This past week the Police Accountability and Transparency Task Force released a set of draft recommendations for how to reform police departments following the George Floyd killing and nationwide protests against police brutality and racism. There are a lot of good ideas here, but I worry that they just won’t be enough to change such an entrenched and stubborn institution as the police.
If you forgot about the Police Accountability and Transparency Task Force, you wouldn’t be alone. The group was established last year following high profile police killings in Wethersfield and New Haven, but didn’t meet until January 2020. There’s no evidence that they met again until last week, after the governor asked them to fast-track their work.
All well and good. I just wish they’d been meeting more often before now. I know, pandemic. But Zoom and Microsoft Teams do exist, and it’s not like the problem had gotten any better.
Still, let’s take a look at their recommendations because I’m sure we’ll be seeing these ideas again in a future special session on police brutality. In fact, some of these recommendations made it into an executive order the governor issued Monday that would affect the state police.
What’s here is a mix of the good, the watered-down, and the impossible.
Let’s start with the good. What I like best here is the idea of establishing much, much more non-police oversight. The task force recommends “an independent external investigating authority,” possibly located in the attorney general’s office, and mandating “community oversight of all police departments (i.e. civilian review boards). This is good. The police are absolutely incapable of policing themselves, as we’ve seen, so real community oversight is necessary.
Just as long as the boards and the investigating authority can do their job. A community review board without the power to fire bad cops is pretty useless, for instance.
Another idea I mostly like is a plan to have each recruit complete 500 hours of “community engagement activities” in Connecticut’s cities. I’d rather it be community service helping the homeless, serving in domestic violence shelters, and other activities of real value. But what this gets at is the need to completely overhaul how police are trained. I’d like to see much more on that.
Another idea I like is examining “state labor issues” that make it hard to get rid of bad cops. This should go farther – police should no longer be allowed to unionize, for one – but it’s a start.
The task force also suggests publicly addressing “the role of policing in past injustices.” This is already happening, but the police themselves need to listen and understand. Will they?
Then there are the ideas that feel like something that we thought might help after Ferguson – only to be frustrated by cops working around them. Body cameras, for one. Yes, all cops should wear them! But sometimes we find out that the footage mysteriously goes missing, or that the police just don’t bother turning them on at all.
Body cameras are only as good as the officers who are wearing them, unfortunately.
Another idea that just isn’t going to work is making it illegal for police officers to perform choke holds. I mean, okay, but the choke hold a police officer used to kill Eric Garner in New York City was already against regulations. Plus, police brutality is already illegal, and it still happens.
I feel the same way about another idea to make it mandatory for police officers to report misconduct and intervene. If there’s already a culture of silence in a department, a law like this isn’t going to crack it.
And then there’s the impossible. The very first item on the list here is “change the culture of policing.” I feel like we’ve been trying and failing to do that for decades. The police have yet to change.
That’s the problem, isn’t it? What do you do with a longstanding institution that feels it is above the law, has a racist us-versus-them attitude, closes ranks around members in trouble, and abuses the vulnerable regularly?
Can that institution change? Or should we give it up for lost, disband it, and try something new?
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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