As every state in the nation is rocked by protests in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it seems that crisis has been heaped on top of crisis. Governments and first responders already in a state of emergency due to the coronavirus pandemic are now contending with civil unrest and, in some cases, looting and violence. Law enforcement issues are once again front and center in the national news. And policymakers are rushing to propose sweeping changes to calm the outcry and prevent similar catastrophes in the future. However, if such measures are hasty, thoughtless or ill-informed, they risk doing more harm than good. For change to be effective, law enforcement needs to be part of the solution.
Law enforcement leaders around the country, including the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association (LAAPOA) and our partners at the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), have rightfully condemned the incident that led to George Floyd’s death as inconsistent with the mission and goals of our profession. Many of us well understand the frustration and anger it incited, and the need for peaceful protests to express those emotions. Right now, our main focus is on working to protect our communities against violent riots and destruction of property. But we also need to consider what the next steps will be.
Unfortunately, as LAAPOA has been covering in our recent series of articles, “Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste,” some officials have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to advance harmful criminal justice reform agendas.1 We can already see that the current crisis will be likewise leveraged by some groups to push a broad anti-law-enforcement agenda that is more destructive than constructive.
One example of this is the move by the district attorneys of San Francisco, Contra Costa and San Joaquin counties, along with former San Francisco DA and current Los Angeles County DA candidate George Gascón, to lobby for a ban on prosecutors accepting campaign donations from police unions. In a letter to the State Bar, they claimed such a rule change would “help to avoid conflicts and ensure independence on the part of elected prosecutors.” (They also hope to extend the same proposal to the American Bar Association.) While purportedly designed to “enhance trust in our criminal justice system at a time when it is sorely needed,” this argument seems to acknowledge that prosecutors are unduly influenced by the campaign donations they receive. If true, that not only casts doubt on their professional ethics and fitness for elected office, but also raises the question of why every other type of group — including corporations, other labor unions, defense attorneys and criminal justice reform advocates — should be allowed to exert this hypothetical influence through donations, since prosecutors oversee many different types of cases, not just police use-of-force incidents. Banning donations from a single source only to avoid an appearance of perceived conflict of interest could amount to blocking constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
Rather than such combative and unilateral “reforms” for appearance’s sake, what is needed is an honest and considered conversation among everyone with a stake in the future of law enforcement. Now is the time for discussion regarding the need for a national standard on police use of force, as well as minimum training and recruitment standards, as our partners at PORAC have been advocating for in Washington, D.C., for years. It will take the practical expertise of law enforcement experts, not just the passionate opinions of advocates, to enact positive changes that will actually help and will stick.
“We are more alike than we are unalike, but in this time of social media and technology, we are more disjointed than connected,” LAAPOA President Marshall McClain says. “True tolerance isn’t being accepting of everything; it’s the maturity and courage to be willing to have dialogue with someone who has a different viewpoint and being able to agree to disagree without being disagreeable.
“As fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, sons and daughters, as leaders, as peace officers, we cannot afford to stand by and watch the world burn and be reshaped around us. Changes are coming; that is certain. We cannot allow knee-jerk reactions and ill-thought-out legislation to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We can all do better, and we have to do better. We must take an active role in the outcome if we are to truly have real and lasting changes for the better.”