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Police & Criminal Justice Reforms

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Police Reforms

San Francisco no longer sends police as first responders to calls about homeless people, mental health crises, or conflicts between neighbors.  The Los Angeles City Council is considering doing this, too.

Our 911 systems should send police far less often, only when necessary for ongoing crimes and dangerous situations.  Instead, they can often refer to:

  • unarmed traffic safety workers
  • crisis response teams with mental health counselors or social workers
  • child protection services
  • domestic abuse programs, counseling, and shelters
  • community-based conflict mediation workers
  • addiction treatment programs
  • housing assistance for homeless people

In Austin, operators answering 911 calls ask if the caller needs police, fire, or mental health services.  In Eugene, Oregon a medic and a mental health crisis worker often respond to emergency calls.

We’ll discuss prioritizing social services instead of policing below.

Better Police Rules & Training

A list of police reforms follows.  Police departments with some of the following policies not only kill less people but also are less likely to be assaulted or killed themselves.

  • 24/7 body and dashboard cameras, always on
  • outlaw choking, strangling, neck holds, or pressure on the chest
  • end the military’s transfer of military equipment, weapons of war to police departments (more militarized police kill more civilians)
  • create national use-of-force laws
  • train police in crisis intervention
  • train police in recognizing and dealing with mental health issues
  • train police in a protecting mindset, not an authority/warrior mindset
  • require use of force only when necessary
  • require use of only minimal & proportionate force
  • ban use of force without immediate threat of serious injury or death to others (ending the current “reasonableness” federal standard for use of force)
  • ban use of force if the only danger is self-harm
  • require every alternative before any deadly force
  • whenever possible, give verbal warnings before any deadly force
  • ban shooting at or from moving vehicles unless there is deadly threat other than the vehicle itself
  • ban firing warning shots
  • ban drawing or displaying firearms unless there is a probable threat to life or for inspection
  • ban “no knock” warrants in drug cases allowing police to enter homes without warnings or identifying themselves
  • train all officers in first aid
  • equip all officers with first aid kits including tourniquets and QuikClot
  • require officers to give immediate medical aid to any injured, including those injured by police, as soon as safely possible and to call an ambulance as soon as needed
  • require police to intervene & report use of excessive force
  • require reports for every threat or use of force
  • reports for threat or use of force must include efforts to de-escalate or if not, why not
  • after any significant incident, an expert debriefing team should meet with the involved officer to analyze best practices
  • ban racial profiling
  • ban the use of military gear for peaceful protests
  • mental health screening of new police hires, especially for anger management issues

All police should receive de-escalation training.  De-escalation means:

  • give distance: withdraw
  • use safe cover positions
  • isolate and contain suspect
  • build rapport
  • give time, wait for submission
  • use restraints instead of deadly force whenever possible
  • call for reinforcements
  • use crisis intervention mental health workers

There is no good evidence that police bias training works.

Make Bad Cops Responsible

Our oversight systems for investigating police abuses are weak and underfunded.  Many of them are internal agency departments, staffed by the police themselves.  Most review boards can only make recommendations.  Few have subpoena power.

We desperately need independent police abuse oversight boards, separate from the police office, sheriff’s office, or district attorneys.

These oversight boards should investigate any use of force that appears to violate rules or results in injury.

  • Police involved in such incidents must be separated before interrogation interviews so they can’t communicate to coordinate their stories.
  • Police involved in such incidents must not have access to body or dash cams or any other audio or visual recordings of the episode in question before the interrogation interview.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division could provide police abuse oversight.

Or civilian police complaint review boards can do this job.  Studies show civilian oversight boards:

  • reduce citizen reluctance to report abuses
  • increase public confidence in the fairness of decisions
  • improve the scrutiny of police actions that lead to complaints
  • improve independent review of abuses
  • improve statistical reporting of abuses
  •  far more often get police to follow their recommendations
  • far more often change poor police policies

Either way, police oversight review boards need good funding and:

  • subpoena power
  • power to interview previous or additional witnesses and to re-interview them
  • power to order discipline or firing
  • an auditor to evaluate progress and detect chronic patterns of police abuses

We should bring back federal Justice Department pattern and practice investigations of police forces with a history of mistreatment of minority groups.

