most cases, achievable. Most will also directly benefit everyone — not just black people.

In most cases, the policies Campaign Zero is suggesting are already in place in one or more police departments across the country, and Campaign Zero points this out. That’s smart, and I suspect that it will prove to be effective. It makes it more difficult for police groups to portray those proposals as “anti-cop.” But it also makes it easier to pitch those ideas to policymakers and the public. They’ve already been field-tested. As a set, these policies are more a list of “best practices” than revolutionary reform. A few of the proposals will be a tougher sell, but even those are far short of world-shaking. There are no calls to disarm the police. No calls to abolish law enforcement agencies. No demands that police unions be prohibited. This isn’t a fervid manifesto. It’s a serious effort to solve a problem. (Its practicality is undoubtedly born of urgency. There’s no time for wild-eyed ideology when people are dying.)

This isn’t criticism, but praise. These are proposals that will almost certainly have an impact, even if only some of them are implemented. The ideas here are well-researched, supported with real-world evidence and ought to be seriously considered by policymakers at all levels of government.

Here’s a quick rundown:

End Broken-Windows Policing

This is a call to retire the philosophy of policing that leads to mass arrests for low-level offenses such as loitering, drinking in public or transience. Broken Windows still has proponents, who credit it for reducing crime in places such as New York. But there’s also plenty of academic literature suggesting that it doesn’t work as well as its supporters claim. In the meantime, it leaves thousands of people with arrest records and can lead to unnecessary escalation. (See Eric Garner.) There’s certainly something to be said for making communities more livable. It’s far from clear that mass arrests are the only way to accomplish that.

This section also addresses racial profiling and stop-and-frisk, calling for an end to stops for generalized suspicion and for stops based on descriptions of suspects that are too broad (such as “black male, 15-55″). The former will be more difficult to sell. The easiest sells in each section will probably be the transparency policies. Here, Campaign Zero is calling for police to “report every stop including location, race, gender, whether force was used and whether a firearm was found,” and for that data to be made available to the public.

The final part of this section calls for better responses to mental health crises. It proposes mandatory crisis intervention training for police officers, plus adding crisis counselors and other mental health professionals to the response team that shows up when someone is having a mental health breakdown. Many cities already do this, but I suspect cost will be a factor in the places that don’t. Still, it’s an important section. It’s a shame that when someone calls a suicide line or calls about a relative or friend in crisis, the first people to show up are often members of the SWAT team. That’s pretty much the worst thing we can do.

End Policing for Profit

Given the response among conservatives and libertarians to the death of Eric Garner, the revelations about the predatory municipal courts in St. Louis County (but not only there) and both groups’ opposition to civil asset forfeiture, this section probably has the best chance at winning a broad political consensus. It calls for banning quotas for tickets and citations, limits on the amount of revenue cities can get from municipal courts, and giving judges the discretion to waive fines imposed on low-income people. It also calls for a ban on the forfeiture of property without a criminal conviction and a ban on police agencies keeping the proceeds of such forfeitures. New Mexico was the first state to pass a law requiring a conviction. I suspect it will be tougher to get the ban on proceeds going back to police agencies, but requiring a conviction would eliminate most of the more outrageous and unjust aspects of this practice.

Limit Use of Force

The basic philosophy of this section is that police officers should use the minimum amount of force necessary to resolve a situation. That means lethal force should be used only when a life is in imminent danger, a policy consistent with international law enforcement standards. This section promotes bans on practices such as chokeholds and hogties and emphasizes deescalation. It calls for prohibitions on firing at moving vehicles and engaging in high-speed chases for low-level crimes. Again, these policies are already in place at some police departments, though not nearly enough of them.

This section also recommends much more transparency, including collecting data on all use-of-force incidents, keeping track of which officers use force more often and making all that information available to the public. It also recommends an intriguing “early intervention” system to find problem officers (discussed in more detail here).

Demilitarization

Much of this section has been covered in depth here at The Watch. The suggestions including ending the Pentagon’s 1033 program (which gives surplus military gear to local police departments) and some general limits and restrictions on the use of SWAT teams and no-knock raids. This section could actually go quite a bit further. I’d like to see a policy that prohibits police from forcibly entering a private home unless they suspect someone’s life is in danger. At the very least, they should be required to first try alternate methods, such as apprehending a suspect as he leaves or surrounding a building and calling a suspect out.

Body Cams/Film the Police

This section calls for mandatory body cameras for police officers, a “missing video presumption” for video that should be available but for some reason isn’t, allows anyone to obtain footage of themselves or a relative, and calls for privacy restrictions to protect the identities of people in footage that isn’t of public relevance. It also prohibits police from seeing footage before they write up their report. This is important to preserve the integrity of the two (or more) narratives. It also reinforces the right to record the police and calls for an enforcement mechanism when that right is violated (the ability to sue).

Training

This section calls for a wide variety of new training for cops, including in subjects such as community policing, deescalation, engagement with minority and gender-nonconforming communities, bias and other areas. There’s a budding consensus now in the criminal justice community that there’s a huge discrepancy in the amount of training law enforcement officers get in using force vs. the amount of training they get in preventing it. But within that consensus there’s a lot of room for disagreement about what gets emphasized and how best to close the gap. So the debate here will be not with the general principle, but with the specifics and how to implement them.

More controversial still is a policy recommending testing to determine implicit racial bias, and that the results be used in hiring, performance evaluations and assigning beats. Implicit bias is more about how your mind operates than about how you act. It’s true that implicit bias can affect how police officers perform on the street, but it’s also a tough sell to say that cops should be hired, evaluated and promoted based on their results in lab tests instead of (or more likely, in addition to) what they do in the world. That doesn’t mean this section is wrong. It just means it will be a tough sell.

