Staff Columnist

Policy solutions to police misconduct aren't easy, but they are clear

Protestors gather at the Old Capitol during a protest against racial injustice in Iowa City on Thursday, June 4, 2020.
Protestors gather at the Old Capitol during a protest against racial injustice in Iowa City on Thursday, June 4, 2020.

Iowans are turning their anger over police violence into practical policy solutions.

None of the ideas brought forth in recent weeks are new, and many have shown proven success in certain jurisdictions. Racial justice leaders and civil libertarians have been working toward this moment for decades. They’re ready for it, equipped with vast bodies of research and analysis about what policies might lead us to a more peaceful and more equitable law enforcement system.

Democrats in the Iowa Legislature last week outlined their police reform agenda, including proposals to ban police chokeholds, prohibit rehiring officers fired for misconduct, and empowering the state attorney general and county attorneys to investigate police misconduct.

What did Iowans think all this riot gear was for?

Electing more Democrats won’t stop police brutality or racial disparities

Democratic lawmakers also are doubling down on previously introduced bills to address racial disparities in policing, such as specifically banning racial profiling and calling for minority impact statements.

They are good ideas, worthy of thorough and prompt consideration by the Iowa Legislature. But even the whole package of reforms would only be a start. Other opportunities to promote peace and justice abound, for every level of government. Here are a few of them.

In the U.S. House, a bipartisan pair of lawmakers last week introduced a bill to eliminate qualified immunity for police officers. Rep. Justin Amash, L-Michigan, and Ayanna Pressley, D-Massachusetts, were joined by more than a dozen other House Democrats as original co-sponsors, and both right-wing and left-wing advocacy groups are supporting it.

Qualified immunity is a federal legal structure that gives legal protection to government agents who commit offenses during the course of their government work. Often, it effectively acts as a “get out of jail free” card for bad cops. Ending that practice would protect the public, and also protect good cops.

“It prevents accountability for the ‘bad apples’ and undermines the public’s faith in law enforcement,” Amash said in a news release.

Another good idea is to curtail the excessive powers wielded by police labor unions. Unions representing law enforcement officers consistently shield their members from scrutiny and flex their political might to disrupt reform efforts. Pressure and legal action exerted by unions are often responsible for violent cops keeping their jobs, or being rehired after their firing.

Rob Gillezeau, an economic historian at University of Victoria in Canada, recently detailed preliminary research findings about police unions. He and colleagues found police unions have no meaningful impact on crime rates, but are associated with a substantial increase in police killings of civilians.

At the very least, state and local governments should bar police unions from getting overly preferential contract terms. Or, they could be outright abolished.

Perhaps the most important law enforcement reform would be to reform the law itself with an aggressive decriminalization campaign, with victimless crimes such as drug offenses tossed out first. We can prevent some violence by simply having far fewer enforcement interactions between police and the public.

After the New York City police’s killing of Eric Garner in 2014, Stephen L. Carter, a black Yale University law professor, made one of the most compelling cases for radical decriminalization in a Bloomberg column: “On the opening day of law school, I always counsel my first-year students never to support a law they are not willing to kill to enforce.”

Garner was accosted by police for allegedly selling individual cigarettes in violation of New York law. Such a petty offense should never lead to the loss of life, but that’s what happens when you make laws. All the best social justice training in the world won’t matter if we are sending police out to enforce unenforceable laws.

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Criminal justice reform seems to fall in and out of fashion every few years, but this time seems different. It has to be different because we can’t sustain the status quo.

The solutions to systemic violence aren’t easy, but they are clear. The answers are right in front of us if we have the political will to take them up.

adam.sullivan@thegazette.com; (319) 339-3156

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