Police unions have negotiated many foolish rules that protect bad cops.  For example, in various cities they have contracts that:

  • limit the number or length of interrogations or investigations after accusations of abuse
  • limit who can perform these interrogations or investigations
  • allow delays of up to 48 hours before any interview, giving the officers time to communicate and agree on a fake story
  • require destroying disciplinary records, for example, every 2 years
  • allow appeals all the way up the chain of command, then forced arbitration
  • pay the fines or damage awards for cops found guilty in civil lawsuits

After a cop seriously injures or kills someone, Louisiana doesn’t let investigators question the cop for 14 days.  With less serious misconduct, it’s 30 days.

Florida has particularly insane rules:

  • A Florida cop accused of misconduct can only be interviewed at the end of the investigation.
  • The cop and his lawyer get to see every witness statement, video, and all the physical evidence before he gives his interview.
  • This allows officers to lie and create a story that fits all the evidence.

A study found after Florida officers got these union bargaining rights, incidents of violent misconduct in Florida sheriff’s offices increased 40%!

We should remove these kinds of legal shields for police in contracts.  We should: 

  • outlaw police unions negotiating rules for police discipline.
  • change federal law for police misconduct from “willful” to “knowingly or with reckless disregard.”
  • allow victims of excessive force to sue officers, ending the qualified immunity doctrine.
  • allow victims to sue bystander officers for monetary damages for not intervening when a police officer acts with excessive force.
  • create a national registry of police misconduct with all complaints, disciplinary actions, and terminations.
  • create a national database of all use of force, broken down by categories of national origin, sex, race, ethnicity, age, disability, homelessness, LGBT, and language or English skills of victim.
  • make records of police misconduct public, with privacy protection for victims & innocent officers.

School to Prison Pipeline

With police in our poor schools, we’ve created a school to prison pipeline for many minority students.  Students can get locked up in juvenile detention for:

  • having a cell phone on school grounds
  • walking in a hallway at school without a hall pass
  • swearing
  • dress code violations like wearing the wrong color socks
  • talking back to a teacher
  • starting a food fight
  • a curfew violation

One child in Louisiana went to juvenile detention for 6 days simply because he threw Skittles candy at another child on a school bus.

Children can go to jail for days without any hearing.

We should eliminate police from schools and replace them with guidance counselors and social workers.

Gun Control Reduces Fatal Police Shootings

Research shows strong gun control laws reduce civilian deaths by police

States with the highest rates of gun ownership have 3.6 times the rate of police killing civilians as states with fewer guns.

States with stronger gun control laws have lower rates of fatal police shootings.

Clearly stronger gun control laws help a great deal to re.

Overincarceration Hurts Our Economy, Screws the Poor

Criminologists and legal scholars in other industrialized countries are mystified and appalled at the number and length of our prison sentences.

We jail our people for far longer periods of time and for more trivial acts than any other nation in the Western world.

  • In other advanced countries, people rarely go to jail because they can’t pay bail or a legal fee or fall behind on a debt.
  • People in most other countries don’t go to jail for using drugs or missing a few parole or mandatory drug treatment appointments
  • They don’t go to jail for minor crimes like evading a subway fare, shoplifting, driving with a suspended license, or passing a bad check.
  • We jail our people at 5 to 9 times the rate of various Western European countries and 12 times the rate of Japan.
  • We have over 3,000 people serving life terms without parole for nonviolent offenses!
  • People are serving life sentences for attempting to cash a stolen check, shoplifting 3 belts, having a crack pipe, or selling $10 of marijuana.

All this is crazy!  It is just as self-defeating as war.  It destroys families and sabotages our economy.

Our mass incarceration costs us at least $81 billion each year.

It also tears up families by:

  • removing parents who work and support their children
  • ruining lives
  • eliminating taxpayers and their productivity from the economy
  • forcing children into poverty

All economists agree prisons crowded with nonviolent offenders hurt both families and the American economy.

