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Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Going Beyond Police Reform: This Group Urges a Complete Rethink

Police Reform

A few weeks after George Floyd died in Minneapolis after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, more calls for police reform are on the table, and rarely have the cries for change been louder. While applauding the efforts, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is urging lawmakers to not just reform police departments, but to rethink their existence.

The DPA has long made the case that the ongoing drug war in the U.S. has led to trillions of wasted tax dollars and misallocated government spending, not to mention the huge toll the drug war's tactics have wreaked within many communities. In addition, the high incarceration rate in the U.S. reaps huge financial costs and has a role in preventing many people from re-entering the U.S. workforce. Further, the focus on drug arrests has piled even more strain on both the U.S. legal and law enforcement systems.

Police reform must be comprehensive

A police reform bill introduced in Congress, the Justice in Policing Act of 2020, is a good first step, said Maritza Perez, director of the Office of National Affairs for the DPA. But she says any legislation needs to shake things up more. “Our nation needs comprehensive reform that will protect our communities and ensure dignity and respect for Black, Latinx and Native American lives,” she said in a statement. “This moment requires a bold legislative solution, and this bill falls short.”

Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), and House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) proposed the bill. Meanwhile, business groups including the Business Roundtable are urging Congress to take action and change the federal government’s role in policing before its August recess.

Reforms suggested in the Justice in Policing Act include banning police departments from using chokeholds, establishing a national standard for use of force by police, and limiting the transfer of military weapons to police departments.

Why tactics that defined the drug war must end

While the bill would also eliminate no-knock warrants, which are often used in drug cases, DPA supports ending quick-knock warrants as well. “Police don’t give enough notice to the occupants of homes, which leads to more problems,” and sometimes deaths, Perez said.

Police have been permitted to enter homes of suspected drug suspects unannounced, or to knock and then enter immediately. In March, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old EMT, was shot eight times in her own home after Louisville police entered with a no-knock warrant. Police said they believed the home was used to sell drugs. No drugs were found, and Taylor's death has fueled the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests nationwide. 

Instead of limiting the transfer of military equipment, DPA supports banning it outright, as part of an effort to demilitarize law enforcement. “Through decades, that program has not been shown to work,” Perez told us. “It has been mismanaged and there is no oversight. There is no fixing something that is that flawed.” 

Some lawmakers and police are in agreement. Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont recently issued an executive order banning the state’s Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection from buying or obtaining military and military-style equipment from the federal government “until further notice.” The Connecticut Police Chiefs Association also recently decided not to purchase any surplus military equipment for the next 90 days. 

Any discussion of police reform nationwide, Perez added, has to include ending the war on drugs and shifting police funding to social programs that uplift low-income communities. The Minneapolis City Council, for example, voted June 5 to replace the city’s police department with “community-based public safety programs.” Meanwhile evidence suggest the private sector is starting to get behind such changes. To date, at least 80 local business leaders in Minneapolis have called for various reforms, including reversing a Minnesota state law that mandates binding arbitration for law enforcement officers who are accused of misconduct.

Why communities need a lift, not more boots

“We have long fought the war on drugs and supported decriminalizing drugs,” Perez continued. “Communities of color have been hardest hit by the war on drugs. We have tried to educate people about how the war on drugs gave the police and law enforcement the opportunity to create harm in marginalized communities.”

Rather than hiring more police officers to arrest more people on drug charges, the DPA supports taking bolder action than what is currently discussed as "police reform," and instead, it seeks investing more in communities. “I don’t think police should play any role in enforcing drug laws,” Perez said. “We especially want to see more funding around harm-reduction programs and treatment programs.”  Harm-reduction programs provide drug users access to clean needles and connect them with services. 

“Any infrastructure improvements that enhance the quality of life have benefits,” Perez said. “This idea has been around for a while and has just gone mainstream. If we invested in communities, infrastructure and things that enhance the quality of life, what would communities look like?”

Just talking about disbanding or reinventing police departments immediately raises opposition in some communities, and Perez said that is a reaction of people who have positive images of police and have had positive experiences. “The scared response is from people who have a privileged mindset that police serve them,” she said. “What scares marginalized people is the idea of more boots on the ground.”

Image credit: Sean Lee/Unsplash

Ellen R. Delisio headshot

Ellen R. Delisio is a freelance writer and paraeducator who lives in Middletown, CT.  Over the past 30 years, her writing has focused on life science, sustainability and education issues. Ellen is an avid reader and beach-goer.

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