Designing police reforms: The latest police reforms in the US

For Pakistan, the police reforms in the US has, once again, reaffirmed the importance of cooperative federalism, which can bring criminal law and its subset of policing as a shared responsibility of the Federation and the Provinces.

police reforms

Designing police reforms is a challenge. Most often than not, the tendency is to appoint a group of people claiming to have know how and experience in dealing with police matters with pre-defined terms of reference; the group then locks itself with the parameters drawn by the terms of reference.

This approach has not worked very well as the reform design shaped by the pre-defined terms of reference takes away much of the initiative and directs the group in a particular direction. In case of Pakistan, over two dozen police reforms committees/commissions/ bodies worked within this framework and proposed changes, but the debate over the reform design has seldom been undertaken.

Presently, the same situation is being faced by the US where everyone has his own reform design for police. The range of variety of this reform menu is from defunding police to tightening the accountability gaps to reversing the case law on the subject of personal liability of a police officer. This write up will briefly examine the range of approaches being taken in the US to reform the police and will try to briefly analyze how important is the reform design debate in the context of Pakistan.

Read More: Internationalization of Police Reforms

US police reform 

The array of options for police reforms being considered by the US lately are:

Task force on 21st century policing

The killing of George Floyd was not first of its kind. There has been a systemic pattern that was ignored by the policy makers. More lately, in August, 2014, Michael Brown, a black man was killed by Darren Wilson of the Ferguson Police in the state of Missouri. The killing resulted in wide protestation by all. The then US President Barack Obama established a President’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing through an executive order (EO. No.13684/2014).

Despite the bombastic title of the Task Force, its stated mission was relatively narrow and abstract. The mission required the Task Force to ‘identify best practices and otherwise make recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust’. The Task Force, in its report, identified eight pillars and made specific recommendations with regards to each pillar separately. The focus of the report was on ‘trust’ aspect of policing, and on ‘demilitarization’ of police forces.

The report mainly touched on value portion of the police reforms and its actual implementation was to be done by the states/federating units as the Federal Government has little mandate to directly reform the police under the US Constitution.

It does, however, try to shape the reforms by controlling federal funding stream as introduced by the law (Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994), introduced by Joe Biden, the now forerunner democratic candidate for the upcoming US elections. Obviously, given the limited role of the Federal Government in the matter, the outcome of the Task Force remained limited and the practice of abuse of power continued leading to many similar instances including George Floyd’s case, which again captured the attention of the whole country in the 2020 and this time, the global media also picked it up more fervently.

Read More: Defund the Police campaign: US cops weigh in on the plan

Safe policing for safe communities 

The US President Donald Trump, in response to the protests with regards to excessive use of force in George Floyd’s case, in his less caring style, issued an executive order (EO. No. 13929/20) that focused on the use of force by police. The order requires the US Attorney General (AG) to certify independent credentialing bodies that could then review policies regarding the use of force and de-escalation techniques.

The order requires him also to engage the community and to incentivize the federal grants to police organizations to spur implementation of standards set by credential bodies on the use of force. The order also requires establishing of a database on on terminations/decertification of law enforcement officers, criminal convictions of law enforcement officers for on-duty conduct and civil judgements against law enforcement officer. The order focuses on the individual police officers instead of on the ecology and police culture in which he operates.

Legislative Initiatives 

In addition to executive order by the US President, different legislative moves have also been made. Democrats moved a bill titled as Justice in Policing Act 2020 (JPA). The JPA’s main features are that it intends to introduce a registry of police misconduct complaints and disciplinary actions. It aims to create an independent process to investigate misconduct.

Likewise, it requires technology to be used on duty in form of body-worn cameras, dashboard cameras on cars, and establishing online real-time databases to measure the extent of the problem of abuse of police power. The draft law prohibits chokeholds/carotid holds and transfer of military equipment to police. The law is not likely to pass and is gridlocked.

Another such legislative initiative is the draft Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act, 2020 (LETIA). The LETIA proposes to establish national policing standards and accreditations and their sharing through database. It also proposes to link federal funding to police agencies with implementation of national policing standards.

Another initiative is the introduction of the Elimination of Qualified Immunity Act, 2020 (EQIA). The EQIA aims at doing away with the defence of Qualified Immunity that got introduced in the US law through a US Supreme Court judgement in Harlow v. Fitzgerald, in which, the actions of police officers were shielded at a threshold of reasonableness, a notch above the classical bona fide act doctrine.

Read More: Trump orders surge of US feds: protesters and police clash once again

Defunding police

The ‘defunding police’ sloganeering continued for sometime after the George Floyd’s death. It was an emotional reaction with roots in the work of Alex Vitale who wrote ‘End of Policing’ arguing to invest divest police and to taken non-crime approaches in the society. The sloganeering gradually died down as many argued it to be totally wrong and unsustainable. Conversely, there were many voices to invest more in police to improve their ecology and police culture.

Designing Police Reforms in Pakistan

The case of designing police reforms for Pakistan has been equally challenging. Every commission/committee/institution tasked with the police reforms has taken its own approach. From the design perspective, the police reforms have predominantly been designed to achieve a progressive legal framework by getting the colonial police law (the Police Act, 1861) substituted with a progressive and modern police law (the Police Order, 2002).

The Police Reforms Committee Report, 2019 that was constituted on the order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan introduced the urban policing as a full-fledged term of reference thus leading to widening of the design to include urban policing. Another dimension that is largely shaping police reforms is the impact of information technology and how to internalize it with intrinsically legalistic processes of police working. In the Post-COVID world, the community and policing dimension has further been expanded.

Finally, the dimension of democratic security is also been suggested by some to be part of police reforms design. The concept of design, it may be noted, is not static and keeps on evolving within the larger framework of the constitutional system of the country. For Pakistan, the police reforms in the US has, once again, reaffirmed the importance of cooperative federalism, which can bring criminal law and its subset of policing as a shared responsibility of the Federation and the Provinces.

Kamran Adil is BCL from Oxford University and writes on international law. He currently serves as the Additional Inspector General (Establishment) for the Islamabad Capital Territory Police. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

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