Editor’s Note: Mitch Landrieu is a CNN Political Commentator. He served as mayor of New Orleans from 2010 to 2018 and founded E Pluribus Unum to help break down barriers across race and class in the South. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
The brutal death of George Floyd has rightly trained our eyes on systemic racism and bias in our criminal justice system and the long history of law enforcement’s excessive use of force, which is most often aimed at black Americans. It is clear that nothing short of a complete transformation of policing is necessary to ensure safety for the people of our country.
Whether it is implicit or explicit, racial bias is real – it can influence perceptions and behaviors, with deadly consequences. In 2019, black Americans made up a disproportionate number of the 1,003 people who were shot and killed by the police, according to the Washington Post. It’s a hard number to get out of your head. But in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the national conversation around police brutality, we must push the debate beyond ending police violence.
Ultimately, we need law enforcement, but law enforcement alone will not make us safer. Front-end investments in children and families, community development, education, recreation, job training and social services play a vital role. We must also dramatically reimagine modern policing to instill true public safety.
Past efforts at national police reform have been stymied by politics and a lack of will. That need not be the case this time. The good news, thus far, is the debate has shifted from “why” to “when and how far.” Congressional Democrats last week introduced the Justice in Policing Act, the depths of which has never been done before at the federal level and, perhaps most importantly, also encourages changes at the state and local levels. Republicans leaders like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Tim Scott have said publicly they would be open to supporting certain provisions in the bill proposed. This is long overdue, and we must move federal reforms forward, but the true test will be whether local departments embrace a change in culture.
The US Department of Justice was investigating the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) when I took office. My first act as mayor was to request assistance from the US Department of Justice to completely and totally transform the NOPD. This led to one of the most sweeping consent decrees in the nation’s history, which is still ongoing. It required a complete rewrite of nearly every policy and procedure, established strict use of force standards and use of force investigations, as well as training and supervisory standards.
Beyond the consent decree, NOPD became an early and voluntary adopter of department-wide body-worn cameras. We established a completely new hiring, training and retraining apparatus. The department’s early warning system was completely restructured. We put a civilian attorney in charge of police investigations, including those involving serious uses of force by members of the department. We deepened and strengthened implicit bias and de-escalation training. We also worked on long overdue changes to how patrol officer rankings work and how detectives get promoted. And even beyond police department internal policies, the city mandated standards for arrest, increasing the use of summonses in lieu of arrests for misdemeanor offenses.
One of the most successful measures, though, has been a peer intervention program called EPIC, Ethical Policing Is Courageous. Developed by the NOPD in collaboration with community partners, EPIC seeks to get officers involved in weeding out bad behavior within the department and represents a cultural change in policing that equips, encourages, and supports officers to intervene to prevent misconduct and ensure high-quality policing. Redefining police culture that makes peer intervention a positive is key. Christy Lopez, a top DOJ Civil Rights Division official in the Obama administration recently noted, “Immediate officer intervention also can be far more effective in preserving and restoring police legitimacy than any after-the-fact apology or even prosecution.”
All of these efforts, on top of having outside oversight holding us accountable, are showing promising results. Complaints against officers were down by about 14%, according to a report that compared numbers from 2016 (850 complaints) and 2017 (734 complaints).
The percentage of residents satisfied overall with the New Orleans Police Department rose from 33% in 2009 to 54% in 2019. The 2019 homicide numbers were reportedly the lowest since 1971, according to Jeff Asher, a data analyst.
This is not to say our reform plans have been a panacea. It has been hard. Systemic racism is hard to overcome. Even more recently, there have been challenges – including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse otherwise peaceful yet sometimes aggressive protests, and recent news about a task force that was making improper arrests.
And while substantially there, the department still has work to do to be in full compliance with the consent decree. But the transformation to date is unlike almost any other police department in the country
Still, we must go further. We can no longer ask police to handle the failures of our social and educational systems. We must reconstruct the laws and policies in our criminal justice system that unfortunately were designed in large part to oppress rather than assist and support the communities they serve. We must hold local prosecutors more accountable. In order for there to be safety, we need to invest way more on front-end services and less on back-end law enforcement and prisons. Keep in mind that the United States incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other nation in the world. It has not made us safer. Violent crime, and homicide rates in particular, continue to be higher than other developed nations.
Other playbooks at reforming policing exist. Under former President Barack Obama, a task force that included national law enforcement leaders outlined a 21st century policing strategies and recommended policy changes, whose work is now carried out by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. Campaign Zero has also started a new campaign called #8cantwait, highlighting eight policies cities and local police departments can adopt to decrease police violence.
We know what to do to transform our law enforcement system. We just need courage – from Congress, governors, mayors, police chiefs, unions, and most importantly, police officers themselves.
The women and men of our law enforcement agencies show courage to go out and put their lives on the line each day, but without the will to change culture from within, and without reimagining what is possible, we will never bridge the divide between police and community. Reimagining policing will make us safer.