The late Robert Kennedy once said: Every society gets the kind of criminal it deserves. What is equally true is that every community gets the kind of law enforcement it insists on.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins with the sentence: All human beings are born free and equal in human rights.
In the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, Minneapolis is hemorrhaging. It needs to rebuild its infrastructure, starting with the Minneapolis Police Department. Ideas are being proposed right and left — from throwing out the cops, defunding the police department, to throwing out the politicians, defunding the city government, and everything in between. The City Council has voted 12-0 to dismantle the MPD. Yet no one has provided a clear vision of what that means. The surge in gunfire and violence since May 25 has caused some to suggest we need more cops, not less. It will take time to sort this all out.
In the meantime, the Police Department is not going away. Even those who call for dismantling or defunding it now admit there is no roadmap for how we get from here to there. The City Charter Commission appears to be applying the brakes to the City Council proposal to put a resolution on the ballot in November that would establish a new Department of Public Safety, defund the existing Police Department and remove oversight from the mayor and give it to the City Council.
We need an interim plan
The City Council members admit their outline lacks specifics. At the very least we need an interim plan of concrete steps that can be taken. We are presenting one developed by coauthor Frank Fernandez, a longtime police officer, police chief and city manager who has restructured police departments in many places.
The services police officers provide must be based on a clear understanding of the needs and demands of the public they serve. Policing has been forced to undergo changes over decades — the war on drugs, domestic violence, mental health crises, 9/11 and the war on terrorism, school shootings, Tasers, racism training, de-escalation training, and body cameras, to mention only the most obvious. Call 911 for any of the above and more. The police profession must have solid guiding principles to ensure that our communities are properly protected, that the constitutional rights of every citizen are preserved, and that our officers are respected and valued for the public protection services they provide.
The overwhelming majority of law enforcement officer are honest, good-hearted people who are dedicated to helping others even if it means putting themselves in harm’s way to do it. Notwithstanding, the time has come to ask some key questions: What’s working, what’s not, what needs to change?
We endorse the following recommendations, based on our combined experiences, one as a retired lawyer and longtime human rights advocate and one as a longtime police officer with over three decades of experience across multiple police agencies. From a specific point of view, which is how departments operate, the points below highlight several concrete steps for bringing about substantial and sustainable reforms:
- Gather stakeholder input: Bring people with diverse perspectives and intellectual capital to the table and have the candid conversations required to fully understand and answer the key questions.
- Conduct comprehensive candidate background checks: Applicants must be properly screened through advanced procedures that cannot be compromised. Approved applicants should be reviewed by a diverse panel to validate that the process was followed without deviation. After the occurrence of many critical situations that have put the officer’s actions into question, discrepancies that were overlooked during the review of background at hire have come to light. If it starts wrong, it will end wrong. This is the most crucial point of a career in law enforcement.
- Extend basic academy training: This must be extended to meet the new needs and demands identified. It must highlight the mission of public service and the role of guardians of justice, preservers of peace and protectors of life and property.
- Conduct regular post-academy training: Ensure that officers are receiving continuous training to refocus their mindfulness, skills, and judgment. Training is a perishable skill that must be continuously polished.
- Conduct ongoing policy adherence reviews: The police staff must have robust oversight measures in place to ensure that when the officer(s) makes a mistake, it is quickly identified and addressed through coaching, retraining and accountability. The absence of accountability places our Constitution at risk, our public at risk and our officers at risk of losing their careers.
Most police officers are well intentioned, good citizens. They respond the way they are trained. Systemic racism, long embedded in our culture, including our police forces, must be eliminated. Although critical, police reform alone goes only part way toward combating structural racism. There are some critical first steps that can and must be taken at the local level. Other changes currently being debated in St. Paul and Washington can be made at the state and national levels. Collectively we must find a pathway to sustainable police reforms based on need, common sense and good judgment.
Frank G. Fernandez is the president of Blueprints 4 Safety (B4S) Strategies Group, LLC. in Miami, Florida. As an expert in police practices, he provides consulting services to the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Washington, D.C. He has 30-plus years of experience in law enforcement beginning with the Miami Police Department rising to the rank of deputy chief, and moving on to serve as chief of the Hollywood, Florida, police department. From 2015 to 2019 he served as director of public safety and assistant city manager for the City of Coral Gables, Florida.
James Roth is a longtime Minneapolis resident, retired lawyer and human rights advocate.
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