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National police reform is needed now


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

In the 2,000 years since the Roman poet Juvenal first asked the question, “Who guards the guardians?”, the debate over regulation and oversight of civilian law enforcement has yet to be resolved.

Protests, ranging from peaceful demonstrations to destructive riots, have focused attention once again on this question, with the unifying theme of calling for something to be done. Exactly what that something is, remains nebulous, with everyone’s solution varying. It is also an issue that seems far away to people in northcentral Wisconsin.

Law enforcement culture in this region is far different than in the large urban centers, where many of the most serious incidents have occurred. The culture here is focused on de-escalating situations, rather than inflaming them.

It is a culture based on recognizing there are human beings on both sides of the badge and, while law enforcement is a tough job, there are lines that must not be crossed. This level of understanding makes it easier for law enforcement to work with social workers and others, to help resolve problems and seek solutions, rather than focusing solely on imposing short-term order.

Any reform must be about making the law enforcement experience seen here as the rule across the country, rather than as the exception.

It is up to debate what the best course is to get to that place, but it is clear that any reform needs to be based on a three-legged stool of training, transparency and accountability.

While the comparison is not entirely apples-to-apples, the hours of training requirements for careers such as cosmetology, far exceeds the minimum hours needed in many urban police departments. Requiring additional classroom instruction and supervised training in the field, is a good first step to avoiding mistakes made in life-and-death situations.

As far as transparency, there needs to be greater openness in the decision making process, especially within large law enforcement agencies. Policies must be public and clearly understood by all levels, from the rookie patrol officers to the chief.

At the same time, developing a better system of tracking officers with patterns of complaints needs to be a priority, much as there are systems in place for teachers and nurses so agencies don’t dump their problem employees on other areas.

There needs to be increased accountability when it comes to law enforcement officers who cross the line. While law enforcement officers should have some protection from frivolous lawsuits over how they do their job, the court-created doctrine of “qualified immunity” as it has been applied to the use of excessive and deadly force, goes too far and should be eliminated.

Unfortunately efforts to improve accountability run into a brick wall of resistance from entrenched unions, that seem more concerned with protecting bad apples, than with improving the quality of law enforcement for everyone.

Law enforcement is a hard job, and the vast majority of law enforcement officers deserve respect and thanks for a job well done. It is these officers who must stand up and support reforms that increase standards, transparency and accountability, so that a few bad apples are not allowed to bring dishonor to their profession. Members of the Courier Sentinel editorial board include publisher Carol O’Leary, general manager Kris O’Leary and Star News editor Brian Wilson.