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Police Reform Around The U.S. Spreads 'Around The Edges'

Deborah Vigil's job as a responder for Albuquerque Community Safety may be easier when it’s evident she isn’t a cop. Instead, One day, Vigil wore a T-shirt that read “Dog Mom,” which fit naturally with the Snoopy hand sanitizer clipped to her bag and the paw-print lanyard around her neck.

Vigil and partner Chris Blystone, are dog people. “With the homeless population, sometimes the animals are all they have,” Blystone said. The partners can talk about their pets to build quick rapport with clients, who are often in crisis.

Albuquerque Community Safety is a new department that Mayor Tim Keller refers to as a third branch of the city’s public safety response system. Its responders don’t arrest people. Instead, they offer access to such resources as mental health care, housing or a ride across town. “The difference is, we’re not going to show up and take any of their rights away,” Blystone said.

Keller has taken “bold action” to work toward lasting reform, says the city’s website. In addition to the community safety department, Keller launched a crime initiative and created a new position: superintendent of police reform, reports Cronkite News Service's News 21.

Some of the reform efforts in Albuquerque have taken years to come to fruition, with the 2020 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police serving as a catalyst to get things done – and get them done faster.

Across the country, community organizers, nonprofit groups and elected officials have demanded police reform time and again, with spotty success. “We’ve been here before,” said Howard Henderson, professor of justice administration at Texas Southern University and the founding director of the Center for Justice Research.

“We’re going through a paradigm shift,” Henderson said, “and you now have more people than ever before who are aware of the need for change. And so the difference now, unlike before, is that you now have a prevailing societal consensus that’s asking for change.”

In a Gallup online survey in May of more than 12,000 American adults, nearly 40 percent of respondents supported minor improvements to policing, and half favored major police reform – responses that have remained fairly consistent since nationwide protests against police abuses in 2020.

Despite such apparent public support, lasting, comprehensive police reform on a national scale hasn’t happened. The proposed federal George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021 never made it through the Senate. President Biden’s eventual executive order addressing police reform lacked the sort of comprehensive overhaul Congress could have authorized.

At the state level, when police reforms do make it through legislatures, they’re often piecemeal, chipping away at a single policy or pattern of misconduct. And without state guidance, some individual police departments and cities across the country, such as Albuquerque, are taking their own steps toward police reform.

It’s what University of Minnesota law Prof. David Schultz calls “reform around the edges.”

“We’re missing the larger institutional issues about police departments, or missing the larger societal issues out there,” Schultz said. “A lot of the reform has missed this, and it really seems to be more microfocused right now.”

Campaign Zero, a high-profile national police reform campaign, lists 10 topic areas for policy solutions on its website. They include community oversight, limiting the use of force, independently investigating and prosecuting, community oversight and training.

The nonprofit’s efforts reflect many of the same focus areas coming from academics, activists and policymakers. News21’s “In Pursuit” project examined some of the most common calls for reform, including:

Transparency. Activists have demanded law enforcement open up their use-of-force reports, body-worn camera footage and misconduct data to improve accountability and build trust. The efforts have met with resistance. Some states, cities and police departments have made efforts to open such records – with varying outcomes.

Response to mental health calls. Most strategies to deal with the law enforcement response to mental-health calls focus on shifting funds to social services, creating diversion programs or better training police officers. Experts say the solution relies on a combination of efforts: reduce or eliminate law enforcement’s role in behavioral health crisis response, train and equip law enforcement officers when they do need to respond, and improve treatment for psychiatric care.

Traffic stops. Government officials, community leaders and others across the U.S. are working to stop disparities in traffic stops, which are among the most common interactions the public have with police. Seven cities and Virginia have banned low-level traffic stops, such as for expired registration tags, broken taillights and other minor equipment violations, which reform advocates say too often are pretexts to search for drugs and weapons. Some cities are considering training unarmed civilians to conduct traffic stops while others are utilizing technology to address traffic violations.

Community review boards. The use of civilian oversight bodies has exploded nationwide. A Chicago study showed 25 major U.S. cities launched a civilian oversight agency in 2020 and 2021 – more than all five of the preceding years combined. The boards’ roles, power to discipline and impact on the community vary widely.

De-escalation. Standards for de-escalation – and even the definition of the term – are vague across police departments., making reform efforts tentative. Supporters say de-escalation points toward an imperfect, but necessary way to reform.

Intervention. Departments are training officers to speak out when colleagues do something wrong or potentially illegal. Police and experts said they not only need training, but leadership and a change in culture to topple the blue wall of silence.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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