Currently, most concrete policy proposals for police change are falling far short of what people seem to wish to see; conversely, some of the more popular slogans don’t seem well matched with concrete agendas. I decided to try my own hand at forming a reasonable policy agenda that would match the force of slogans such as “abolish the police”. My initial post got a surprising-to-me amount of enthusiasm, and a large amount of helpful discussion. This “Comprehensive Reboot of Law Enforcement” is the result, a revised and compiled 23-point agenda.
The intent of this agenda is to describe a comprehensive change in the way that government, law enforcement, the courts, and the carceral system would relate to many communities and some of the most marginalized people in them — a change in systemic incentives that would make people’s experienced lives be less hellish.
Several of these changes are radical by everyday standards, in the sense that they involve large revisions to existing structures. This is deliberate. People currently saying “abolish the police” have demonstrated a willingness, and indeed a desire, for radical revisions. In earlier times I might have dismissed this agenda as not politically realistic, but it’s 2020 and nobody knows what’s realistic anymore.
All of these items are meant to be actionable proposals as opposed to complaints. One of my acquaintances recently mentioned that many of the bullies he knew in high school went on to join police forces. This does seem to me very bad and alarming. But I haven’t included an item for “Stop hiring bullies” on this list, because I see no obvious way to operationalize that wish as a procedure for a government agency to follow. It is indeed very bad that bullies can get themselves hired by police agencies. That doesn’t mean that I know a way to effectively stop that specifically from happening. Mandate a psychology test? Bullies will go online and read up about how to pass it. If I can’t offer a solution that seems like it could be plausibly turned into effective and concrete legislation, I’m not discussing the problem here at all. This is a list of proposed policies that seem like they could address some complaints, not a list of the complaints that I most wish could be addressed, and the distinction is important.
In broad, the agenda comprises the following 23 points. Lengthier further arguments and details follow in a separate page.
- Completely disentangle punition from revenue, including outlawing civil forfeiture as a special case. Police must be funded purely out of the general budget paid for by taxation. All fines, forfeitures, penalties, or prison revenues, exacted by any level of government, must go into a separate state or federal fund; ideally, a fund that is annually refunded to all tax-filing residents. No level of government should have a predatory financial incentive to exact more fines from its people and create more ‘criminals’. Dear small town, it’s adorable that you want to be really proactive about enforcing traffic laws on passing truckers, but don’t expect to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for your own budget by doing it. Disentangle predation from all elements of government, and remove the predatory incentives to make sure it doesn’t grow back.
- Delegalize police unions. A government may not recognize a police union nor negotiate with it as a union, and any such union cannot have the legal power to extract non-voluntary fees from officers. (This doesn’t mean police officers can’t organize and discuss among themselves, or eg present the government with a petition signed by an organized majority of current officers.) Restrictions on firing police officers are completely off the table in any form of negotiation. People authorized by a government to use deadly force must be supervised by elected authority on a continuing basis. A government may not, by any pathway, bargain away the ability of elected officials to de-authorize someone’s use of deadly force.
- Require body cams with teeth. High-resolution body cams must be recording at all times a police officer is on duty. In addition to offline storage, cams must upload low-res data continually when in range of a cellphone network; where it is immediately stored by a federal or state-level authority; with one-way hashes of the low-res data publicly broadcast immediately. The purported malfunction of a body cam is reason to exclude the testimony of a police officer. Confessions are inadmissible unless the entire interrogation was recorded in high-res. Any person has the right to record any interaction with the police.
- Nationwide zero-tolerance for death of unarmed persons caused by law enforcement. Any death of an unarmed person as a result of interactions with police — even if the suspect actually did throw a punch first as shown by body cam — automatically triggers an investigation on homicide charges. Win or lose, the officer or officers are permanently barred from working in law enforcement thereafter. This will end the careers of some genuinely law-abiding officers whose suspects just happened to have a heart attack while being taken into custody. So be it. The people of the United States have had it with the current state of affairs, and something drastic must be done to restore trust. No unarmed person should ever need to fear being killed by police.
