On Reforming the Police

I’ve been investigating and trying to understand police reforms over the past few weeks but there’s so many posts that it’s overwhelming. Especially as the rallying cry for it as come up more and more. I was hoping to accomplish a few things in this post:

1) Try to create a comprehensive list that talks about the various procedural reforms. 2) Try to focus and articulate my thoughts about all of them. 3) Allow for anyone to discuss or elaborate or counter any thing I’ve brought up here. (Leave comments on Facebook or message me individually).

Also acknowledging here that I’m a upper middle class software engineer who lives in San Francisco near a predominately white neighborhood, I am not the target of the police misconduct. I was stopped more by the cops in Japan than I’ve been stopped in the US even though I’ve lived here most of my life. Feel free to call out if I’m being presumptive or anything else in this post and I’ll see about correcting my language, my goal is to always indicate my thoughts on what might transpire and what might be possible but I am not an expert.


I’m going to start this post with some assumptions here. If you don’t agree with these assumptions here let’s talk privately! I’m happy to discuss but I want to set expectations here:

  • The police have become increasingly militarized and expanded the scope of their policing as other social reform programs have decreased. This includes things like handling people suffering from mental health issues, the increasing homeless in cities, drug overdoses and I’m sure there are others.
  • The police have a history of violence against people of color and marginalized communities. And that justice is impossible to achieve when there no trust between cops and all citizens. The process to expand trust will be a long.
  • Some countries can have cops without guns but I don’t think this will work in the United States. The amount of countries where cops don’t carry guns is very small. We can replace certain duties of the cops but they will always exist and most likely they will always be armed. The sheer number of guns and easy access to guns in the US will keep them armed (unless serious real gun reform happens).
  • There are other lasting changes that can happen (example gun control) that would change the dynamics but I’m presuming none of these will changes will happen in any reasonable time frame.

I think these all reasonable assumptions to make but I want to come into this with those expectations. If you don’t agree, happy to discuss privately and learn something new.

Background: Why is it hard to prosecute cops?

I wanted to cover this a bit more before we begin about reforms since this ties into a lot about why I’m iffy about certain reforms and down for others. There’s quite a few reasons prosecuting cops is hard, I’ll talk about some of them later like Immunity, Police Unions and etc but these two things make it hard to successfully punish cops even if you bring charges against them.

The precedent in the judicial system right now is Graham v Conor. Effectively it sets that if the cop has a reasonable suspicion from their perspective that they might be in danger it’s okay to shoot someone. You can see how in the shooting of Philando Castile how this was used. Castile just calmly said “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.”. The cop freaked, Castile reached for a thing. Things kind of went downhill from there. That’s all it took for the cop to think that was reasonable.

This is the quote from a juror on that case who spoke anonymously: “It just came down to us not being able to see what was going on in the car. Some of us were saying that there was some recklessness there, but that didn’t stick because we didn’t know what escalated the situation: was he really seeing a gun? We felt [Yanez] was an honest guy … and in the end, we had to go on his word, and that’s what it came down to.”Source.

And remember that white people trust cops significantly more than people of color since they are less harassed by the cops. See Figure 2. Maybe these latest protests have exposed something and we’ll see a real change. But I doubt it and I’d rather not rely on it.

As a juror, your goal is not to determine if something is right or wrong. It’s to determine if they were right or wrong based on precedent and current law. Unfortunately with Graham v Conor it’s based on trust and reasonableness which is biased to trust in cops.

Reforms: What Could Work Well

A lot of these reforms and discussion come from 8CantWait and the NAACP toolkit. I will try to cite my resources.

Stop giving military equipment to cops

Duh. No cop needs an APC (armored personnel carrier). Repeal or remove the 1033 Program. I’m not even gonna qualify this.

Don’t shoot at moving vehicles

I think this one is obvious too. Bullets might hit somebody else and it does very little to help to stop a criminal fleeing. What are you gonna do, pop a tire like in the movies? Cops shoot multiple times and each bullet could do damage to someone entirely innocent.

Stop pretextual stops / Stop & Frisk

A pretextual stop is when a cop pulls over somebody for a minor crime because they think they’re involved in a bigger crime (knew it existed, didn’t realize it had a name).

It’s been shown that both Stop & Frisk and pretextual stops target minorities at higher rates even though there’s no evidence to indicate that it’s justifiable.

We’ve also seen they don’t work, after NYPD stopped some of these practices crime continued going down.

