Primed by the Covid-19-induced fiscal shortfall and catalyzed by the “Defund the Police” protests over the summer, the Los Angeles City Council will reduce the city’s police force by 350 sworn officer positions. This reduction comes after a planned $150 million cut from the LAPD’s budget, announced earlier this year. Officials have been scrambling to reorganize the force since.
Police forces across the country have been hit hard by layoffs, early retirements, and resignations. Seattle’s police chief resigned after the city council voted to reduce her force by 100 officers. Chicago’s police department saw its retirement rate jump to twice the normal level this year compared with the last five. Smaller cities weren’t spared: Asheville, North Carolina, had lost 13 percent of its force by September.
Officer ranks have been steadily declining. Between the late 1990s and 2016, the number of police officers per capita nationally dropped by more than 10 percent. Filling vacancies is not easy, as applications for sworn officer positions have dropped by more than half since 2010.
Well-staffed police departments are essential to maintaining public safety. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice found that increased numbers of officers in the 1990s reduced crime by an estimated 5 percent to 10 percent.
Most Americans—including 81 percent of black Americans—want a strong and effective police presence in their communities. But recent tragedies have shaken trust in policing, leading to widespread support for reform. Policymakers should back measures that refine accountability procedures and make data on police activities more accessible without hamstringing the police’s ability to manage crime. For example, with so much media attention paid to police brutality, little data exist on the details surrounding police use of force. The lack of nationwide, standardized reporting means that the public relies on sometimes-misleading mainstream and social media reports to fill in the gap.
One commonsense reform would require departments to collect and report use-of-force data in a standardized format to a central repository. Departments should also make data available on locally. Comprehensive and localized data can reveal where structural or recurring problems exist, or where well-performing departments are being unfairly blamed.
Rogue officers tarnish the reputation of the profession. Too often, they’re kept on the force because of contractual restrictions on disciplinary procedures. Police-union contracts in 72 of America’s largest cities placed at least one limitation on disciplinary processes, such as restrictions on the types of questions that internal investigators can ask officers and unduly short statutes of limitations on civilian complaints.
Police officers deserve due process, but restrictions on discipline can’t go too far without serious consequences. Departments that negotiate with unions over disciplinary standards log more per-capita citizen complaints but discipline fewer officers. Unreasonable protections should be removed, and department chiefs granted direct authority over discipline matters.
The most common provision in police contracts lets officers appeal disciplinary decisions made by their supervisors to labor arbitrators. Binding arbitration gives labor lawyers the power to reinstate a fired officer and the final say over staffing. A study in the American Bar Association’s Journal of Labor & Employment Law found that arbitrators reinstated nearly half of the police officers fired between 2011 and 2015.
Some cities, like Portland, Maine, have brokered compromises with police unions to create alternatives to binding arbitration. In Portland, serious disciplinary sanctions get reviewed by a neutral citizens’ commission. Commissioners cannot be city employees or officials; cannot be immediately related to a police officer; must not have an arrest record; and must not have filed a complaint against the police in the last ten years.
Such reforms protect officers and the public from the damaging actions of a few bad cops. Most Americans don’t want to take more resources away from police departments or vilify the entire profession. Lawmakers should consider policies that offer a more constructive way to improve policing while maintaining public safety.
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