As gun violence spreads across U.S. cities leading into the summer, police are stepping back from proactively enforcing laws out of fear they may provoke a violent reaction and use too much force.
Executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement policy group, said “You just have to be honest and say that police in America are far more cautious today about stopping someone than they were a year ago. Proactive policing is much more complicated. And now we’re in the post George Floyd era, which makes police understandably cautious.”
Because of the increased scrutiny against police, many are retreating from certain risky aspects of their job – namely proactive enforcement.
In Portland, a rapid response team disbanded in protest following the indictment of one of their colleagues on criminal charges for striking a protestor with a baton.
In cities like Philadelphia, Chicago and New York, law enforcement agencies are hamstrung by increased regulations and threats of lawsuits. In addition, the departments are further weakened by a wave of retirements and delayed recruiting due to pandemic slowdowns. In short, law enforcement is either unable or unwilling to carry out effective enforcement.
Proactive enforcement, such as street stops, increased police presence, and officer-initiated stops to combat firearms violations and other crimes has been put on the back burner.
“The national mood is not sympathetic to the police,” Wexler said. “I think we’ll find balance down the road. We always do. But right now there’s trepidation about proactive police work.”
For example, a 2011 federal court in Philadelphia order ruled that officers cannot enforce “quality-of-life” violations, or petty offenses, such as carrying open liquor bottles, urinating in public, gambling or smoking cannabis, unless the offender refuses to stop.
The decision – a settlement between the city and the ACLU – was made in order to track stop-and-frisk incidents and to reduce racial disparity. However, the city argued that the ruling dampens officers’ efficacy to fight crime, especially amid a national spike in homicides.
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey said that officers should be able to decide whether or not an arrest is necessary to prevent certain conduct.
“I wonder what impact this is going to have in terms of people living in neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by quality-of-life and crime issues and how they’re going to respond to this,” Ramsey told CNN. “It can easily get out of hand.”
Following several Chicago shootings that occurred after on-foot pursuits of a suspect, the CPD released a policy stating that police cannot chase after suspects for certain crimes, which has led only to hesitation and confusion according to former Baltimore police officer and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice Peter Moskos.
“It’s not only a ban, but it’s a ban where the department can pretend with a semi-straight face that they’re not banning foot pursuits,” Moskos said. “It’s a ban because it says two things: You can never get in trouble for not doing it and you might get in trouble for doing it.”
Wexler believes that police are now more fearful to be proactive than ever, and at the worst possible time.
“At the very moment that shootings and murders are skyrocketing, you have (people) from Philadelphia to Chicago questioning proactive police activity…what’s that message saying to the average cop on the street?” Wexler said.