As Virginia’s General Assembly discusses police reform, I pray impulse and situational ethics surrender to principled rationale. Without proper foresight, it is possible to do well-intentioned harm.
The most obvious reform I hope to see is a mandate for all uniformed officers to have body cameras, in addition to dashboard cameras for all law enforcement vehicles. I believe this will serve a variety of parties. First, it will help serve the citizens, as the knowledge that their engagement with law enforcement is being recorded should help provide peace of mind. Second, it will help protect our law enforcement officers from fraudulent claims of civil disobedience and conduct unbecoming of an officer. Finally, these recorded interactions can, and should, be used for training purposes. Having academy students watch real interactions will help them see how to appropriately respond to challenging situations.
I also believe there is wisdom in removing qualified immunity for law enforcement officials. This is not because most officers abuse their authority, but because the principle of checks and balances in government have served us well. Officers who cannot be easily held accountable could abuse authority and create a sense of micro-tyranny for communities. Furthermore, before an experienced law enforcement officer is hired into another department or jurisdiction, I believe state law should require the professional file of that individual be sent from their old office to their new one, prior to hire. Officers who are commonly and formally rebuked should not be hired by another department.
Finally, I believe it would benefit officers to receive training on how traumatic experiences can affect an individual’s brain. When officers enter potentially dangerous situations, they often interact with traumatized individuals -- early and/or frequent exposure to violence, drug use, etc. The late Karyn Purvis has conducted remarkable research on the effects of trauma on the brain, how it governs an individual’s actions, and most importantly, how to appropriately address it. Admittedly, her research is geared for foster and adopted parents, which is not the responsibility of the police; however, the principle of knowing how a traumatized individual may behave, and how to counteract the potential for escalation, is noteworthy.
However, Richmond should not denigrate an officer’s ability for self-preservation. We trust law enforcement officers to be wise stewards of lethal weapons, so how would legislation be consistent if it took away options and tactics that may lead to the prevention of lethal force? Rather, Richmond should seek to give officers as many non-lethal options as possible to avoid chaos and protect innocent life. Furthermore, officers should retain the ability to serve no-knock warrants. For instance, knocking on the door of an alleged weapons trafficker places a tactical disadvantage on law enforcement, benefits the alleged criminal, and unnecessarily increases risk.
In this debate, police officers are not adversaries, nor are concerned citizens antagonists. May the passions of the day give way to temperance, and perhaps subsequent legislation will further protect the citizenry without sacrificing protections for law enforcement.