Recently in these pages I wrote that now, with public attention so focused on the senseless murder of George Floyd while in police custody, it was urgently important to seize the moment and implement measures to deal with the problem of racial injustice. Reforming law enforcement practices should be the first order of business. Protesters expect to see some results, not just the usual promises of change. Changes to improve economic and educational opportunities for African Americans may not show immediate, perceptible results, especially in an economy crippled by a pandemic, but reforming policing practices such as abandoning the use of chokeholds and improved training and recruitment should.
Policing reforms won’t be easy because law enforcement is largely a local, not federal, responsibility and it isn’t just simply a matter of the federal government issuing rules, although federal grants could be made contingent upon compliance. There is, in addition, a plethora of law enforcement agencies, including city, county and state police and sheriff’s departments as well as numerous other agencies such as campus police, all with different jurisdictional limits, reporting responsibilities and funding sources. Still, the federal government can exert influence through grants and other forms of persuasion. Federal guidelines are needed and needed now. Otherwise, this could be a long summer of discontent.
Alas, nothing happens quickly in Washington these days, unless you count street demonstrations and riots. The GOP-controlled Senate drafted a bill authored by Sen. Tim Scott (R, S.C.), the Senate’s only black Republican member, who has himself been racially profiled multiple times while driving and even while trying to enter the Senate chambers. Mr. Scott’s bill emphasized data collection and training police officers in de-escalating confrontations and dealing with those suffering from mental disorders. These areas, along with improved recruitment strategies stressing judgment and decision-making while screening out those with evidence of identity bias or anger management issues, are exactly where the emphasis should be. Democrat leaders, however, have indicated that Mr. Scott’s bill is far too little and they blocked the bill, preventing debate.
Democrats are not interested in collecting more data; at least not data of the sort that they well know fails to show a consistent pattern of racial bias in the use of deadly force by police as many researchers and pundits, including the Wall Street Journal’s Jason L. Riley, have documented. As Mr. Riley wrote recently, a few viral videos just doesn’t prove otherwise. Let me be clear, however, that in my view even one event like Mr. Floyd’s brutal, heartless murder, is sufficient enough to justify outrage and even a few of them enough to justify reform. But that reform should be informed by hard, objective facts, even if they don’t support a particular narrative. It should never be based on emotion, least of all rage and revenge.
Data that Democrats do want more of are data on the race and ethnicity of both suspects and police involved in traffic stops and similar encounters. But enforcement of the law should be colorblind. The issue is about whether or not a law was broken and by whom, not the race or ethnicity of those involved. No one is above the law and no one who breaks the law should get a pass because of race or ethnicity. Justice must be blind and evenly applied or it is not just at all.
Finally, Democrat leaders are insisting on changes to the doctrine of qualified immunity which provides some protection to police from lawsuits seeking damages against them personally as long as they did not violate clearly established law. The doctrine is somewhat similar to the Feres Doctrine which protects military officers from lawsuits arising in connection with the execution of their lawful orders. Elimination of such protection would have a chilling effect on recruitment. Why would a young man or woman, having less dangerous career options available, seek a career in law enforcement without protection from the frivolous lawsuits that would likely arise in the absence of such protection?
Mr. Scott, in an emotional speech on the Senate floor, said he thought that Democrats would appear to prefer to “run (for election) on police reform rather than accomplish it.” His bill may not be perfect, but it is a starting point. It needs to be debated. So does the House bill which passed on party lines A joint House/Senate committee should work out a compromise bill that the president will sign if it’s not veto-proof. That’s what Congress used to be able to do. They should remain in session until they produce something. That’s their job. Just do it.
Dr. Kelly is a freelance writer living in Coronado. A retired Navy Captain, he commanded three San Diego- based ships and a research and development center and taught ship handling, seamanship and navigation at Naval Base San Diego. He earned his doctorate in education at USD, taught graduate students and was a senior vice-president and director of training and development at Great American Bank. He has written over 1500 newspaper and journal articles and has been a regular contributor to the Eagle&Journal since 2001.