State Policy Network
Policy Menu: State solutions that address police reform and accountability
There are several commonsense reforms that state and local leaders should pursue to reduce police brutality while protecting the thousands of honest law enforcement officials who risk their lives every day for their fellow citizens.

With millions of Americans from coast to coast, we at State Policy Network are appalled and grieved by the merciless injustice perpetrated against George Floyd. What’s more, we recognize that this is but a single instance in an inexcusable string of police brutality in numerous American communities.

SPN and our network of state-based think tanks are committed to human freedom, dignity, and self-governance. Only by restoring community control and accountability can our nation protect our fellow citizens who are understandably gripped with fear whenever they see a law enforcement officer. To do this, we must end destructive federal policies that undermine community control, and empower local officials with common-sense reforms.

Commonsense state and local policing reforms

There are several commonsense reforms that state and local leaders should pursue to reduce police brutality while protecting the thousands of honest law enforcement officials who risk their lives every day for their fellow citizens.

1. Change police collective bargaining agreements
Analysts from across the political spectrum agree that police union contracts undermine the ability of elected officials to hold law enforcement officers accountable for unethical and even criminal behavior. An extensive study of 178 police union contracts found that frequently they contain provisions banning civilian oversight, obstructing brutality complaints, inhibiting investigations in police misconduct, and restricting the ability of officials to track and identify officers with a pattern of civilian abuse.

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2. Mandate transparency in police union contract negotiations
One reason police unions are able to insert egregious obstacles to justice in their contracts is that most of these are negotiated in secret. What’s more, efforts to change this practice are often opposed not only by union bosses, but by state legislators who are supposed to serve the interests of citizens. After several cities in California enacted transparency laws, for example, the California state legislature passed a law in 2015 that effectively ended this practice, giving police unions the cover they need to continue obstructing accountability.

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3. Make law enforcement agencies accountable to elected officials
As New York’s experience illustrates, police unions work relentlessly to push all matters of investigation and discipline into their collective bargaining agreements, effectively insulating themselves from accountability to elected officials. Just as legislators must make the collective bargaining process transparent and eliminate obstacles to law enforcement accountability, they must ensure that matters of police misconduct and brutality are handled through a just process overseen by democratically elected representatives, not through secretive agreements.

4. Stop asking police officers to be mental health case workers
The Treatment Advocacy Center estimates 25-50 percent of the victims of fatal police shootings are severely mentally ill. What’s more, According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 10 percent of police killings last year occurred after law enforcement was called to deal with medical, mental health, or welfare assistance. Cities like Eugene, Oregon are experimenting with deploying mental health experts on calls like these, de-escalating situations and reducing risks both to the mentally ill and to law enforcement.

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5. Make state attorneys general accountable for investigating police departments with a pattern or practice of misconduct
While the massive federal crime bill passed in the wake of the Rodney King riots authorized the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate local police departments and reach agreements with them about internal reforms, state AGs are much better situated to act. They are more likely to discern corruption before word of it gets to Washington, DC, in most cases they are electorally accountable to the people, and they have greater subpoena powers than their federal counterparts. What’s more, they’re in a better position to expose and pressure for much-needed union contract reforms that frequently obstruct DOJ consent decrees.

Federal policies that undermine local police accountability

1. The 1033 program
Originally created as part of federal drug enforcement efforts, this program has transferred US military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies for thirty years. While much of this comprises ammunition, medical equipment, and other supplies, it also includes grenade launchers, armed assault vehicles, and other weapons traditionally reserved for military conflict. Studies show this weaponization of local law enforcement leads to greater civilian deaths.

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2. Civil asset forfeiture laws
For years, many state law enforcement agencies have profited from cash and property seized under suspicion of criminal activity—even when no crime is subsequently proven. While some states have thankfully reined in this practice, the federal government still employs it, and has a special “revenue-sharing” program whereby it distributes 80 percent of the seized profits to any state or local agencies who collaborate in property seizure. This practice has a disproportionate impact on minorities and the non-violent, it focuses local police on illegal narcotics and immigration raids rather than the more traditional practices of community policing, and it gives them a massive revenue stream that renders them less dependent on—and therefore accountable to—local elected officials.

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3. Qualified immunity
The US Supreme Court has dramatically undermined local governance of police conduct through its “qualified immunity” interpretation, which makes it nearly impossible for citizens victimized by police brutality to receive compensation for their injuries and suffering in civil court. Innocent Americans who have been killed, maimed, or had their homes destroyed by the admittedly erroneous or malicious behavior of law enforcement have been blocked by this unjustified and irrational intrusion of federal courts into what should be a matter of local, democratic governance.

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