Since the murder of George Floyd, the issue of police reform has been front and center in public discourse. As with most issues in 2020, there’s been little room for nuance in this conversation, and we’re often forced to either take the side of racial justice or the police.
A sizable number of Americans (myself included) feel this is a false dichotomy, and it’s possible to support good cops and look to reform the racial inequities in our criminal justice system.
How do rank and file law enforcement feel about this issue?
To answer this question, I invited Jesus Eddie Campa, a career law enforcement officer who served as Chief Deputy of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department and as Chief of Police in Marshall, Texas on this episode of YDHTY to discuss his experiences on the job and his own efforts to implement reforms in a small town police department that was happy with the status quo.
His new book, Unmasking Leadership: What They Don’t Tell You, documents what he learned from this experience and can be preordered online here.
While the conversation around racial inequities in our criminal justice system is highly polarized, Campa’s experience reflects the more moderate view I’ve seen in private conversations I’ve had with members of law enforcement. In general, rank and file officers were disgusted with what they saw in the killing of George Floyd and, at the same time, universally reject the notion that people like Derek Chauvin represent the bulk of their profession.
Still, there are aspects of our system that make it easier for people like Derek Chauvin to wear a badge. In speaking with Campa, three things became apparent that can point the way to effective reforms:
Policing is a local endeavor - The term “police reform” is as broad and undefined a concept as “education reform”. As with education, policing is controlled at the local level, meaning the culture of a department and quality of policing will vary by municipality.
As a result, reforms are a local endeavor - With police departments being controlled at a local level, broad based reforms restrict the freedom of well run departments to do their job. True police reform requires the participation of the communities those departments serve.
Similar to education, unions play a role in stifling reforms - As with teachers, police unions make it difficult for heads of law enforcement to fire bad cops, often creating accidents waiting to happen. While police largely support their unions, giving chiefs more freedom to hire and fire would help maintain the quality of the force, keep bad actors off the streets, and likely reduce the instances of excessive use of force that hurt both the reputation of law enforcement and morale.
On a last note, Campa affirmed my belief that we’re also asking law enforcement officers to do too much. Many of the situations they’re called to intervene in could be headed off with better social services, mental health care, and education.
Part of supporting the police involves reducing the number of instances where they’re put in harm’s way. Better support for the most vulnerable in our society is a big part of that equation.