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Across the Aisle | Academy Sparks Bipartisanship on Police Accountability

NCSL helps lawmakers find common ground with colleagues representing districts very different from their own.

By Kelley Griffin  |  December 7, 2023

First-term Nevada Assemblywoman Shondra Summers-Armstrong had big plans to address policing issues in her state in 2021. After all, before winning office, she had been a Democratic activist working with the Black and Latino communities in Reno on criminal justice reform. 

She did not expect to find great ideas and support from a white Republican man who had spent 37 years with the state patrol. But that’s what happened when she sat down next to Arkansas Rep. Dwight Tosh. 

Summers-Armstrong joined Tosh for dinner during the October 2022 opening of the NCSL Legislator Police Academy, a yearlong peer-training opportunity for lawmakers from 11 states who were interested in policy on police accountability. A second in-person meeting was held in September this year.

Summers-Armstrong admits she was a little dismissive when Tosh began telling her about the work they’d done in his state to improve policing and ensure that cops who get fired don’t wind up on other police forces in the state.

“I had made the little smart remark, ‘Well, Arkansas,’ and he looked at me very seriously, and he said, ‘We do good stuff in Arkansas, and y’all might want to take a lesson,’” Summers-Armstrong says. “And after the little reprimand, which I deserved for being sassy, he began to really give us some insights on how they had done this and why it was important to them. And here we are in Nevada, we think we’re so forward-thinking, and we did not have this in place.”

They became friends, and Summers-Armstrong quickly realized the reforms in Arkansas would be good for Nevada. It opened the door to working not just across the aisle, but across the country.

Laying Groundwork

In recent years, Tosh and the Arkansas Legislature have been quietly working on improving state policing policy. So, when George Floyd’s murder sparked a national discussion about policing, his state had already set policies in motion that other states were just beginning to consider—or maybe hadn’t thought of at all. One bill he created led to a decertification process and central registry to track people who were fired from law enforcement. On another front, he sponsored a bill to offer an alternative when police encounter people needing mental health support. 

“I spent all those years in law enforcement, I mean, what do you do? You can’t just leave (people in crisis) out there,” he says. “So, jail was the only place to take them.”

Now, Arkansas has crisis stabilization units where people who need mental help can be treated by a mental health expert.

Tosh also succeeded with a bill this past session that gives officers support for their own mental health, offering them 12 annual sessions with a mental health professional. Tosh had seen the need for it firsthand during his leadership roles at the state patrol, particularly with the SWAT team.

“I’ve dealt with all those issues,” he says. “You go home, you don’t discuss it with your spouse. You just keep it bottled up on the inside.”

Ideas Into Action

Nevada Sen. Dallas Harris was also at the Legislator Police Academy with her colleague Summers-Armstrong. In March this year, they jointly sponsored a version of the Arkansas decertification program to alert jurisdictions when a potential hire had problems in a prior job. The new law also connects the state to a national registry to learn about job candidates and share the names of Nevada officers with serious violations.

“It was really nice to be able to see different perspectives, with everyone really kind of having a base level agreement on a desire to improve how things are done for our citizens,” Harris says.

And even as Summers-Armstrong worked to gain the support of her Democratic colleagues, she was happy to give credit to the Arkansas Republican who had the idea first. 

“The whole purpose of NCSL and these gatherings is so that we exchange ideas. So, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that this concept did not come from the other side of the aisle,” Summers-Armstrong says. “And if we are not honest about these things, we never open up a pathway for there to be collaboration.”

Statehouse Priority

Amber Widgery, a program principal in NCSL’s Criminal and Civil Justice Program who led the planning for the Legislator Police Academy, says the George Floyd murder made policing policy a big priority in statehouses.

“State legislatures took a much more active role in terms of how involved they were in policing policy, and the demand on NCSL for resources and educational opportunities really just sort of skyrocketed,” she says. 

NCSL brought together lawmakers who were working on this front to talk policy and meet with police departments to learn more about their practices. 

Taking part in the NCSL academy offered an invaluable opportunity to learn from other states, Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield says.

“I think it was good to spend some time talking and hearing from others about what’s working in the states and what’s not,” he says. “I want to steal all the great ideas I can.” 

Washington Sen. John Lovick, a Democrat, brought a long career as a state trooper and Coast Guardsman to the NCSL academy. He says learning about policing issues and what other states are doing gave him new perspective on bipartisanship in his own state. 

He’s come to appreciate how much he can learn by working with someone whose district is nothing like his. Because of the academy, he says he decided to accept an invitation from a Republican to tour railroad tracks and grain fields—a trip that showed him common concerns on an array of issues beyond policing. 

“There’s not a railroad track in my district anywhere. There’s no reason for me to go over to a wheat farm to ride on a train,” Lovick says. “I would not have done that had it not been for the way we were working in this group.” 

Harris says that in the heated national conversation, people get painted in two extreme ways: either being anti-police, or blindly backing the blue—even those who do harm.

“So, the national narrative worries me,” she says. “But the individual conversations or the smaller group conversations that we had definitely give me hope that there is a way forward.”

Senior editor Kelley Griffin hosts NCSL’s Across the Aisle podcast.

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