An article written by retired officer Randy Petersen about police reform two years ago saw a spike in views recently when he posted it on his LinkedIn page.
“More people [were] interested in that in the last six weeks than probably in the last two years combined,” said Petersen, who now works for Texas Public Policy Foundation researching law enforcement and criminal justice issues.
He also recently received calls from two state lawmakers—unusual, since the Texas Legislature is not in session—to discuss police training, hiring, unions, and police use of military equipment. On June 15, he spoke at a TPPF livestreamed event about police reform and had “double the highest amount of live viewers.”
Since George Floyd’s May 25 death in Minneapolis, public policy advocates say they have seen a spike in support for police reform. A nationwide survey conducted June 11-15 by AP-NORC indicated almost 70 percent of Americans want to see a “complete overhaul” or “major changes” to the criminal justice system.
Heather Rice-Minus, vice president of government affairs at Prison Fellowship, said Democratic and Republican lawmakers and Trump administration staff have contacted the organization since Floyd’s death. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Ind., asked to discuss a proposal to reform qualified immunity for police. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., asked for the group’s support for the police reform bill he introduced in the last week.
Prison Fellowship has not yet endorsed the Senate bill or a House police reform measure introduced by Democrats, but Rice-Minus said the group wants to see lawmakers address several issues: officer de-escalation training, community policing models, qualified immunity reform, and the transfer of military equipment to police. She said the energy around those topics could lead to substantial policy changes. “There’s something happening in this country right now that I’ve not seen in all my years of working on these issues,” she said.
She also hopes the momentum will carry beyond policing to criminal justice reforms. Prison Fellowship is pushing for proportionate sentencing, bail reform, and access to good legal counsel for those on trial.
On June 16, President Donald Trump signed an executive order calling for greater police transparency, more de-escalation training, and a program for social workers to help police interact with crime victims, people experiencing homelessness, and the mentally ill. John Malcolm, director of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, called the measures a step in the right direction. He noted more journalists have requested interviews with him lately and said the momentum for reform could produce results in areas where the Senate and House bills agree—officer training and better use-of-force policy. “I think that there is a recognition that some police reform is very much called for, and I think it’s going to happen,” he said.
But a spike in interest doesn’t always equal good legislation.
Petersen, the retired officer in Texas, said the president’s executive order already covers most of the law enforcement policy areas the federal government can influence. The most effective reforms will come as local departments change hiring and training practices and learn their communities’ priorities and expectations.
“That’s not as exciting as saying, ‘Let’s just defund the police,’” Petersen said. “No one wants to protest saying, ‘Hey, in 30 years, we’d like to have different policing.’”
Reforming the laws police enforce will also more quickly change how the police operate, he said. Petersen pointed out that Eric Garner died in 2014 after resisting New York City police officers who attempted to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes. Less burdensome laws—especially for less serious offenses—would decrease chances of violent police interactions, Petersen said.
High-profile pushes like the Minneapolis City Council’s resolution to transform its police department and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vow to cut police funding have snatched headlines. But the AP-NORC poll found most Americans oppose defunding police departments. Rafael Mangual, a legal policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, warned funding cuts that reduce police presence in vulnerable neighborhoods would lead to more crime: “I think a lot of people who are supporting these protests are doing so from a perch that does not allow them to see or understand life in a truly dangerous neighborhood.”