While I can’t say for certain I imagine removing this will improve quality of life for Black and Hispanic Americans in the US. Just encountering the police less overall for what are minor violations would hopefully alleviate some concerns.

Use every method before shooting / announce before you shoot

86% of shootings in SF did not attempt to use less than lethal force before shooting. We have that policy in force already. There is rarely discipline on this but perhaps it does reduce things. I think it’s a sane policy but I don’t think cops will ever face punishments for not doing it as they would classify themselves as being “under threat”. But it is on one of those policies that I think needs to be enacted and trained into cops. So it’s going under “might work”.

Data Transparency

The biggest thing I’ve found researching all of this is that cops don’t really do data. The guidelines for reporting, what to report, and etc are not super clear.

The only database for police shootings is the WashingtonPost tracking news articles throughout the country. This is at best incomplete as it’s relying on second hand information from both cops and other places.

We need to be able to track all uses of force (excessive and otherwise) and standardize the data collection of this information. Some police departments have worked with the Center for Policing Equity to do this and create their own database but at some point the DOJ would need to step in. Standardized collection will be hard though, this is the United States and we suck at national standards.

There’s also a benefit to localized innovation. An easy example would be say: let’s say we want to expand the definition of gender from Male and Female to start respecting a citizen’s identity. This might be easier to do in California than Alabama. While many advocate for national standards I would probably be more realistic to adopt state wide standards on reporting across agencies along with a standard for national agencies.

The downside of state by state approach is that cops who transfer between states can’t get information out. So creating some type of interoperability between them would be necessary.

As of 06/08/2020 Congress is debating about creating a national registry. Happy to be wrong here, the benefits of a national registry outweigh state innovations.

There is one part of this that I quite don’t seem to have gotten though is that I think during these protests getting only the cops reports of the equation seems incomplete. I haven’t been arrested but I’ve never heard too much about citizens submitting information in a standard way. Yes, I imagine cops collect videos and testimonies but beyond that I don’t know much about this. Is the idea that later evidence will correct the initial data input?

Early Invention Systems

Early Invention systems are simple: They track the various data points such as citizen complaints against an officer & use of force. This system is already used by the majority of police stations. But unfortunately it’s seems easily excusable. Let’s say there’s a cop has a bunch of citizen complaints, it’s perfectly possible a superior officer might just dismiss the claims? It come come in handy though and I think it’s an easy follow up after standardization of collection. But if you trust supervisors and have the appropriate culture, this could prevent an officer having a hard time from taking it on some citizen. Or catch some behavior going downhill.

Rebuild police forces

There have been some examples about dismantling an entire police force and reforming it. In 2013 the Camden NJ department was disbanded and they replaced it with fewer officers and a community police mindset. Obviously a single case and a single city is not enough statistical sample but it does exist as a precedent and more importantly the trust in the community is up which I think will pay dividends in the future. Article about it

Not to say that Camden is perfect or anything but there have been examples of it.

Reforming Police Unions

There’s a few things that come out of this and how police unions unfairly protect cops. These things are usually covered under “Police Bill of Rights” laws.

1) Unfair access to information or time before investigations

Before an investigation, civilians are not allowed to take time off or review materials but cops are. They’re given a day to “cool off” or access information before they give testimony. Nevada requires to give them 48 hours. This unfair level presumes too much innocence and good faith for the cops. If anything they are more qualified to be interrogated directly and immediately after as they have more training in these tense situations.

2) Erasing records

Various states have different level of this but it seems that many of them strike any records that were not convictions. Which sounds great until you realize that cops have an advantage in courts. This also removes the public and even other cops from recognizing patterns. If you were exonerated on 3 domestic abuse charges, the fact that you had 3 domestic abuse charges is still worth investigating. I don’t want a false conviction to affect someone’s record but expunging it is a different thing.

3) Limiting consequences

Police Unions protect cops from their own shitty actions a lot. I guess that’s their purpose but it seems that cops should have an incentive to ensure that the worse offenders in their system are responsible but it seems that public outcry is really the only way to get someone fired. We’ve seen time and time again police unions defending cops during these 2020 protests. Here’s a response from a Minneapolis police union chief. This is ridiculous. I’ll talk more about how this affects domestic violence in police families in another blog post.

