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Federalizing local police forces to end police brutality?

June 3, 2015
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4min read

After the recent police killings of unarmed black men, women and children across the United States, many are proposing the idea that local police departments should be federalized — while others vehemently oppose these reforms.

Politicians, civil rights leaders, and media personalities are musing over possible solutions to curb excessive force during arrests. A popular idea is requiring police to wear body cameras and begin a national database to track use of force.

The Obama administration announced on May 1st that it will implement a $20 million Body-Worn Cameras Pilot Partnership Program to help reinforce police accountability. The Bureau of Justice Statistics said they plan to develop “evaluation and survey tools to study best practices regarding the evidentiary impacts of body-worn cameras.”

What does that even mean? Barak Ariel, a criminologist at the University of Cambridge, tried to explain the motives behind the  initiative to the Atlantic.

“For cops, [body-worn cameras] are unbiased witnesses to circumstances around police encounters. Governments would save money on litigation and citizens would be more confident in their police departments,” he said.

Meanwhile, a comprehensive database of police shootings would allow departments to better analyze when officers are drawing and using their guns, potentially leading to policy changes which would ultimately prevent unjustified killings.

David A. Klinger, a criminal justice professor at the University of Missouri and former cop, told the Washington Post that compiling these databases would just be the start to prevent bad policing.

“If your statistics look just at dead bodies you’d be under-counting it by 85 percent,” he said. “If the cops are shooting, we need to know when they are shooting, not just when they kill somebody with the bullets.”

The Cleveland Police Department recently settled with the Department of Justice, accepting both of these reforms and many other regulations. The agreement comes after a scathing federal investigation stating that Cleveland PD is plagued by major systemic deficiencies — meaning officers unconstitutionally arrest, kill and beat innocent and sometimes mentally ill persons who have yet to be found guilty.

Payton Guion of The Independent outlines several cases from the DOJ’s report.

The Justice Department report found that Cleveland police used pepper spray on a handcuffed, mentally ill man; used a Taser on a deaf, suicidal man; beat and Tasered a subdued teenager; used a Taser on a man strapped to a gurney in an ambulance; and fired 24 shots in a residential area trying to shoot a walking man.

However, the idea of federalizing police departments to fix these issues with local police still worries skeptics. Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, wrote an op-ed in USA Today stating that a federal police force would unquestionably lawless.

“Putting most law enforcement in the hands of diverse state and local authorities,” he wrote, “helps limit the potential for abuse. Putting everything under federal control, on the other hand, magnifies it.”

President Obama has explicitly said he cannot federalize every police for in America, but he can help retrain and reform troubled departments that reveal patterns of abuse after several unarmed black residents are killed. Police brutality is a deep, pervasive and systemic issue.

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