This proposal doesn’t make it illegal for the police to use violence on an unarmed person who is violently attacking them. It doesn’t even outlaw shooting them. It doesn’t mean the officer pays a fine or goes to prison. It just means that, if that unarmed person dies, the officer does not further work in law enforcement.
- Demilitarize city and county police, and most state police. Establish a use of force ceiling which stops short of automatic weapons. If a law enforcement operation needs to use more force than this, it needs to call in a special unit from the state government.
- Abolish qualified immunity, requiring legislators to carve out narrow and explicit exceptions for such laws as law enforcement may be required to disobey in the course of their duties (eg going 140mph to catch a car going 120mph, firing guns at armed people).
- Separate oversight from policing. Any part of the government authorized to use deadly force, must be monitored by a separate institution, with separate budget and management, reporting to an elected official along a separate line. All use of deadly force triggers an investigation by this separate body. (God help you if your body cam was turned off.) This institution has a special prosecutor, who is not a prosecutor that otherwise has to work with the police.
- Separate investigation from policing. Investigation of crimes is a separate function of government from their prosecution, and takes place in a separate institution with separate budget, management, and reporting. This institution must respond equally to requests from the prosecution and defense, and must share its findings evenly with the prosecution and defense. The function of state investigation is to determine the truth, not to convict.
- Establish safe, reliable, timely procedures for disbanding and rebuilding local police forces, as requested by an elected local authority. This might include e.g. bringing in state police at cost, to keep order on critical issues while a local police force is disbanded and new officers trained and hired. There should be advance federal procedures for temporary assistance in case a whole state police force needs to be fully rebooted. The goal should be something akin to the FDIC’s ability to descend on an insolvent bank over the weekend and have all FDIC-insured accounts operative the next Monday.
- Comprehensively de-privatize police, courts, and prisons. De-privatize all aspects of law enforcement and the court-carceral complex, including predatory institutions such as towing garages and $10,000 mandatory “classes” for people on parole. Any penalty exacted or required by government must be paid into the refundable pool and returned to tax-filers annually. The court system may not require that a citizen interact with a non-free private company; if it’s punitive or mandatory, it has to be a public office, not a for-profit private company, with revenues going to the refundable pool. Any further fees associated with the “justice” process must have been specifically ordered by a judge as part of the sentence for a crime by due process convicted.
- Outlaw all quotas for fines, citations, arrests, prosecutions, or convictions, at all levels of government. Sir Robert Peel’s Principle 9: “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”
- Do not elect prosecutors or district attorneys, and instead elect a Superintendent of Trials; an official who is reported-to by prosecutors, but does not themselves perform any prosecutions. It seems like, in practice and in actual observation, a major fault of the current system is that prosecutors think their function is to successfully prosecute, and that they should appeal to voters by showing a quota of successful prosecutions. Since voters don’t have infinite attention, they may also, in the moment, fall into the fallacy of thinking that a prosecutor is like a gear of the machine whose function is to successfully prosecute as many big criminals as possible. So do not elect any official whose job title or job function is “prosecutor”; elect a Superintendent of Trials instead.
It may seem like a minor change, but poor incentives for prosecutors, including elected prosecutors, seem like a very large part of the in-practice problem; we have a police-prosecution-prison complex.
- Value the time and recognize the humanity of people dealing with the court system. Establish traveling cars with simple video equipment to allow citizens to appear for most court summons by telepresence. Require most court summonses to offer flexible hours, including evening hours. If the court requires an in-person appearance it must offer transportation and daycare.
In practice, cascading “failure to appear” issues are a huge cause of illegalization for many marginalized people who could not afford to just vanish from their job or their children. The notion of “innocent until proven guilty” includes the system trying not to make somebody’s life hell at a point where they have not yet been convicted of any crime.
Or similarly: Give people up to 1 hour on the phone when they’ve just been arrested, not “one phone call” (EDIT: a reader says this is a myth and the usual rule is 3 phone calls). For actually-innocent and not-very-criminal people especially, this will be one of the most stressful times of their lives. Give them some time to just talk to a friend, even. If you can’t afford to pay a carceral employee for 1 hour to monitor some person’s phone call, you can’t afford to arrest that person at all; try having fewer ‘crimes’.