4) Disqualifying misconduct claims

Many places have statue of limitations on misconduct claims. Some of them are ridiculously short (like 30 days) but others are a year. Except for the ridiculously short ones I’m not super opposed to having them. Most crimes have some type of statute of limitations but it’s odd that cops have their own. Following state laws seems to be make sense with various degrees of misconduct being classified depending on their severity and matching existing laws.

5) Paid leave while suspended

This one will probably depends on the crime and level of misconduct and it’s probably too complex to be simple as “suspend all paid leave for suspension”. There could be something as simple as an all excessive force complaints or shootings under investigation are unpaid leave but I don’t know.

This site goes more into it including cover the specific policies of both states and individual departments. Some of them sound reasonable to me but seem but most of them seem double standards. An example that many states have is that interrogators can’t threaten a cop that they’ll be fired during interrogations but cops do this with civilians all the fucking time.

The goal of these changes is to show that cops can be held to some same standards that citizens are subjugated to and that should hopefully bring about some trust.

Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity establishes that government officials can’t be sued for the normal duties unless they explicitly broke some law or infringed on a right.

Harlow v. Fitzgerald in 1982 though changed things. It establishes that you need two things: a clear violation of rights or established law AND precedent. The first one is very sane, you can’t use random laws to sue the government. The 2nd one makes it VERY hard to sue someone or establish new precedent and I believe people are hoping to change the 2nd part. Precedent requires some case in the past that is very similar to yours in order to justify it. But since you need precedent to bring a case, you can rarely establish new precedent unless it’s super fucked up. One case that established a new precedent one was the police locked a guy to a pole without a shirt in the high heat outside without water and then taunted him by giving their police dog water in front of him. But now it seems that any new precedent requires cruelty of this magnitude…

In theory qualified immunity makes sense. It should save the cops time and give them the freedom to do their job without being sued. But it fails at that: cases get dismissed all the time but not before cops get depositions and documents are requested. And studies have shown cops don’t think about lawsuits.

Honestly, I don’t see a strong reason for keeping it. It doesn’t seem to do it job. You can read more about it here

The only downside is that repealing it could backfire. If we get rid of qualified immunity cities are now responsible for an increase in excessive force cases. This might be the economic motivation to affect change and stop excessive force or cities might try to get around this by just avoiding certain areas or other approaches. I think it will depend on lots of different factors but with a hyper localized police system both things will happen throughout the country. None of this is a reason against removing QI though. Just a thought on it’s consequences and that things will not be all good.

This will probably also increase the cost of city budgets even if additional claims don’t happen as I doubt insurance agencies will keep rates level.

The only thing I’m against though is that some people argue that everything should be paid of out cops pensions and this seems like it will totally backfire. I’ve never heard of taking employee retirement income to pay for lawsuits because of other employee actions and I don’t think it will qualify here. You could also take it out of union budgets but I don’t know how much money unions have and I haven’t been able to find a lot of this. Usually the government takes on the burden. I don’t think people usually make this a point in their voting choice though so we might just get ballooned cop budgets.

Ban Police Warrior Training

The fuck is this? This Motherjones article covers this and it’s ridiculous. “Grossman’s philosophy grew out of the two decades he says he spent training soldiers to kill more efficiently.” The fuck is wrong with people, why is he talking to cops? Cops don’t need this philosophy or any kind of training in this.

This seems to have answered one of my long standing questions I’ve always wondered how the US military went from 15-25% front line soldier in WWII shooting to kill to 100% though.

Ban the fuck out of this. Police training should be better. I didn’t research what replaces this but this style of training needs to be obsolete.

Reforms: What probably won’t make real change

I want to cover that these things are probably all good things to do, but I don’t think they will make substantial change.

Police Shootings Investigated by an Impartial Body

A conflict of interest is that local prosecutors must charge cops. These local prosecutors have to work with cops regularly which creates a conflict of interest. States, the federal government, or an independent civilian body should review over police shootings and excessive force issues and handle prosecution.

Having an independent body investigate might cause a conflict where the police are uncooperative though so whatever independent body needs teeth to get any and every record they need. I would hope this gives faith into the system to ensure that things are actually done against police brutality.

Convictions will be hard to obtain though even with this independent office. I’m iffy about this because of the reasons that makes cops hard to prosecute though.

Use of Force Continuum

This is one of those things I assumed was obvious and the research from 8CantWait seems to indicate that the majority of police department they reviewed (77/91) have already used it. The basic idea is that cops should escalate their amount of lethal force depending on their risk. It makes sense, right?!

