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Herma Percy is a professor at the American Military University and a former professor at the Homeland Security and Criminal Justice Institute at Anne Arundel Community College. This was written for the Baltimore Sun.
The death of George Floyd beneath the knee of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin nearly a year ago and the guilty verdicts against Chauvin, who was fired from the force and, last Tuesday, convicted of murder and manslaughter, has reignited the push for national police reform to end systemic police brutality and unnecessary use of deadly force.
We’ve seen it from Democratic congressional members pushing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, protesters on the streets of Baltimore and beyond crying out for justice outside police headquarters; activists talking about defunding the police; an influential think tank fighting for abolishment of qualified immunity, which shields public officials from liability when they break the law; and in Attorney General Merrick Garland’s overturning of the Trump administration’s ban on using consent decrees to redevelop local police departments.
None of these attempts to control police behavior addresses the heart of the problem, however: solidarity and secrecy among officers. To change police norms and police subculture, we must change the “blue shield.”
We cannot deceive ourselves about all that it took to get a victory in the Chauvin case. Although the video was central evidence, it took about a dozen law enforcement officers, including the police chief, to go against police norms and testify against this rogue officer to get a conviction.
It’s significant that of the 38 witnesses called by the prosecution during the trial, law enforcement made up the majority of the professional experts called to testify against a fellow officer. In other words, the prosecution needed “good” cops to testify in order to put this “bad” cop away. The testimonies of these officers during the trial demonstrate that the quickest and most effective ways to get police reform, is not just from all the proposed external control measures to oversee police behavior, but simply changing the blue shield with stricter police internal accountability and preventive controls.
Any reform measures in policing also must include greater protections for good cops who honor the badge and service. Currently, there are more protections for rogue cops who behave badly than good cops who speak up. The same whistleblower protections for our federal law enforcement agencies must be extended to all our local police organizations.
Police reform is a police problem to solve; police are in the best position to bring about change and reform. It is their actions that cause the problem, not the lack of laws. Police can police themselves. These are adults with the capacity for self-restraint, self-discipline and self-control — particularly when those qualities are praised and emphasized by department leadership.
In every occupation, millions of adult Americans practice self-control to reject impulses to abuse authority in the line of work. The excuse that the pressure of policing puts officers in a different category still does not abdicate their responsibility to adhere to legal standards of human rights and civil rights. Police departments have simply failed to change police behavior themselves.
Nonetheless, the mechanism to bring about levels of change in the police subculture begins with training that focuses less on control and more on service; less on using deadly force and more about developing the skills to avoid its use; less on recruitment videos glamorizing paramilitary tactics that often attract cadets with the wrong motives and more on building community relations.
This type of reform would give rise to a new blue shield that emphasizes pride and dignity of the badge, rather than solidarity and secrecy. The change in the norms of the subculture will make all officers intolerant of “bad” cops who do not meet these standards.
We have the evidence now in this conviction of Derek Chauvin that “good” cops can bring about the real change we need in police departments. Our legal and political systems cannot do it on their own.