Police-Community Safety and Trust

By Rich Williams  | Vol . 25, No. 29 / August  2017

NCSL News

Did you know?

  • In 2017 alone, 46 states have enacted over 270 laws affecting policing.
  • At least six states have enacted laws to train the public on their rights and expectations during police interactions.
  • Police are increasingly partnering with health care professionals to more safely respond to mental health and substance use disorders. 

Underlying tensions felt in many police departments and communities can make it challenging for legislators to navigate compromises on law enforcement policy. Opposing perspectives can become further entrenched when police-community interactions turn violent. In 2016, 66 officers were murdered and 963 people were shot and killed by police. State legislators working to build police-community relations are passing measures intended to mitigate the concerns stemming from these tragic situations.

State Action

Many laws have been put in place to protect both police and the public. State actions to protect police include increased criminal penalties for crimes committed against them and “Blue Alert” systems to expedite the capture of those who injure or murder officers. Laws to address the public’s concerns include requirements for collecting data from certain police encounters and standardizing procedures for investigating whether police use of force is legal and appropriate.

At least 43 states have laws that enhance assault or battery charges when the crime is committed against an officer. North Dakota’s aggravated assault law, for example, applies to anyone who knowingly assaults peace officers acting in their official capacity, raising the penalty from a class C felony to a class B felony. Recently, two states, Kentucky and Louisiana, have increased penalties for crimes against law enforcement by designating police as a protected class under hate-crime statutes. 

Laws in at least 29 states have addressed Blue Alert systems. The laws identify an entity responsible for administering Blue Alerts, set standards on when to issue and end alerts, and require data reporting. For example, Georgia’s law requires the Bureau of Investigation to develop and implement its Blue Alert system. The law authorizes its use when a person suspected of a crime involving the death or serious injury of an officer has not been apprehended and is considered a public threat. It may also be issued when an officer is missing. Indiana’s law requires every Blue Alert issued to be reported to the National Crime Information Center database. Similar to AMBER Alerts, notifications are sent out to cellphones, broadcast media and road signs.

At least 12 states now require data collection for certain police incidents, such as officer-involved deaths, shootings, Taser use or the discharge of a firearm. Laws specify which actions must be reported, who is responsible for reporting, what must be reported and methods for compiling data statewide. A Minnesota law, for example, requires sheriffs and police chiefs to report to the public safety commissioner every incident in which an officer fires a weapon. The report must address the reason for, and circumstances surrounding, discharging the firearm. The incident data must then be reported annually to the Legislature. 

Legislatures also have set standards for investigations into police use of force. The laws address which incidents are subject to review, which entities are responsible for review and what information must be released to the public. At least six states—Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Utah and Wisconsin—have codified standards. The Hawaii Legislature created the Law Enforcement Officer Independent Review Board to review investigations of officer-involved deaths. The board is responsible for judging the fairness of investigations and assessing whether criminal prosecution or further investigation is warranted. Findings can be released to the public once all related court proceedings are complete. 

Federal Action

Federal engagement with policies to protect officers and the public continues to be active in many forms. In June 2017, the attorney general established the National Public Safety Partnership (PSP) pursuant to an executive order. The PSP’s goal, under leadership from the Department of Justice, is to combat violent crime and restore public safety by supporting law enforcement efforts nationwide. In addition, Congress passed the Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu National Blue Alert Act of 2015, to encourage, enhance and integrate Blue Alerts. The federal office for Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) was selected to implement the act in September 2016. Another effort, the Police Data Initiative, launched by the White House in 2015, brings together stakeholders seeking to increase transparency and accountability through the public use and accessibility of police data.