The increasing number of officer-involved killings has intensified calls for new approaches to policing in the commonwealth and across the nation. Reformers want law enforcement to be held more accountable for their actions and to address issues of racial bias in policing.
But some police advocates fear the proposed reforms could make it harder to fight crime and attract quality men and women to the profession.
The issues are complex, which makes honest and open debate about potential solutions to address concerns of racial bias, brutality, and other issues vitally important, says Eastern Kentucky University criminology professor Pete Kraska,
“They’re gut wrenching, they require a lot of soul searching,” says Kraska. “But it’s absolutely necessary given where we’re at.”
For the police on the street, allegations of racism, misconduct, and resistance to change have left some officers feeling vilified, according to Ryan Straw of the Kentucky State Fraternal Order of Police. He says policemen and women and their unions know reform is necessary and are willing to work with their communities to make policing better.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that law enforcement… is doing things wrong,” says Straw. “But that also doesn’t mean that we that can’t sit down at a table and educate ourselves and also educate other people.”
The president of the Kentucky Association of Police Chiefs says it comes down to trust.
“We have to earn the trust back from the communities,” says Joe Monroe, who is also the chief of the University of Kentucky Police. “You get that trust by having transparency and legitimacy.”
Efforts to Limit No-Knock Warrants
State and local officials have enacted several reform measures in the year since Louisville police officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor during the serving of a search warrant on her apartment.
Last June, Louisville’s Metro Council banned the use of no-knock search warrants in Jefferson County. Such warrants allow police to enter a residence without first knocking or announcing themselves. Now Lexington is considering a similar prohibition.
While state lawmakers stopped short of an outright ban, the 2021 General Assembly enacted new procedures for acquiring no-knock warrants and limits on their use. Straw says the state FOP worked with Senate President Robert Stivers, the sponsor of Senate Bill 4, to address public concerns while maintaining police access to the warrants.
“Statistics show the number of no-knock warrants that are issued in Kentucky are few and far between,” says Straw. “We just didn’t want to lose the tool for the safety of the community.”
Kraska agrees that no-knock warrants are rare but adds that no-knock raids are not. He says research shows that police acquire standard warrants, but then frequently execute them without first knocking or announcing themselves,
“We could ban no-knock warrants tomorrow across the board nationally,” says Kraska. “It’s not going to impact at that great of a level the problem of police using tactical teams to raid people’s homes in the middle of the night. It won’t stop that.”
Beyond how search warrants are carried out, there’s also an issue with how the courts evaluate and approve search warrant requests. As a former public defender, Walter Katz says he witnessed an approval process that was too easy.
“You’d see investigators walk in with a search warrant, see a judge basically leaf through it, have some casual chats with the detective, and sign it and the detectives are on their way,” says Katz, who is vice president of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures, an advocacy group that focuses on criminal justice, health care, education, and tax policy reforms.
State Attorney General Daniel Cameron has assembled a task force to review the search warrant process in the commonwealth. The group includes lawmakers, prosecutors, law enforcement, community leaders and representatives of the NAACP. Monroe says he hopes that diverse group will develop strong criteria for obtaining no-knock warrants.
“By doing that, we’re going to be able to look and see if we can make Kentucky a best model… for search warrants,” says Monroe.
ACLU of Kentucky policy strategist Keturah Herron was among those advocating for a statewide ban on no-knock warrants. She says Senate Bill 4 is a good first step but adds that it doesn’t do enough to sanction officers and police departments who violate the new procedures.
“We can do all of these different reforms, but what happens when police still do that? How are they held accountable and responsible?” Herron says. “As far as hard accountability against that individual and the department as a whole, we still have not seen that in Kentucky.”
Herron also says she hopes something meaningful will come from Cameron’s task force, but she says she has little trust in the attorney general. Cameron declined to recommend murder charges to a grand jury assigned to investigate the actions of the Louisville Metro Police officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death.
Decertifying Police for Misconduct
The General Assembly also passed a measure to make it easier to decertify police officers found guilty of crimes. Senate Bill 80 is meant to prevent an officer charged with misconduct in one department from leaving and finding work in another department without facing any kind of disciplinary action.
“Nobody hates a bad police officer more than a good police officer,” says Monroe. “This bill really strengthened the ability for law enforcement executives to push for decertification of those officers to keep them from resigning and going to another agency. That happens way too much in this country.”
The police chiefs’ association worked with the FOP on the bill, according to Straw. He agrees that “bad eggs” shouldn’t be able to jump from one department to another, but he adds that those officers accused of misconduct must be treated fairly.
“If you’re charged with a crime, you get due process, and we just wanted that for police officers, too,” says Straw.
Police decertification in some form exists in 46 states, according to Katz. But he says many of those laws only cover officers convicted of a felony, and usually do not address the practice of department hopping.
Reformers have called for a national database of bad officers to make it harder for them to move to another agency. Monroe says Senate Bill 80 establishes a database for Kentucky but does not mandate that police departments use it.