- Comprehensively decriminalize most victimless offenses. As much as some people are hurt by drug abuse, it’s become clear that our society simply cannot afford the impact the Drug War itself has had on our most vulnerable communities — specifically, the Drug War’s creation of an underground illegal economy centered on those marginalized communities.
The United States has less than a third of the population of China, and more people in jail and prisons. We can’t get started on this problem without reducing the number of ‘crimes’. It seems obvious that we should reduce victimless ‘crimes’ before victimful ones; and we should begin by decriminalizing the victimless ‘crimes’ whose existence has alienated the greatest number of marginalized people from law enforcement: drug laws and anti-sex-work laws.
- Outlaw all mandatory minimum sentences at all levels of government. This has proven to simply be a terrible idea in practice and is one of the major reasons the US has more people in the carceral system than any other nation.
- Outlaw plea bargaining at all levels of government. With the number of ‘crimes’ reduced and mandatory minimums outlawed, restore Constitutional rights to due process by eliminating plea bargains. Many countries do not have plea bargains at all, and they get along fine. Other countries allow extremely limited plea bargaining, such as for at most a 25% reduction in sentences; this may be an acceptable fallback.
The Constitutional framers’ intended right to a trial, and the principle of “innocent until proven guilty” itself, does not permit that a person be threatened with a vast increase in sentence for their temerity in asking the justice system for due process. And please don’t say “But we can’t afford to give all those people trials!” If it’s too expensive to give them a trial, it’s too expensive to arrest them and put them in prison. You cannot just expand the carceral system until the US has more prisoners than any other nation, while keeping the court system bottlenecked, so that people are vacuumed through. Reduce the complexity and expense of trials, have fewer ‘crimes’, hire more judges, whatever. If you can afford to build more and more prisons, you can afford to first expand the intake process that determines whether people should even be in prison. Consider that one of the Constitutional purposes of a right to trial might be to stop the government from imprisoning more people than it can give trials.
- Restore the Constitutional right to a speedy trial by establishing three tiers of crimes with 1/7/30 day maximum times before a trial begins and 7/30/90 day maximum times before a trial ends, with a minimum of 10 years in prison or $100,000 at stake for the 30/90-tier trials. This time limit may be extended at the request of the defense, but not of the prosecution. Recognize this as the Constitutional definition of a “speedy trial” at the federal level so that it is binding on all levels of government.
Hire more judges, reduce the complexity of trials, have fewer crimes, whatever; you can’t impose arbitrarily great penalties on somebody not convicted of any crime. The Constitution implies that a government may not create more criminal burden than it can resolve through speedy trials, not just resolve in trials period; a trial is itself a kind of penalty being imposed on somebody who obviously has not yet been convicted.
- Outlaw bail. Judges shall determine if somebody is a flight risk, not a flight risk, or needs an ankle bracelet. At present, bail operates as a fine on marginalized people by forcing them to pay a fixed fee to a bail bondsman; and as a mechanism for discrimination in favor of rich people who can afford bail. Many countries don’t have “bail” and get along fine.
- Restore disparate enforcement as a judicial reason to challenge and strike down a law. It is contrary to the commonsense nature of a “law” that a government not enforce it legally. Demonstrating that white people are allowed to use marijuana on television without being arrested should be recognized as a legal reason, and not just a blatant moral reason, to revoke a black person’s sentence for marijuana possession. The 14th Amendment may not be evaded by passing laws which supposedly apply to everyone but are actually being enforced only on a racial minority, or any kind of minority, or marginalized people of any kind. If up to me, I would furthermore say that this contradicts, not just the 14th Amendment, but the Constitutional framers’ implicit notion of a “law” in the first place.
- Establish a federal exchange for law enforcement liability insurance that imposes a minimal burden on insurance agencies to offer policies nationwide, with uniform reporting requirements across states. With qualified immunity abolished, we want to ensure sufficiently healthy competition in this market that for Tiny City, Wyoming to outfit their police with rocket launchers would make their premiums go up, and for Tiny City, Wyoming to offer comprehensive de-escalation training would make their premiums go down. This is less likely to happen if there are only 3 big state-licensed insurance companies per state.