  • Studies suggest mass incarceration has increased our poverty rate by 20% in recent decades, pushing 5 million more people into poverty.

Illegal Jail for Debt

We ILLEGALLY jail people for unpaid medical, car, or credit card payments or for unpaid court fees and fines all the time.

  • Congress outlawed jail for debt in the 1800s. The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional in 1983.
  • Jail for debt just punishes people for being poor, without any benefit to society and at great cost.
  • One judge called this policy a “judicially sanctioned extortion racket.”

Instead of jailing just dangerous people or those at risk of fleeing, we’ve created vast warehouses in our jails of poor people who can’t pay bail and people with mental illness or drug problems.

No Justice for Many Innocent Poor People

Completely innocent poor Americans often plead guilty to lesser charges in plea bargains simply because:

  • they can’t afford good lawyers to fight the charges.
  • they can’t afford bail and fear losing their jobs and homes while waiting in jail in pretrial detention.

Innocent people may even go to jail in plea bargains, afraid to risk longer sentences if they lose in a trial.

Later, these innocent people face discrimination in trying to rent homes, find jobs, or go to college because of their records.

We should “ban the box”—job, school, or housing applications that ask about previous criminal history, often using a check box.

In our society of massively excessive, unnecessary, and often racist overincarceration, discriminating in this way just sabotages lives, productivity, and whole families.

Smarter, More Just Criminal Justice

We should:

  • take debtors out of jail
  • take all those convicted of minor, nonviolent crimes out of jail
  • take addicts out of prison if the quantity of drugs found was 10 days or less of personal use
  • end cash bail
  • hire 5 times as many public defenders to represent poor people and pay them as well as prosecutors or typical lawyers in private practice
  • use restorative justice for all minor, nonviolent crimes.

Restorative justice means:

  • restitution: payment for repair of the victim’s damage or replacement of the victim’s loss
  • community service
  • if both sides agree, the offender may meet with the victim to negotiate making amends
  • voluntary mediation
  • the court may specify violation of the agreement or probation will result in doubling the restitution

Housing First, Not Wasted Police Time

Many cities have used a program called Housing First to save a great deal of money by simply housing the homeless.

  • Leaving people homeless ends up costing far more in temporary shelters and hospital and jail stays.
  • San Francisco saved 56% over 4 years by giving homes to the homeless.

Conflict Mediation on the Streets

Many cities have found street outreach programs for conflict mediation to reduce violence in communities.

Over 25 US cities have successfully used public health conflict reduction programs like “Safe Streets” or “Cure Violence” to reduce gun violence.

  • These programs often use ex-offenders with great street credibility to intervene and stop the violence.
  • In New York, for example, these programs have reduced shootings by 63%.

We spend over $100 billion on policing each year.  Many cities spend more on policing than on any other public service.

Spending some of that money on prevention and social services would be more effective, make us safer, and reduce the need for policing.

Mental Health Services as Prevention

We have 10 times more people with serious mental illnesses in prisons than we do in state psychiatric hospitals.

  • They are usually in jail for minor misdemeanor crimes and low-level felonies directly related to their mental illnesses.
  • They make bail less often and stay in jail an average of 6 times longer than other people charged with the same crimes.
  • They have problems following rules so they more often act out, face abuse from guards, and then get new charges while in jail.
  • Acting out often leads to extremely expensive solitary confinement, which just makes them much worse.
  • They cost 7 times more than other inmates in jail.
  • Jailing someone with a serious mental illness costs $31,000 a year, versus $10,000 a year for community mental health treatment.
  • Experts estimate police spent $918 million in 2017 just transporting people with severe mental illnesses to evaluation and treatment.

Miami-Dade county coordinated better between police, courts, and social services and moved 4,000 inmates with mental illness out of jails and into treatment.  This let them close a jail and save $12 million a year!

Various cities are sending crisis intervention teams with people trained in conflict mediation or mental health to many emergency calls, successfully reducing the burden on police.

If the person ends up going to a mental health facility, discharge planners can refer them for outpatient care, housing, transportation, peer services, and job services.

