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Editorial: Criminal justice reform should be rooted in how we act together
Police and Citizens

Editorial: Criminal justice reform should be rooted in how we act together

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Police and Citizens

On Aug. 18, VCU Police stood in the foreground as a group of protesters blocked the street outside the Siegel Center. The Virginia House of Delegates was holding a session inside the arena.

When the Virginia General Assembly convened its special session in August, Richmond and other cities across the nation were reeling from a summer of nightly protests calling for criminal justice reform.

The pressure of an historic pandemic, the wrecking of a well-built economy, the horror of a human being suffocated to death on tape, and the reckoning of how race plays a role in the relationship between police and citizens all set the tone for the flurry of proposals flowing through the House of Delegates and state Senate.

Police can’t do their jobs if reforms strip their ability to promote public safety. Citizens can’t create change if legislators — and law enforcement — are married to previous standards. Criminal justice reform should be rooted in how we — police and citizens — act together.

A closer scrutiny of the policies being considered by Virginia lawmakers shows a robust, bipartisan discussion on how to avoid mindless deaths and how to achieve a better system.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has created a nationwide database of legislative responses across the country to policing issues. The bills can be sorted by state, year or status, and by several categories, including: executive orders; oversight and data; policing alternatives and collaboration; technology; training, standards and certification; and use of force.

The final issue — use of force — propelled Americans into streets across the country in recent months. In the NCSL database, the “use of force” definition includes “deadly force, excessive force, less lethal force, duty to intervene, duty to report, qualified immunity, and specific types of force such as chokeholds or tear gas.”

These are the most visible examples of how a police officer acts. This year, Virginia legislators have filed 15 bills under that category. Policies under consideration range from banning the use of neck restraints, to instituting the duty to render aid if someone is suffering a serious bodily injury or a life-threatening condition.

But behind the use of force are some front-end steps to better policing and an improved criminal justice system. Nineteen bills have been filed under training, standards and certification. Proposals range from setting minimum objectives, to implementing new curriculum for entry-level officers, to establishing clear guidelines on a use of force continuum. In an ideal criminal justice system, strong training and well-defined guidelines limit instances where justice is not served.

Those standards cannot be judged without transparency on the trends driving the relationship between police and citizens. Oversight and data refers to “legislation creating or modifying independent law enforcement oversight and investigation procedures; data collection, tracking and reporting; record transparency requirements; and time-limited task forces or study committees.”

Seventeen bills carry that label, with proposals addressing tough questions such as: Can the Virginia attorney general file a civil suit or inquiry into alleged unlawful patterns or practices by law enforcement? Would new systems such as local civilian review boards or a statewide telephone hotline help the public hold police accountable?

Then, there are ideas that call for a more significant overhaul of law enforcement and its funding. The policing alternatives and collaboration category details “legislation authorizing and funding alternative responses for law enforcement” including relationships with “behavioral health, medical and social services professionals.” Five proposals pop up under that NCSL filter, each of which focuses on the appropriation, criteria, training and dispatch of crisis response teams in support of policing.

What’s most notable is that of the 61 total bills in Virginia tracked by the NCSL, several carry two or even three of the category filters. And the takeaway is clear. We should have a basket of reforms with adaptable language that bring healing, not rigid bills that claim to bandage every tension without addressing unforeseen circumstances.

Police should think through lenses other than the “use of force.” Many officers already act on that principle and they should continue be trusted to do so in difficult situations. Perhaps better data transparency or systems will help root out instances of wrongdoing. But no matter what bill is written, preserving public safety always will pose dangerous conditions and decisions.

And Virginians should not be resigned to living in an unjust system. There are ideas that can change the mindset of how police and citizens engage. Crisis intervention teams can augment — not replace — the need for upstanding, respectable policing. Better training and standards can make police officers seen as part of the community, not apart from it. That trust will have to be earned, too.

The ideals mentioned above will not come to fruition with just the passage of any bills this General Assembly session. Implementation takes time. But an overthrow of the criminal justice system as we know it is untenable, and so is accepting that it’s good as is. We hope and expect solutions will be found somewhere in the middle.

Chris Gentilviso

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