“Law enforcement doesn’t want to appear that they were wrong and that’s part of the problem in reform,” says Monroe. We have to put our egos aside. We know that we are part of the problem and we have to correct that problem.”
The FBI maintains a national database about incidents involving the use of force by police that results in someone’s death or serious injury. But Katz says only about 40 percent of departments contribute information to it. He says police should be required to collect a range of data from use of force to traffic stops and make that information available to the public and researchers.
Protections from Civil Liability
Bipartisan talks are under way in Congress on a federal police reform bill that is named for George Floyd, the Black man who died after a Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck for more than nine minutes. One reported sticking point in the negotiations is the issue of qualified immunity, which shields police officers from civil suits arising out of actions they take while on duty.
Herron says addressing qualified immunity is a necessary first step in any kind of police reform.
“If we’re not talking about ending qualified immunity, then we’re not talking about anything,” says Herron. “We can do all the reform in the world but until police are held accountable for the misconduct and for brutalizing communities and terrorizing communities, we’re not doing anything.”
Katz says settlements against police officers and departments are reaching $500 million a year. Still, he says the existing standards governing qualified immunity make it absurdly difficult for plaintiffs to even pursue a case against a police officer. Instead of forcing the plaintiff to prove the policeman or woman didn’t act legally, Katz says the burden should be on the officer to show that he or she did follow policy.
“The effort to reform qualified immunity is to decrease that absurdity by altering the standard,” says Katz.
But Straw says protecting qualified immunity is critical to attracting and retaining good officers on the beat. And despite what people think, he says, the immunity doesn’t provide blanket protection for law enforcement.
“It sounds like they can go out there and do whatever they want and know that they’re protected, but it’s just not the case,” says Straw.
Even when the courts do allow a case against an officer to proceed, it’s unlikely the officer will ever pay any settlement money, according to Katz. He says 99 percent of the time the damages against an officer are paid by his or her employer.
“For the most part, police officers are not being held personally liable,” says Katz. “They’re not actually writing the check. The taxpayers are.”
Addressing Racial Bias
Katz says data bears out what civil rights activists have argued for years: There is a significant difference in who police target in traffic stops, searches, arrests, and use-of-force incidents.
“Those types of disparities are what really drives a lot the trust issues in Black and brown communities,” says Katz. “That type of conduct is what really impacts trust and therefore undermines legitimacy of policing.”
Kraska and Herron blame what they describe as outdated policies, such as the war on drugs, for generating racial disparities. Kraska says for the last 25 years police have been trained to proactively stop people to look for the possibility of criminality.
Such traffic stops are a beneficial policing tool, according to Straw. He points to how a routine traffic stop led to the capture of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVey.
But reformers argue that people of color comprise a disproportionate share of those detained in traffic stops. And sometimes those stops can go very wrong. Last month, 20-year-old Duante Wright was killed by a police officer in suburban Minneapolis during a traffic stop. Police say they stopped Wright for an expired registration tag. Wright’s mother, who spoke by phone with her son just moments before he was shot, says he was stopped for having an air freshener dangling from his rear-view mirror. That led some to accuse the police of using the air freshener as an excuse to target a young Black man.
“Law enforcement aren’t trained to stop people based on an air freshener on a mirror. There has to be a bigger reason,” says Straw. “If officers are stopping people like that, they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing.”
While updating policies can happen through legislation, addressing racism among police officers is a very different challenge. Kraska says concerns about racial bias among law enforcement is not a judgment against all officers. But where racism does exist, he says it must be taken seriously.
“We talk a lot about implicit bias… and I think it’s part of the reckoning that we have to do,” says Kraska. “There is a regressive element in policing that doesn’t just have implicit bias. It has explicit bias.”
The Black Lives Matter movement and news coverage of office-involved shootings have forced police departments to take a harder look at bias issues. Monroe says that should occur at all ranks of a department, but it must start at the top.
“A police leadership team has to create that culture of diversity and inclusion,” says Monroe. “That’s what leads to the success in policing.”
More consistent policies and better training might help, but the decentralized law enforcement system makes that challenging. Katz says there are 18,000 police departments across the U.S., including 400 in Kentucky. More than half of those departments have fewer than 50 officers; a quarter of them have fewer than 10, according to Katz.
“Where are they going to find the time… and the financial resources to do that training for their officers?” says Katz. “Is there perhaps an opportunity here to consolidate some of these fragmented departments so we have more unified policy and training and funding for police departments?”
Defund or Reallocate?
A common refrain in the protests of the past year is “defund the police.” But Kraska says that would likely create more problems.
“You could defund police departments and it’s not going to reform them,” he says. “It might make things worse. It might make them approach the community in a more antagonistic way than they are right now in some areas.”
A better solution, Kraska says, is to remove tasks that police do not do well from their official duties. For example, he says research indicates that law enforcement personnel don’t make good school resource officers.
Herron would also remove police from dealing with mental health crises. Some departments are adding social workers and mental health professionals to help respond to those types of calls. Instead of defunding, she advocates a reallocation of funds.
“I think that we have to divest from policing and invest in communities to make sure that people have what they need,” says Herron.