- Outlaw choke-holds immediately instead of waiting for liability insurers to do that. Symbolism counts, in law enforcement. We would not want police officers wearing Confederate flags; and we do not want them using now-infamous holds on people that make them afraid they might die. I think we are legitimately past caring what the statistics say about choke-holds, at this point. They have become a symbol of a predatory, aggressive, dangerous, and overbearing law enforcement officer strangling an unarmed citizen to death.
- Reform carceral systems to be less hellish and criminalizing, recognizing that certainly many of the people there are innocent despite the current legal system’s not-so-best efforts. Prison guards fall under the ‘deadly force’ category; unions of them may not be legally recognized, nor may their work be outsourced to a private company. All revenues of the prison system are recognized as punitive revenue and go to the tax-filer refundable pool. Use video surveillance with immediate actual responses to establish a firm and complete rule of law inside prisons, without violent dominance of the strongest inmates; tolerating prison violence leaves inmates in very poor shape to reenter society as law-abiding people. Prisons must provide at least 3000 calories per day and 120 grams of protein without extra fees; violating this principle puts people in bad shape when they get out of prison and try to reenter society. (No, 2000 calories was not a realistic daily requirement. That was always a made-up figure with no basis in science.) Work by inmates must offer at least half of minimum wage, and the inmates’ wages must be fully available to them as a nest egg when they prepare to reenter society. Prison guards should be trained in de-escalation; their employment process should be subjected to whatever anti-bully filters are figured out for police, if we ever figure those out; and their training should remind them frequently that some of the inmates must certainly be complete innocents.
- Suspend or revoke driver’s licenses only for offenses directly about driving safety. Now and then some legislator gets the bright idea to have a law suspending somebody’s driver’s license for reason X. This is apparently a huge pain point in practice for members of marginalized communities and a primary cause of their illegalization; they can’t actually continue going to their job and taking care of their kids without driving. This may not sound like a big dramatic point; but it’s one of the top priorities for helping the actual people on the ground, along with getting rid of predatory towing companies.
This gets pride of last place on the list, to emphasize the point that sometimes what you need to help people is to respect their actual most painful points on a day-to-day basis. That’s what it sounds like to actually care how people’s lives go, apart from exciting blood-pumping slogans.
Further arguments and details appearing in a separate page:
(I gently advise that you stop reading and call it a day, if these further arguments start to sound too lengthy and boring. If the point has already been made, there’s no reason to keep on reading.)
- Demilitarizing law enforcement.
Should police and civilians have identical levels of weaponry available?
- Zero tolerance for deaths of unarmed persons.
Regardless of the current statistical frequency of such killings, I am generally on the side of any faction, group, or just plain people who request that they be killed even less often.
- Requiring body cams with teeth.
This technology would be deployed into an adversarial situation where both clever police forces and clever criminals may try to defeat it.
- Disentangling punition from revenue / de-privatizing law enforcement.
The power to forcibly extract money, and the profit-motive, are like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen — an incredibly dangerous and volatile combination that should only be allowed inside the heavily armored combustion chamber of explicit tax legislation. This principle can be applied more widely to remove the predatory incentive between rogue state elements and marginalized people’s wallets.
- Comprehensive decriminalization / challenging disparate enforcement.
Prohibition in the 1920s kept the newly created ‘criminals’ inside mainstream communities. The new Prohibition dumps its ‘criminality’ into already-marginalized communities as toxic waste. It seems difficult to fix the relationship between law enforcement and those communities without fixing this.
Where to go from here:
I lack the temporal resources to pursue this agenda any further myself, and must get back to my day job. I leave it here for anyone to pick up who wants to pursue it further.
I have more money than I have time, and would contribute up to $10,000 towards the legal and clerical work to have the Comprehensive Reboot of Law Enforcement turned into a formal legislative agenda, if there was an interested legislator’s office at a state or federal level.