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The brutal police killing of Tyre Nichols has led to renewed calls for police reform. In his State of the Union address Feb. 7, President Joe Biden dedicated about five minutes to discussing law enforcement. He pleaded with Congress to “do something” and urged lawmakers to “finish the job on police reform.”
Days after Biden’s address, police in North Carolina released footage showing officers deploying a stun gun on Darryl Tyree Williams, a 32-year-old Black man, though he had informed officers that he had heart problems. Williams died an hour after the confrontation with police in southeast Raleigh.
Six officers have been placed on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. The State Bureau of Investigation also is probing the incident. Emancipate NC, an advocacy group, has issued yet another call for reforms.
These stories have played out far too many times and are typically followed with calls for police reform and stronger accountability.
Nearly 300 police reform bills in 45 states and Washington, D.C.
The modern era of big police reforms began in 1967 with President Lyndon Johnson’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. The commission’s final report found “overwhelming evidence” of shortcomings in the criminal justice system across the United States.
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After the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, and a national reckoning over reform, 45 states and Washington, D.C., have approved legislation aimed at increasing police accountability, nearly 300 reform bills. Two of these were passed in Tennessee, where Memphis officers fatally beat Nichols, and four passed in North Carolina, where Williams died following police action.
A bill called "Tyre’s Law" has been proposed as yet another attempt at reform. The bill is aimed at holding officers accountable for use of force and failing to intervene. A basic goal of any police reform measure is strengthening police accountability.
Accountability in the context of policing is the process by which responsibility is assigned to obligate individual officers and the policing institution to answer for their actions.
One technological solution to hold police accountable for their actions has included equipping officers with body-worn cameras. The devices are viewed as key measures to reform and widely believed to reduce police force and to bring accountability to policing. But the purported effectiveness of the body cameras remains mixed. Clearly, this technology is not the panacea to police reform.
America has among the lowest police training requirements
In Biden’s State of the Union address, he said, “What happened to Tyre in Memphis happens too often. We have to do better. Give law enforcement the real training they need. Hold them to higher standards.”
According to a report by the Institute for Criminal Justice Training Reform, the United States has among the lowest police training requirements compared with more than 100 countries. On average, U.S. officers spend 21 weeks training before being qualified for patrol. This is far less training than many other professions. Additionally, officers typically spend far more time training on firearms and physical types of force rather than on de-escalation, communication and empathy strategies.
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Significantly revamping training practices required for officers is only one part of holding the profession of policing to “higher standards.” Police brutality is widespread in many advanced democracies, despite longer periods of training. What often gets lost in reform discussions is civilian oversight of police – or rather, the lack of civilian oversight of police.
Another necessary way to hold law enforcement to higher standards is to overhaul the oversight system across America.
Civilian watchdogs need teeth to hold police accountable
Reforming policing the US: Unions stand in the way of change
However, civilian oversight bodies generally have no power to hold police accountable because their findings are not binding. In many officer misconduct cases, police investigate themselves. There is little reason to think this will change.
The law enforcement oversight system is in complete disarray. At the least, each state should have a civilian police watchdog with authority to investigate police misconduct – including all injuries and deaths caused by police. They also must have the power to make an official accusation that officers committed a crime.
Similar types of oversight systems already operate internationally. Civilian watchdogs exist in several Canadian provinces and serve as a framework for police accountability. For instance, the Special Investigations Unit in Ontario is a civilian law enforcement agency, independent of police, with the authority to lay criminal charges.
These agencies are not perfect, but they are better than what exists across U.S. jurisdictions.
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It has been more than 55 years since President Johnson’s commission issued its final report, and decades of reforms have done little to change policing.
A major overhaul of police oversight would be a good step in the right direction on the path to strengthening police accountability.
Christopher J. Schneider, professor of sociology at Brandon University, is author of "Policing and Social Media: Social Control in an Era of New Media." Erick Laming is an assistant professor in criminology and sociology at Trent University. His main research examines police use of force and accountability.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police reform is failing. Civilian oversight may hold cops accountable