This week is the fourth anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests that spread across the nation after that tragedy.
In the years since Ferguson placed police behavior under the national microscope, confidence in the police has risen and plummeted. Overall mistrust in some communities is a constant, especially among African-Americans. And recent incidents of white people calling the police on black people for simply living their lives haven’t helped the situation.
Our nation is in the midst of a volatile moment, and it’s crucial ― literally a matter of life and death ― that we identify how we got here and how we can get out. I’m a former Salt Lake City police chief. I believe we should start with the officers.
In the last four years, we’ve learned an undeniable truth: America’s police departments do not always hire and retain the best officers. We have to make it easier to fire dangerous cops, the ones who pose a threat to communities and to the profession.
“We have to make it easier to fire dangerous cops, the ones who pose a threat to communities and to the profession.”
I believe the majority of officers across the nation are well intentioned and strive to keep the public safe. But their valuable contributions are overshadowed by instances of bad policing and by police departments’ inability to remove substandard officers.
Take the example of New York City’s police officer Daniel Pantaleo, the man responsible for the 2014 chokehold death of Eric Garner. Many would agree that Pantaleo, because he had a significant history of poor policing, should not have been working the day he approached Garner.
In 2014, ThinkProgress found that Pantaleo had seven disciplinary complaints and 14 individual allegations lodged against him, four of which were substantiated by an independent review board. He choked and killed Garner with a move that the NYPD does not permit officers to use.
Cleveland police officer Timothy Loehmann should have been kept off the streets too. If he had been, 12-year-old Tamir Rice might still be alive. Despite the fact that Loehmann lied on his job application, had a record of insubordination on the job and had a letter in his personnel file saying he had “an inability to emotionally function,” he was allowed to leave one police department in Ohio and join another.
We need to make immediate changes to ensure that bad police officers don’t stay on the job, as Loehmann and Pantaleo did. Because of collective bargaining and municipal statutes that value officer security over the public good, police chiefs often have a difficult time firing officers, even when there’s a track record of poor policing. To remedy this, police departments should write independent policies and codes that set a higher bar than the criminal code.
Additionally, officials should hold their officers accountable through clear employment processes that won’t get caught in red tape and will allow leaders to take swift action. Right now, pushback from police advocates and employment statutes favoring police unions can make this process slower than reformers in the police community care to admit. Labor contracts, instead of being tailored to the needs and desires of the officers, should be aligned with social justice and community concerns. This would prevent police departments from using labor contracts and fear of litigation as excuses to keep bad officers on the street.
“Because of collective bargaining statutes that value officer security over the public good, police chiefs often have a difficult time firing dangerous officers.”
America’s police departments should also require that all applicants sign waivers permitting their potential employer to check their law enforcement background before hiring. This simple practice could prevent the rehiring of bad officers.
True policing reform should be about transforming police departments from the inside out. We need better officers on the street, fewer bad officers in our departments and a national policy that would hold every officer in every city, state and region accountable.
We know what happens when we fail at police reform. Lives are ended. Too often, they are black lives. Community outrage ensues, and the crisis of law enforcement legitimacy deepens.
The events of Ferguson and the years of subsequent protests have shifted the national consciousness, but they haven’t yet yielded enough concrete results. In the four years since Michael Brown Jr. was killed and in the almost 30 years since I became a police officer, barely anything has changed. We cannot go on like this. There’s so much work to be done, and making it easier to fire dangerous cops is a good place to start.
Chief Burbank is the vice president of strategic partnerships at the Center for Policing Equity. He is a former chief of the Salt Lake City Police Department.