Community Oversight

I suspect this section will generate the most opposition, particularly from law enforcement groups. For a long time, cops answered only to other cops. Even in cities that have had civilian review boards, those boards usually like subpoena power, and their recommendations are just that — they can be ignored or overruled by an arbitrator. Here, Campaign Zero is calling for citizen police commissions to set policies for police agencies. Campaign Zero wants any current or former cops and their relatives to be barred from serving on these commissions, and for the commissions to have the power to discipline and fire cops (including police chiefs) and to have a say in the hiring of police chiefs. In addition, BLM is calling for separate civilian review boards to not only review complaints, but also to issue broader, data-driven reports on police stops, arrests, use of force and so on.

This is probably the most radical part of the Campaign Zero plan, but only because it’s so foreign to what happens today. In theory, the idea that in a democracy the police should be accountable and answerable to the people they serve doesn’t seem all that radical at all. But in the past, this has mostly happened by way of the political process. That is, the people elect the politicians who are supposed to hold the police leadership accountable, and the leadership is then entrusted to hold individual officers accountable. This hasn’t worked out so well, mostly because there’s very little incentive for politicians to remain a check on cops. A politician needs only a majority of votes to stay in office. The number of people abused by police is naturally going to be pretty small when compared with the number of people who vote to elect someone to office. And the communities disproportionately affected by police misconduct will be a small percentage of the overall population. Most people want to feel safe and believe that empowering the police is the way to do that. There’s very little electoral incentive, then, for politicians to demand more accountability from law enforcement.

In practice, this section of the Campaign Zero agenda would take police agencies from being answerable to no one but themselves to making them answerable to everyone but themselves. That’s a huge and substantial change. No profession will give up that kind of arrangement easily. But we’re talking about law enforcement here, a profession that can be politically powerful, is great at winning public sympathy and has a long tradition of looking out for itself. Given all that, the fact that these proposals are inherently more democratic — and just make a hell of a lot of sense — may end up being beside the point.

Community Representation

This short section proposes that police agencies put forth a plan and timeline to make minority representation within the department reflect representation in the larger community. My guess is that this will be derided as “quotas” or “affirmative action.” But it’s important that communities see themselves reflected in the police and vice versa. When cops do then need to use force, the community is more likely to see it as one of their own using force to protect them than as an outside entity inflicting force on one of their own. Likewise, pulling cops from the community itself fosters empathy. That’s important not just in reducing the use of force, but in encouraging cooperation and trust during investigations, which makes it less difficult to solve crimes.

Fair Police Contracts

This section takes aim at union-negotiated contracts that inhibit, limit or impede investigations of police misconduct. It also recommends policies to make those investigations more transparent and calls for an end to paying police officers while they’re being investigated for possible felonies. It will be interesting to see the political reaction to this section, given that these are some of the same critiques made by critics of other public service unions. But again, none of these proposals are particularly radical. You can make a good argument that police officers should be held to a higher standard than everyone else. You can also make a good argument that they should be held to the same standard. The least convincing argument is that they should be held to a lower standard. But in most jurisdictions today, cops accused of actual crimes get protections that regular people aren’t afforded. In theory, those protections only apply to internal, administrative investigations, not to criminal investigations. But in practice, they end up making it much more difficult to prosecute police officers when they’re accused of the same crimes as non-police officers.

Independent Investigations and Prosecutions

This section is similar to the proposals on police commissions and civilian review boards in that it emphasizes the need for police to be held accountable by entities outside the local, immediate law enforcement community. In particular, Campaign Zero is worried about local prosecutors who work closely with police handling investigations of police shootings, brutality and other misconduct. You needn’t be an ardent critic of either police or prosecutors to understand how this could be a problem.

As a whole, these proposals are well-argued, practical and smart. For the most part, they’re supported by empirical data and real-world experience. The Campaign Zero leadership has clearly given these proposals a lot of thought.

That said, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’re portrayed as radical and reactionary, especially by police organizations. This discussion has been so lopsided over the years that any reform, no matter how sensible, is bound to be met with intense opposition and demagoguery.

Police leaders and organizations have been pretty shameless about generating disproportionate outrage at politicians for even tepid criticism, or about scaring the public, then invoking that fear to essentially present the debate as either the status quo or lawless criminals ruling the streets. They’ve been incredibly effective.

There is at least some reason to be more optimistic this time around. The main reason is that the problems in policing are starting to affect people who have the status and power to do something about them. One reason we’re starting to see conservative opposition to police militarization, for example, is that police militarization is starting to affect conservatives. We’re seeing regulatory agencies with armed police forces, some even with tactical teams. We’re seeing SWAT-like tactics used to enforce zoning laws and low-level crimes. We’re seeing heavy-handed force used to collect cigarette taxes or to enforce regulatory law.

Similarly, while how and when police use lethal force has a disproportionate effect on communities of color, there has been no shortage of stories about unarmed white people killed by police. There are problems in policing that are directly related to race, such as profiling, bias and an irrational fear of black criminality. But there are also problems in policing that affect people of all races, such as the use of lethal force, unnecessary escalation and the prioritizing of officer safety over all else. (Even these problems disproportionately affect black and brown people.)

These Campaign Zero proposals address both sets of problems. If the more important policies get adopted on a large scale, it will undoubtedly save lives — black lives, brown lives, white lives and the lives of police officers.

CORRECTION: While the activists affiliated with the Campaign Zero proposals are also high-profile members of the Black Lives Matter movement, and Campaign Zero grew out of that movement, they don’t consider themselves official leaders of Black Lives Matter, and they don’t claim to speak for the movement as a whole.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces.”

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-watch/wp/2015/08/25/the-black-lives-matter-policy-agenda-is-practical-thoughtful-and-urgent/