Imagine that you’re sitting on a jury in a murder trial. The defendant has been found guilty, and the trial has proceeded to the sentencing portion. It will be part of your job to determine the punishment for the murderer. The defense attorney says, “Let’s not litigate the past! We just want to move forward in a positive way.”
Would you choose to let the murderer go free with some counseling?
In California, the Bakersfield Police Department was recently ordered by the courts to enact reforms on its training, investigatory practices, and standards for deploying canines. This reform came about as a result of an investigation into BPD that found the department had “failed to uniformly and adequately enforce the law.” The violations included using unreasonable force, unreasonably deploying canines, engaging in unreasonable stops, searches, arrests, and seizures, and the unlawful use of deadly force against individuals undergoing mental health crises.
To be clear, we’re talking about theft, aggravated assault, and murder, conducted by uniformed police officers with the full knowledge and blessing of the police department.
The solution, as determined by the courts, is additional training and updating their use-of-force policies, to which the city eventually agreed.
“The decision came down to a choice between litigating the past or controlling our future, reassuring our community, and moving forward in a positive way,” said BPD police chief Greg Terry.
Do we really want to punish the murderer? Or do we want to move forward in a positive way?
The truth is that we cannot move forward in a positive way without holding police departments responsible for their actions. Police departments cannot reassure the community by avoiding all accountability. We’re not talking about some minor problems with a few police officers. These are horrific crimes being conducted by the government agency that is supposed to protect us.
If police departments want to move forward, they have to admit their wrongdoing. If cities want to reassure communities, they need to take immediate steps to implement actual public safety programs.
We need public safety. Crime and harm are serious problems that have terrible impacts on people’s lives. Gun violence, sexual assault, theft, traffic accidents — these are very real problems that government can address. This is not the system we have right now.
The police are not public safety.
We need public safety. We need a department that asks itself, with every single action that it takes, “Does this improve public safety?” The actions conducted by BPD are not done in the name of public safety. These actions contribute to public harm.
Even as it was being investigated by the California Department of Justice, BPD continued to engage in these illegal and dangerous practices. They didn’t see anything wrong with what they were doing. They believed they were in the right. BPD has denied all the allegations, even as they agreed to submit to the court order.
This is not a system (including the California DOJ that conducted the investigation) that recognizes the harm that policing does to communities and is working to change it. Minor policy tweaks will not work at addressing the crimes that have been committed. BPD will roll its eyes, do a little bit of a better job at hiding its crimes, and continue to fail to serve the people who pay for its existence.
None of this will change until the electorate supports candidates who will actually prioritize public safety. For that to happen, we need an electorate who understands what public safety can look like.
This post was previously published on medium.com.
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