The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25 sparked nationwide protests, riots, calls for reforms, calls for defunding the police, and an array of legislation or proposed legislation. There was bipartisan interest in policing issues, whether it was called reform or improvement. Sadly, the bipartisanship was very short-lived and for the most part, only two camps remained: the “defund the police” crowd and the “back the blue” crowd.
The rioting in several major American cities drew attention, all of it bad. Even people who empathized with the protestors were appalled by the destruction and rapid rise in violent crime. The people most affected tended to be the most vulnerable among us; law-abiding citizens in already high crime areas. A complicit media and leftist politicians willing to overlook the rioting, violence, and destruction of property lost credibility among moderates and conservatives (who view law enforcement as a core function of government) and worries about public safety, especially in light of the immediacy with which they condemned the rioting at our Capitol. The pendulum swung wildly back and forth between pro-police and anti-police positions.
The result was a mixed bag of policy positions. As with any omnibus legislation, there is often some good and alongside some bad. Unlike a lot of groups weighing in on policing issues today, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is not new to this policy area. Having devoted years to conservative policing improvements that prioritize safety, our positions are well considered and not the kneejerk reactions to current events.
Defund the Police or “Reimagining” Policing
Bottom line up front, these are horrible ideas. The “defund” mantra was originally intended to punish the police, or maybe to abolish them completely. It got off the ground because of the volume of those espousing this incredibly dangerous idea, forcing everyone to respond to this instead of developing real ideas to improve policing. Reimagining policing is an offshoot of this wrongheaded proposition as well. Developing more community services for emotionally disturbed individuals, addicted offenders, and those suffering from mental illness are great ideas, but not at the expense of enforcement capacity.
When resources are cut, one of the first places they are cut from is training. Training police officers is the best mechanism for improvement, and there are plenty of improvements that can be made in what and how we train our officers to do.
Use of Force and Banning Chokeholds
Policy positions that arise from emotion are rarely well thought out. The ban on chokeholds is one such policy position. It is a feel-good response that is not based on common sense. First, George Floyd was not subjected to a chokehold, at least not one that any police department would train to use. Second, no police department teaches “chokeholds,” which by definition cut off the airway. Rather, they use a vascular neck restraint which restricts blood flow to the brain and can render a suspect unconscious. These techniques are almost never fatal, they are practiced thousands of times per day in jiu-jitsu and judo schools across the world. Eliminating them takes away a valuable less-lethal tool from officers who might otherwise need to escalate to a deadly force option. If the goal is to prevent police involved deaths, this is the wrong way to do it. Taking away less lethal options or protections for officers is the surest way to escalate their response to a threat.
A lot of debate surrounding police unions has occurred, and some proposed legislation limiting the ability of municipalities to enter into collective bargaining on certain issues has merit. The problem is that most of the proposals also include provisions that strip police officers of protections necessary to carry out their duties in good faith. If the goal is to limit the ability of police unions to interfere with the proper discipline of police officers, then it would make sense to protect officers through due process protections codified in statute, rendering their need for a union less pressing. Removing those protections will drive officers into the arms of the unions, who have been the only consistent supporters they have had during all of last year’s turmoil and anti-police propaganda. Unlimited litigation against individual officers, mandated investigation of anonymous complaints against officers, and other leftist wish list legislation make it impossible to support even the sensible parts of this sort of policy proposal.
There are areas where policing can be improved, just as any area of government operation can be improved. Conservatives are right to scrutinize law enforcement operations, just as they are right to support the law enforcement institution as a core function of government. This is not contradictory in nature. In doing so, they must be careful about lumping together good policy with bad, and consider the consequences of policy proscriptions no matter who they make feel good or who is screaming loudest from the rooftops.