Maya K. Photography via shutterstock
TERRY COWGILL

Much has been written about how life will change in this country after this deadly pandemic finally disappears. Everything from schooling to working to politics and social interaction could be altered permanently, we are told.

But how will our lives change after the current racial unrest recedes from its historically high level of public consciousness? The first thing that comes to mind for many is police reform.

In the wake of the unjustified police killing of a black man in Minnesota, there has been a lot of talk in the last few days about “defunding” the police, which if you’re a law-and-order type, isn’t as bad as it sounds. Most serious defunding advocates aren’t talking about starving police departments out of existence, but taking a hard look at their budgets, reimagining what police departments should look like and what their tactics, rules of engagement and scopes of responsibilities should be. Lest the police feel singled out, many government departments have to go through this process on a regular basis and law enforcement should not be exempt from such scrutiny and compulsory innovation.

To my surprise, police department unions have come under increasing scrutiny, even from progressive groups who are typically friendly with organized labor. Even if you’re generally supportive of public employee unions (I’m typically not), police officers have the authority that few other unionized workers do.

They can use deadly force. Bad cops can use their authority to harass and intimidate citizens they don’t like, they can plant evidence, make false arrests and let their friends and other cops off the hook. Sometimes police are charged with the power to decide who lives and who dies, who goes to jail and who remains free. These are awesome responsibilities that far exceed anything confronting most other government employees.

It goes without saying that many officers need better training. Good policing—and good leadership, for that matter—demands skill in the practice of de-escalation. We also need to attract better people into the profession. Clearly, too many men who are already prone to violence are attracted to police work, and for obvious reasons. Of course, they are not alone in that regard. Pedophiles are attracted to the priesthood because of easy access to children. It’s all about motive and opportunity.

As for the violence itself, economist Rob Gillezeau has studied the history of police killings and their resulting protests. The study found, NPR has reported, that “after police officers gained access to collective bargaining rights, there was a substantial increase in the killings of civilians—overwhelmingly, nonwhite civilians.”

Police unions are among the most militant of government labor groups. In the years since the Ferguson, Missouri, killing in 2014 unions have doubled down on protecting officers accused of wrongdoing and have emerged as formidable barriers to reform, often through political muscle and aggressive demands for secrecy.

Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis officer accused of murdering George Floyd by jamming his knee in his neck, has been involved in several shootings and “has 18 complaints on his official record, two of which ended in discipline from the department including official letters of reprimand,” the Wall Street Journal has reported.

Protected by his union contract, Chauvin remained on the force, continuing to serve in high-risk situations. Indeed, Chauvin’s union has signaled that it will try to get him and the three other officers who were fired reinstated. Just as in public education, police union pay scales make it difficult, if not impossible, to reward high performing officers with higher pay than their underachieving colleagues.

Closer to home, nine years ago on these pages I called on police departments in the state of Connecticut to reform themselves. Given recent events, including the now-notorious brewery party in Oxford, I’m not convinced the State Police has moved an inch toward reforming itself.

And don’t get me started on who investigates police misconduct, which in most jurisdictions is performed by the internal affairs divisions of the police departments themselves — a glaring conflict of interest. Case in point: it took an outside investigative agency, in this case troopers from neighboring New York, to expose the appalling chicanery in the Connecticut State Police Internal Affairs unit 14 years ago. Common sense tells us a third party should investigate serious allegations of police misconduct.

Next door in the state of New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, like most everyone who saw it, was appalled at what happened last week in Buffalo, where two officers clad in riot gear shoved a 75-year-old demonstrator onto a sidewalk. Lying face up in the concrete, the man started to bleed from his head and none of the officers would even stop to administer first aid. Two of the officers are suspended and will be facing charges.

This week, Cuomo proposed the so-called “Say Their Name” police reform. The legislation would mandate transparency of prior police disciplinary records, bar chokeholds, and classify false race-based 911 reports as hate crimes. In addition, the state attorney general would act as an independent prosecutor for police murders.

I would urge Gov. Ned Lamont to propose similar legislation. Let’s not wait until Connecticut has another defenseless individual wrongly killed by police. And yes, let’s reimagine our police departments, not abolish them. The only entities at police headquarters that need to be defunded are—you guessed it—the unions.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at tcowgill90@wesleyan.edu.

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