But why do we wait until someone is dangerous enough to get arrested?  We can SAVE money with good community services and early intervention.

Simply paying home health aides to check on mental patients and make sure they get their medicines would save a great deal of money by preventing both hospitalization and jail.

Addiction Treatment for All

In rich white communities, teenagers caught with drugs usually go to rehab, not to prison, unlike in poor, minority areas.  Our criminal justice system is incredibly racist.

All we have to do is look around at successful addiction rehabilitation programs in the US and similar policies in many other countries that would protect us better while greatly improving our economy.

  • Portugal stopped arresting those caught with a quantity of 10 days or less of personal use of drugs.
  • Instead, Portugal offered these people voluntary addiction treatment.
  • This greatly reduced drug use, drug-related deaths, and even HIV rates.
  • Now Portugal’s rate of overdose deaths from drugs is the lowest in Western Europe, 5.5 times lower than the average in Europe.
  • Portugal’s rate of overdose deaths is over 50 times lower than in the US.

Our government says every dollar we invest in substance abuse treatment saves $12 or more in:

  • reduced drug-related crime like theft
  • criminal justice costs
  • health care costs

Addiction treatment also reduces interpersonal conflicts, drug-related accidents, overdoses, and deaths.

Quality Education & Social Services Prevent Crimes

Learning from Happier Nations

More equal societies that invest in social services and opportunity for all are far happier societies, with far less problems and far more trust in others.  For example, Americans trust each other less than half as often as people do in Sweden.

Countries with great inequality like ours have:

  • less opportunity
  • more violence
  • higher homicide rates
  • more obesity and chronic illness
  • more bullying in school
  • more drug and alcohol addiction

Investing in all our people is the only way to have a happy, peaceful, prosperous nation.

We can greatly reduce crime and create far more productive citizens by simply providing great education to all.

  • We should end the massive inequalities of our local property tax-based educational funding.
  • At the very least, simply combining all school districts into one district for each county would make school funding much more equal and fair.

High-quality education, youth programs, GED programs, jobs, work training programs, social work, and mental health treatment all help lift people up and reduce crime.

Early Prevention Programs Save Massive Amounts of Money

Research shows early prevention programs can save 28 to 100 times their cost by preventing later:

  • special education needs
  • disability benefits
  • adult psychiatric services
  • crimes
  • jail costs

Research shows investing in high-quality early childhood education:

  • creates plenty of jobs.
  • increases the number of children who develop successful careers.
  • reduces children’s future use of welfare and their chances of ending up in prison.
  • would add $2 trillion to our economy each year within a generation.

Other massively effective early intervention programs include:

  • home visits and skills training for new parents.
  • very cheap early screening and intervention for children with anger management or poor social skills at school.

These programs can prevent juvenile delinquency and turn emotionally disturbed toddlers with severe behavior problems into normal functioning adults, even when one parent is alcoholic, a drug abuser, or emotionally disturbed.

Prevention programs are far cheaper and far more effective than jail later on.

Jobs Prevent Crime

Creating jobs:

  • improves our economy
  • meets our neglected needs
  • helps us compete with other nations
  • keeps people productive and out of trouble

We should greatly increase funding on:

  • education
  • infrastructure improvements, such as new pipes for clean drinking water, highways, bridges, and ports
  • high-speed internet access for all
  • a smart grid
  • public transportation
  • energy efficiency
  • renewable energy
  • research
  • contact tracing for covid 19
  • assistance for elderly people to stay in their homes
  • more shelters so people can escape their abusers
  • urban farms
  • recycling


Many other developed Western nations understand that militarized police and excessive jail doesn’t work.  They often have better trained police and many of them don’t even carry firearms.

They use fines, community service, and restorative justice, and see much lower rates of criminals reoffending.  They also invest in their people more, preventing much crime.

By spending far less on excessive use of self-sabotaging jails, militarized overpolicing, and our self-sabotaging military, we can fund far more effective prevention with:

  • youth programs
  • literacy programs
  • social services
  • housing assistance
  • social workers
  • addiction treatment
  • mental health case management
  • community-led conflict resolution

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