But it doesn’t seem to work because I think for the same case of Philando Castile above. The cop perceived that he was in reasonable threat even though there was no reasonable threat whatsoever. So technically it was under the guidance of the Force Continuum right? The cop perceived the threat and saw it and thus was accurate in using lethal force. I understand that it’s easy to say this in hindsight but I called out Castile’s case because NOTHING indicated that this mean was violent in anyway.

Obviously it’s better to have it than not and while I think it’s nice to have it’s will not substantially change things.

Ban Chokeholds

Chokeholds cover two different things:

  • Airway constriction: This is when you just choke somebody to lose on their airway passage. This one has no fucking purpose and I’ve found very few people advocating for it except against incredibly dangerous criminals.
  • Blood check / neck constraint. I found this is what in wrestling would be called a sleeper hold. Effectively it’s supposed to be used for a small amount of time. It’s like a V-shaped hold that restricts the cartoid arteries.

Pictures and explanations

Banning chokeholds is probably appropriate. But just because a technique is banned doesn’t mean the cops won’t continue to use it and not face consequences. Eric Garner was killed in 2014 by a cop in NYC doing a chokehold even though the NYPD banned them in the 90s.

An open question that I haven’t been able to answer is what replaces this? If we assume cops need to subdue people and restrain them at some point (just to be clear I don’t think this should happen often). What’s the best way to do it? LAPD started using nightsticks after they were banned from using chokeholds in the 90s. Tasers have come into play here too which have their own danger. The amount of force necessary is unclear to me and honestly there’s lots of conflicting things about this. Can we just overwhelm someone with enough cops? The hope of most police reforms is to minimize the NEED for this but this policy doesn’t do that. It just bans one technique ineffectively. I’m curious about what to do in situations that call for force and I’m just waiting as we ban chokeholds what will replace them that will be just as bad.

Body Cams

Oh man, Body Cameras are a hot topic. Everybody thinks they’re great. But we’ve seen that they’re never on all the time and that cops don’t always remember to turn them on. Accountability is important and it gives both sides video evidence of the perspective of what is happening and gives people who weren’t there real evidence to judge properly. The evidence is sometimes damning as fuck but honestly it’s super expensive.

The costs of the cameras, people to process videos, and etc can cost up to a $1 million per year for a small department like Virginia Beach. That’s about 10% of their budget. This should probably be part of police reforms but I do not think it will substantially reduce violence but could make prosecuting cops easier.

There’s been quite a few protest signs that talk about the things we didn’t get on video. I’m sure there’s dozens of other cases for it that will make the police more accountable. They’ve certainly caught cops doing stupid shit.

In addition, it becomes a bit of a privacy nightmare. Various states have rules about how and when the public can access these recordings and how long they’re retained. That’s an entire quagmire that go into it’s own post about this.

Civilian Review Boards

Minneapolis had one and George Floyd’s murder still happened. For 5 years they had one. The cops ignored it. Some might advocate that you need one with teeth the ability to really take it to the cop. But remember that white people trust cops by far more than people of color. If we had a citizen review board that represented the citizenry of the US the majority would be trusting the cops.

So while this would work, I think it’s not a real reform and we might get back into the cycle that we’ve seen before.

Implicit Bias Training

Who the fuck knows if this works? Especially in high stake scenarios. I’m not going to go into it too much because honestly I don’t know if the trainings help that much. That’s purely an instinct that cops ignore them and they might not work in more rapid situations that cops might encounter, please feel free to prove me wrong. I didn’t do a lot of research on this but they’ve been used in various police programs over the past few years.

Conclusions on Reform

Here’s the fun fact about a lot of these reforms. SFPD follows all 8 of the things that 8cantwait talk about. I believe this was mostly after the 2015 shooting Keita O’Neil but I couldn’t find a clear history of when reforms were passed. I couldn’t find any polls asking about trust and support in SF of SFPD either (at the very least nothing broken down by race and other criteria).

The only other thing I found was a report from 2016 about SFPD. The main conclusions were they were pretty still fucking racist. There’s also Police score card which shows signs of discrimination and increased violence toward latinx and black communities.

So are reforms enough? My conclusion is no. I think police reforms are a great and obvious first step. But we need more changes. The big blocker though is the SCOTUS precedent involving cops. With that I don’t think prosecuting cops except in the most egregious cases will ever work. Most of these reforms are around just reducing cop violence but not really fundamentally changing it.

The next post will be talking about the #defundthepolice.