Opinion Pieces

Op-ed: How law enforcement needs to change: A former prosecutor speaks to her ex-colleagues

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Washington, June 6, 2020 | comments

How law enforcement needs to change: A former prosecutor speaks to her ex-colleagues


We have a policing crisis in this country. And I don’t just say that as a member of Congress, or as a concerned citizen. I say that as a career prosecutor.

For black and brown Americans, this comes as nothing new. In fact, many of those who have been most adversely affected by our nation’s policing practices are probably tired of hearing people like me point out the obvious. And rightfully so.

I will never fully understand what our communities of color face on a daily basis. And I’ve tried to spend these last few days listening and learning instead of talking.

I’m writing this now because I think it’s important for people who have worked in law enforcement to speak out. It’s important for people like me to state clearly and definitively that this system — which I was a part of — is broken. And it has been for some time. The deep-rooted failings of police practices in the black community have been laid bare far too often in recent years with tragic consequences. From Amadou Diallo to Eric Garner, to Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and now Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, David McAtee and George Floyd. And yet, we’ve taken no substantive measures to address the chronic violence that police departments disproportionately inflict upon communities of color.

During my two decades as a prosecutor, I saw some of the best that law enforcement had to offer — dedicated men and women who cared deeply about the communities they served. But I also saw the very worst — the misconduct, excessive force and the institutionalized racism that plagues too many departments. And worse still, I’ve seen how officers who had no business carrying a badge and a gun were allowed back on the street, even as they posed a threat to public safety. Officers like Derek Chauvin.

That’s why we first need to repeal 50-a, a New York State law that keeps all police disciplinary records confidential. Too often, instances of police brutality involve officers with long histories of misconduct. The warning signs are there, but the public isn’t allowed to see them. Repealing 50-a must also be accompanied by the creation of a federal database that would track officers who have been fired for misconduct to ensure that they are not rehired in other jurisdictions.

Second, we need a complete revision of how police departments justify the use of force, beginning with a prohibition on the transfer of military-grade weapons to local police forces and a national standard on the use of force in department policy manuals. Federal funding should be contingent upon whether or not a department has implemented this standard, along with de-escalation and racial bias training.

We also need a ban on any restraining maneuvers that cut off the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain including chokeholds and the knee-to-neck restraining that killed Floyd. And we need to pass a nationwide duty-to-intervene law; Floyd might still be alive today if Chauvin’s fellow officers were mandated to act.

Third, we need to hold police departments accountable for implementing community policing practices, prohibiting racial profiling and participating in national data collection. When I was district attorney in Nassau County, we started the Terrace-Bedell initiative, where prosecutors, police officers and community leaders worked together to help non-violent offenders turn their lives around through counseling, social services and employment opportunities. The initiative aimed to make law enforcement a trusted social resource for their community. We need a national database on all police encounters with the community to identify best practices, but more importantly, to provide transparency on civil rights violations.

As a prosecutor, I tried my best to hold law enforcement officers accountable. I won’t pretend as though I always got it right, and I acknowledge the large role I played in the broken criminal justice system that we have today. But if we’re going to make real structural reforms, then people like me, who look like me and who know this system inside and out, need to step up and call for change — not just in how we deal with bad actors, but with the institutions that protect them. Many of those necessary changes will require us to revisit longstanding police union contracts, which make it difficult to discipline or fire officers, even ones we know have documented histories of misconduct.

These reforms are just a start. They won’t come close to solving centuries of institutionalized racism and violence, and there’s no question we need to do much more at the local, state and federal levels. But they will help save lives and return a measure of trust and integrity to a system that has lacked both for far too long. And as long overdue as they are, this is the moment to act.

Rice, who represents parts of Long Island in the U.S. House, was Nassau County district attorney.

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