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Police departments need reform, not defunding. Here’s where to start

The headquarters of the Unified Police Department and the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office are pictured in South Salt Lake on Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Calls for police reform have recently gained national attention. Much of the conversation has been productive, and if centered on reasonable reforms, can make the public safer while holding police accountable. Protests and popular support have pushed Salt Lake City to reduce some funding for its police force, but, as City Council Chairman Chris Wharton noted, “We need time and more information to direct the path for lasting systemic change going forward.”

The need for substantive reform extends beyond protests. The United States as a whole tends to rank near the bottom of similarly-situated countries when it comes to police violence. And within the U.S., there is no strong correlation between underlying crime and police shootings, suggesting crime itself is not driving the phenomenon.

To help keep an eye on the policy ball, we suggest the following five reforms to both promote the return of a productive conversation on police reform and to guide Salt Lake City and the Utah Legislature as it considers the path forward to meaningful and effective policy.

Require police to bear the costs of misbehavior.

Qualified immunity, a court-created legal doctrine that shields officers from liability, has misaligned incentives for law enforcement. Examples of police abuse shielded by qualified immunity abound, ranging from police theft of $250,000 in cash to the police tasing a stopped driver for speeding. Other professionals are held to high liability standards and it should be no different for the police.

If there are concerns about the ability of individual police to afford liability, cities or police pensions could indemnify them through liability insurance. Neighbor Colorado recently passed legislation to hold police liable for misconduct, legislation Utah can quickly adopt.

Reduce the power of police unions.

Unfortunately, unions tend to decouple police abuse from accountability. Research has shown that as police union bargaining power increases, police violence against citizens also increases. And as reported in The Associated Press, arbitration as bargained for and supported by unions protects officers even after being fired repeatedly. Similar to other special interests, police unions concentrate benefits, including job protection, to their members while diffusing these costs elsewhere. Reforms that limit bargaining power, usually limiting representation to wages only, will increase public and state oversight and decrease measures that protect police from accountability, removing the bad apples from the bunch.

Demilitarize the police.

The federal government operates Program 1033, which transfers surplus military equipment to local police departments. This equipment ranges from bayonets to large armored personnel carriers. Research shows that when police departments receive surplus military equipment, officer-involved shootings increase significantly. It is time for local police departments and the federal government to rethink the effect of military equipment on policing.

Equipment designed to quell insurgencies now permeates thousands of localities, but U.S. communities are not Fallujah. In 2018, 78% of the warrants issued by SWAT were for a drug charge, a decrease from the previous year. Defunding and decreasing these programs decreases the chance they will be used against Utah residents.

End policing for profit.

Current Utah law permits police agencies to keep the proceeds they accrue from seizing private property in the course of performing their jobs. Utah attempted to make positive steps last year at reforming this problem through a state senate bill meant to close property forfeiture loopholes and provide additional clarity to the law. Unfortunately, the bill in question failed and a key reform opportunity was missed. Allowing law enforcement to keep the property and proceeds creates a perverse incentive to over confiscate. Additionally, studies have found that these types of policing for profit schemes burden minority communities disproportionately.

Debundle police work, namely security and crime-solving, from other services.

George Mason University economics professor Alex Tabarrok notes the strange accident of many police services, primarily traffic enforcement which across the pond, in England, is patrolled by a separate agency. Aided with modern technology, the need for an armed individual to give the near equivalent of a parking ticket is near zero. Currently traffic enforcement also serves as pretext for searches, an opportunity to search for warrants, or to search vehicles for other potential wrong-doings. Opportunities for escalation abound. With additional creative thinking, lawmakers statewide can begin to unbundle services from law enforcement leaving them with more important tasks than glorified traffic control.

None of these are panacea, but instead steps towards aligning the incentives for law enforcement in order to curb police abuse and protect the people of Utah along the way.

James Devereaux has a B.S. in psychology from Brigham Young University and a J.D. from the College of William & Mary. Ben Harris has a J.D. and MBA from Vanderbilt University and a B.S. in economics from Brigham Young University. All views are their own and not representative of employers or affiliations.