From our earliest days as a nation, the American story has been one of striving. Born in pursuit of a more perfect union, we have repeatedly sought to animate the ideals of liberty and justice in our laws and mores. Our history lays bare our successes and failures in this endeavor. We’ve learned—often in painful ways—that it is up to each generation to pursue the advancement of these ideals in their time.
Following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, Americans poured into city streets across the nation to peacefully protest the contemptible injustice Floyd suffered at the hands of law enforcement. Sadly, riots, looting, and more police brutality—towards peaceful protesters as often as not—followed. Floyd’s death catalyzed America in a way unlike other recent police killings. The compounding impact of months of stress from fighting the coronavirus and the visceral horror Americans felt as they witnessed Floyd helplessly calling for his mother has led to a united outcry that transcends racial and political lines.
But how do we effectively channel this growing anger and angst? Demagogues demagogue. Twitter warriors hashtag. Politicians obfuscate. Yet we know justice won’t come by any of those means. Platitudes aren’t enough. It is now time to do the thankless, but necessary, job of policy reform. Hearing the pained voices of demonstrators is an imperative, but policymakers must also be guided by their responsibility to provide equal treatment under the law. Adopting the policy proposals of the loudest voices cannot be an elected official’s benchmark of success.
Most Americans readily acknowledge that due process, a presumption of innocence, and the need for proportionate use of force are imperatives if we are to be, in the words of John Adams, a “government of laws, not of men.” Politicians have a constitutional duty to deliver actionable policy reform in an effort to ensure justice is guaranteed for all Americans. Thankfully, to this end, it is clear that a majority of men and women support a suite of policies that are within the power of our federal and state officials to enact.
We leave it to others to debate whether there is systemic racism that cuts uniformly across America’s numerous local police departments. That debate is too easily hijacked by identity politics and partisanship. But we do not contest that the weighty boot of the government falls more heavily on the necks of people of color in a variety of ways. Instead of seeking a more proportional incidence of harm and abuse, real reform means ending the abuses themselves.
There are several policy reforms that stand to receive substantial public buy-in and political feasibility as we work toward a more perfect union.
Ending no-knock warrants
No-knock warrants allow police “to break into a private residence without identifying themselves.” The intention behind such a warrant is to allow officers to “prevent the destruction of objects for which the police are searching or would compromise the safety of the police or other individual.”
Months ago, Breonna Taylor was killed when officers entered her home after receiving a no-knock search warrant. However they entered the wrong home. The tragic result is that the police killed Taylor in her home over a petty drug search warrant that was not even for her.
Research shows that “42% of people affected by such [no-knock] tactics were Black and 12% were Latino.” Ending the issuance of no knock warrants is one step toward ensuring the Fourth Amendment’s restrictions against unreasonable searches is respected. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has introduced the ‘Justice for Breonna Taylor’ Act in an effort to protect citizens from egregious, and potentially deadly, invasions from law enforcement in the future.
Reforming qualified immunity
Qualified immunity is “an atextual, ahistorical judicial doctrine that shields state officials from liability, even when they violate people’s constitutional rights,” according to criminal justice policy analyst Jay Schweikert.
Since qualified immunity is a product of a 1967 Supreme Court decision, efforts to either end or curtail it are currently being pushed at the federal level. Police face grave dangers on an almost daily basis, and they must be prepared to act as prudent as possible, with very limited information. This is undoubtedly a difficult task, but it is sensible to expect law enforcement officers be held to at least a similar standard as the public when it comes to respecting a suspect’s constitutional rights.
Qualified immunity should be reformed through legislation that provides reasonable recourse for victims of police brutality. Legislation that clarifies policing standards so that wrongfully harmed individuals don’t need to overcome unattainable legal hurdles in order to hold an unprincipled officer to account for their actions would be a step in the right direction.
Removing the chokehold police unions have on justice
“Defund the police” might be a catchy phrase, but rather than monetarily starve law enforcement of the ability to provide the services necessary to ensure public safety, the smart policy—and quite possibly achievable victory—is to strip police and police unions of the tools of abuse.
Peter Suderman suggests that police unions “defend the narrow interests of police at the expense of public safety. They exist to demand that taxpayers pay for dangerous, and even deadly, negligence.”
In the case of former Officer Derek Chauvin, the truth of this proved deadly. Chauvin had at least 17 misconduct complaints filed against him over the years, yet he was still allowed to patrol the streets. The federal government has far less ability to curtail the hold of police unions, but state attorney generals—who are accountable to voters—could be empowered with the responsibility of “policing the police,” in an effort to rein in rogue police departments and check the power of unions.
Foundations for a just society
As we pull ourselves out of the morass that is 2020, we must remember that soaring rhetoric, alone, is insufficient. Eloquent and timely words can inspire us and cultivate our empathy. But while noble and caring sentiments of solidarity are welcome, this is also a time for the tedious, thankless work of examining and reforming policy. If America wants to be the “city upon a hill” that both puritans and presidents spoke about, she must have just laws.
Thankfully, for all of our flaws, America has a history of bending its arc toward justice. From our earliest days of calls for just representation to the blood-drenched battlefields during our Civil War to today’s demands for equal treatment under the law, we strive. We know our work isn’t yet complete, and, if we’re honest, the human condition all but guarantees that there will always be more to do. However, despite the moral compromises of the Founders and ensuing generations, America is based on worthy ideals of equality before the law and the innate dignity of every person. As long as these truths remain each generation’s north star, a more perfect union, rooted in liberty and justice for all, is on the horizon.
Featured Image is George Floyd Protest, Columbus, by Paul Becker