The good-cop approach: Washington goes the gentler route on police reform

Some police critics view the culture in U.S. forces as so rotten that only the stick of defunding, dismantling, and denying certain legal protections might force them to change. Some cities are going that route. In Washington, however, the carrot approach is winning the day.

But critics say only drastic, tough measures will change police culture

A woman walks past an upside-down U.S. flag affixed to the Seattle Police Department last weekend. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Emily Galvin had nicknames for the nasty practices she said she saw police officers getting away with when she was a public defender in New York City.

Like perjury. In her circles, it's called testilying.

Then there's collars for dollars, a term coined in a 1994 New York City corruption report. It described how officers arrested more people near the end of a shift so they could collect overtime pay.

Galvin said she witnessed officers repeatedly lying in courtroom testimony without ever getting charged.

She's now deeply skeptical that the reforms currently being discussed in Washington, D.C., will result in a meaningful curb on abuses.

In her view, federal politicians are using carrots to entice police to change their behaviour. In other words, the good-cop approach.

As opposed to the bad-cop approach of using sticks such as defunding, dismantling, and denying particular legal protections in an effort to force police to change.

U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, signed an executive order Tuesday that promised to reserve special discretionary grants only for forces that seek to meet new standards in training and transparency.

Trump praised police when he signed his executive order in their presence this week. His plan would set aside federal funding for forces that meet new standards in training and transparency. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Trump's Democratic election opponent, Joe Biden, has gone a bit further — he's suggesting reforms to the legal protections that help prevent officers from being sued by victims of police abuse. 

But dozens of progressive groups in a letter urged Biden to take a more drastic step and slash police funding, which he's proposing to increase to help forces reform their practices.

'Pretty much all the reforms have been tried'

"You have a sort of uncorrectable culture problem," said Galvin, who now runs a group, Partners For Justice, that provides legal assistance to people in need. 

"Pretty much all the reforms have been tried. Retraining has been tried. Implicit bias. Sensitivity training, and harm-reduction, and community policing, and bans on chokeholds. They've all been tried."

She pointed to the case of Eric Garner as an example.

He was killed by an officer's chokehold in New York City in 2014 — after the move had already been banned there.

Another officer on the scene admitted in court to making up details about Garner to paint him as committing a felony.

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The officer who administered the fatal chokehold was fired five years later, and with the support of his union is now suing to get his job back.

According to a Washington Post investigation, about one-quarter of officers fired for misconduct since 2006 have succeeded in getting their jobs back.

Galvin said she is encouraged by reforms she's seeing at the local level.

San Francisco, Albuquerque, New York, Boston, Louisville, Washington, Denver, Minneapolis, and others have just announced a variety of measures such as budget cuts, chokehold bans, disbanding units, shifting responsibility for non-violent emergencies away from police.

At the federal level, both major parties say they're committed to passing legislation that goes beyond what Trump announced.

But the parties are in a deadlock over the idea of suing police officers. 

That issue took on new salience this week when the Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to qualified immunity, the decades-old standard protecting officers from civil suits.

Republicans won't touch the issue.

Tim Scott, one of only three Black members of the U.S. Senate, is leading the Republicans' reform effort. He said he can't envision qualified-immunity changes getting through the Republican-controlled Senate.

"They see that as a poison pill on our side," Scott said in Sunday's episode of CBS's Face the Nation.  

"Any poison pill in legislation means we get nothing done. That sends the wrong signal, perhaps the worst signal, right now in America."

Democratic Sen. Cory Booker responded that if officers feared being personally sued they might not have Tasered and dragged a pregnant woman through the street in Chicago over a parking ticket; shot a Utah cyclist in a case of mistaken identity; or killed a pneumonia-stricken man who was stumbling around an Oklahoma hospital. 

"No one in America should be above the law," Booker said on the same program.

"We have to ask ourselves as a society, do we want to have a nation where police officers who do really awful things cannot be held accountable through civil rights charges?"

Resisting reform

Police unions have mounted stiff resistance to reforms. 

Well before the current tumult, some union leaders tussled with city leaders who sought a less-confrontational attitude in policing.

Minneapolis offers a now-notorious example that Galvin says illustrates how policing problems are deep and systemic.

A combative union leader there rebelled when the city banned military-style training for its police officers — he arranged for union members to get the training elsewhere.

Minneapolis police union president Bob Kroll, seen here in 2018, has vigorously resisted past reforms aimed at de-militarizing police. Now, with his force at the centre of the global controversy, the city is talking about disbanding the force. (Elizabeth Flores/Star Tribune via AP)

In the case of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, which has sparked an international uproar, officer Derek Chauvin was actually training younger peers when he knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes and killed him.

Now, the city is exploring disbanding the entire Minneapolis force and coming up with a new public safety model. 

Research on the role of unions

State legislators in New York have just voted to make disciplinary records public for the first time in decades. New York City council is proposing a $1-billion cut from the police budget, and the police department has disbanded certain units involved in abuse cases.

The Big Apple's police union warns this will backfire — on officers, and on the public.

Union president Patrick Lynch said in a statement that officers have been murdered before, and publishing their records will only expose them to more danger.

As for the threatened budget cuts, Lynch said: "[City council] will bear the blame for every new victim. … They won't be able to throw cops under the bus anymore."

New York City police union leader Patrick Lynch, seen here in February, says the city's reforms will endanger officers and the public. (AP file photo)

One Canadian researcher, however, says there's evidence that police union protections themselves have done damage.

Rob Gillezeau of the University of Victoria teamed up with colleagues at the University of Memphis and the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis to examine what happened when U.S. police forces gained collective-bargaining rights, from the 1960s to the 1980s.

They found that jurisdictions experienced a 34 to 65 per cent increase in police killings of non-white civilians after officers gained new labour rights.

They found no effect on the killing of white people. And they found no similar jump in neighbouring jurisdictions where collective bargaining hadn't started.

Those findings are consistent with the findings of a paper released last year by University of Chicago researchers, which focused on Florida.

And a report by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found a one-third higher rate of complaints about officer use of force in departments that allowed collective bargaining.

Union rules help shield officers accused of abuses, Gillezeau said. 

Between collective-bargaining protections and numerous state laws, he said officers accused of killing someone have special rights during the investigation.

"The officer has to agree to the time and location of an interrogation. They can delay. They can get access to, huddle with, other officers," Gillezeau said in an interview.

"I don't think this is really debated: Officers face a parallel justice system in the United States that is not the same as other citizens."

Police unions argue that it's unfair to tar all officers with the worst examples among the tens of millions of interactions each year between police and the public.

What about Canada?

Gillezeau said he would like to do similar research in Canada, but he can't because so little data is made public here, especially as it pertains to race.

"We know pretty much nothing [about Canada]," he said.

He said it appears, from a database collected by the CBC, that Canada is worse than most developed countries, with one exception: the U.S., where fatalities involving police average more than 1,000 per year, compared to about 25 a year in Canada.


Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.