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How the Federal Government Can Reshape Law Enforcement

President Obama has the opportunity to reduce overpolicing, while keeping communities safe by reforming federal funding incentives.

  • Nicole Zayas Fortier
December 8, 2014

Cross-posted from Newsday.

President Barack Obama’s program to boost trust in police departments and increase accountability in policing by getting buy-in from law enforcement and the public is both smart and necessary. But he can, and should, do more.

To avoid tragic deaths such as Michael Brown’s in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s in New York, we need to go beyond demanding accountability from police. We need to get to the root of the problem: law enforcement’s emphasis on stops, arrests and the use of force to reduce crime. Instead, we need reforms that reduce unnecessary arrests and incarceration while keeping our communities safe.

Overpolicing has been encouraged by government policies. A series of laws in the 1980s and 1990s criminalized behavior and increased penalties for other crimes. In particular, Congress called on police to intensify the “war on drugs.” Police responded by forming drug task forces and increasing the number of drug-related arrests and seizures. Do we need these policies to keep us safe? No.

Law enforcement, researchers and advocates now agree we can reduce crime and violence without intruding on individual rights and without high arrest and incarceration numbers. Local police play a vital role, one the country — and communities of color— need. In fact, polls show urban, majority-minority communities believe hiring more police can help reduce crime. Nationally, law enforcement officers are open to reforms, including in New York City, where Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has endorsed giving officers discretion to write summonses rather than arrest people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. And in Washington, proposals to reduce harsh sentences for nonviolent drug crimes have brought together big-city Democrats and tea party Republicans.

The president seeks to reverse the consequences of outdated criminal justice policies. One aspect of his plan focuses on the federal government’s role in encouraging overpolicing through the money it sends to state and local law enforcement.

For decades, the federal government has provided equipment to police worth billions of dollars. Concerns about those programs were raised after police in Ferguson wore riot gear and carried military-grade weapons at protests. Obama has mandated a review of federal programs that provide that assistance to give them better coordination, oversight and community engagement.

But the review, while valuable, leaves out much of the $4 billion the federal government sends to law enforcement annually, often with no clear goals for how those resources should be used. Consequently, the funds flow on autopilot, and end up promoting overpolicing and overincarceration. For example, the Byrne JAG program evaluates recipients on the number of kilos of cocaine seized, but not on how much drug crime dropped, leading to overemphasis on seizures over programs with proven records of reducing drug crime rates.

A Brennan Center report proposed a way to modernize the programs: Tie federal dollars to reducing both crime and incarceration, and give police flexibility to choose the best practices in their jurisdictions. Proven crime-reduction programs, including mental health and drug treatment, and community policing, are the path to 21st century policing.

The federal government plays a powerful role in law enforcement policy. Many grants pay for important programs that help control crime, and it’s vital that taxpayer money support our police smartly, not blindly.

(Photo: Flickr/TinaLeggio)