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The Way Forward on Policing Policy Reform

By Lisa Ryckman  |  January 12, 2022

Changes to policing can be controversial, but a philanthropy dedicated to tackling some of the nation’s most pressing problems has created a road map for states to follow.

Walter Katz, vice president of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, told a session at the NCSL Legislative Summit in November that his organization supports four goals for state policing policy reform:

  • Less use of force.
  • Decreased racial disparity.
  • Increased transparency.
  • Strengthened accountability systems.

Specific activities can help achieve those goals, Katz said, starting with a building an evidence base for accountable policing.

A recent study from the Public Policy Institute of California found that while Black motorists are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be stopped by police, they are less likely to have contraband, he said, adding, “These disparities remain for who is stopped, who is arrested and when force is used.”

Katz’s organization recommends advancing policy regulating key aspects of policing; developing and advancing model legislation on use of force; decertifying officers; and improving data collection and transparency, including seeking input from a range of stakeholders. Taken together, these efforts can provide effective solutions and much-needed standardization of policies.

Sustainable Reforms

Katz said the aim is to connect lawmakers and advocates with information about the path to sustainable police reforms.

NCSL research shows that some 19 states have enacted legislation in the last year to limit the use of force and the use of neck restraints; 15 enacted state-level use of force standards. At least 15 states created a statutory duty to intervene, and at least 14 created a duty to report or document instances. At least seven states have crafted new legal duties requiring officers to provide medical assistance to people injured as a result of use of force. At least 11 states now require an investigation into use of force or serious misconduct.

There are no national education or certification standards for police, Katz said. Instead, each state certifies—and can decertify—its officers.

“In many states, the statutory grounds for suspending certification—or decertifying—are exceptionally narrow. For example, the officer has to be convicted of a felony,” he said, noting that this makes it difficult for certifying boards to decertify an officer, if the board even learns of a transgression.

Another issue states are trying to address is that of officers who resign from one agency, or are terminated for misconduct, then simply pick up and move to a neighboring jurisdiction, where the misconduct too often continues, Katz said.

A 2019 University of Chicago Law School study found that when an officer fired for misconduct from one department, he or she often shows up elsewhere at a smaller department with weaker accountability systems. “He’s more likely to engage in more serious misconduct than his peers without such a prior discipline history,” Katz said.

Better Information Sharing

There’s a lack of sharing between states about decertified officers, he said. The current national decertification index is voluntary, and states with high privacy hurdles, such as California, don’t contribute to it.

In the 2021 legislative session, lawmakers in 36 states introduced 105 bills that touched on certification or decertification requirements. At least 12 states enacted bills that added transparency to certification/decertification.

Model state legislation for certification and decertification requires background checks before hiring new officers and holds officers accountable for misconduct. Agencies are required to share information about misconduct and discipline with state police certification boards. Boards can choose among a variety of disciplinary options, including additional training, suspension or decertification, for a broader range of misconduct, including sexual harassment, racial profiling or failure to intervene when another officer uses excessive force. Actions are made public.

Katz said legislators should work with law enforcement, police unions and community members to find the best solutions. “Decertification is one area where you can make a real difference,” he said. “Having a system where the state certifies that someone is qualified to serve as a police officer but does not have a robust ability to say that he or she is no longer qualified simply makes no sense. Lawyers, doctors—even hairdressers—can lose their license for misconduct. So should the profession that has the power to take away life and liberty.”

Lisa Ryckman is NCSL’s associate director of communications.

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