Long-Lasting Police Reform Must Embrace Transparency To Be Effective

George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis police is the most recent in a spate of African-Americans dying in encounters with police officers around the country. As protests over the killing erupt in various cities, and government responses prioritize quelling the demonstrations, Congress must act now to enhance accountability for misconduct by police forces nationwide.

“The sustained lack of transparency about law enforcement misconduct and use of force incidents has critically eroded public trust in police forces over time,” said Lisa Rosenberg, executive director of Open The Government. “This opacity, worsened by the militarization of law enforcement and this administration’s clamp down on oversight means Congress needs to commit to and implement policing reforms that will make law enforcement accountable to the public they are sworn to protect.”

Some of the long-overdue policing reforms open government and civil rights advocates are calling for include:

Establishing a comprehensive federal database of use of force incidents: While several national media outlets have attempted to compile data and reporting on police-civilian encounters and deaths in police custody, federal efforts to collect such data from law enforcement are either incomplete or weakly enforced. The federal government must condition criminal justice grants to state and local enforcement agencies on accurate data collection and reporting on shootings and excessive use of force. It should also require the Deaths in Custody Report Act is properly implemented and that penalties are issued against law enforcement agencies that do not comply.

Stop militarizing police under a cloak of secrecy: The Trump administration revoked an Obama-era executive order that placed limits on federal programs that provide military equipment to law enforcement agencies. The program is the largest and most prominent federal program providing police departments with military equipment to be used in our communities, streets, and schools, with few safeguards to ensure that the equipment is not misused and overused. Advocates for policing reform call for an end to the program. At minimum, Congress must apply transparency and oversight measures to equipment transfers and hold the DoD and police departments accountable to the public. Legislation such as the Stop Militarizing Our Law Enforcement Act, introduced by Senators Rand Paul (R-KY), Brian Schatz (D-HI), and Ron Wyden (D-OR) can help establish limitations and create greater transparency on the federal transfer of surplus military-grade equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.  

End qualified immunity for police officers: Police officers are immune from liability when they violate Americans’ constitutional rights because of qualified immunity, which places the burden on the victim to demonstrate that police misconduct violated fundamental constitutional rights. The Ending Qualified Immunity Act, new legislation introduced by Representative Justin Amash (I-MI), would raise the bar in holding police officers accountable by ensuring they would be held liable for violating Americans’ civil rights.

Establish a federal use of force policy: A standard federal use of force policy would provide a clear guide to law enforcement agencies across the country. This new federal policy should stipulate that use of force is a last resort and ban techniques that restrict the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain, and should be implemented with trainings, monitoring, and accountability measures in place if they are flouted.

Applying the Freedom of Information Act to private prisons: Even though private prisons account for 20 percent of the U.S. federal prison and detention population, they are exempt from access and information laws, allowing them to operate under a veil of secrecy. This exemption enables them to withhold pertinent disclosure records that could help inform the public about their performance, including incident reports and grievances, information on spending and misuse of federal funds, and communications between prison officials. The dynamic hinders the ability of the government and public to ensure private prison companies are upholding their contractual obligations and not abusing taxpayer dollars.

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