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Russell Hebets Dec. 17, 2020

Higher Standards for Police Become Law

Colorado Senate Bill 19-166, enacted by the governor in May of 2020, alters the procedures of the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board in the name of police accountability. This law requires that the board revoke the certification of law enforcement officers who have lied about significant facts during internal administrative actions, in any addition to an official criminal justice record, or while testifying under oath. Previously, such untruthfulness did not always prevent officers from keeping their certification, and if their employment was terminated at one agency for that untruthfulness they might be able transfer to another in the same state. SB19-166 closes that loophole. Six people in Colorado so far have lost their law enforcement certification under the new law.

What Is the Rationale?

How did SB 19-166 come about? One might assume it resulted from the explosive reinvigoration of efforts to reform the criminal justice process following the killing of George Floyd, but this is not the case. The bill was written in 2019, before Floyd’s death, and at second glance this should be no surprise: the internal practices of police agencies, after all, have attracted intensifying scrutiny well before 2020. One of the main suspicions of reformists, going back no doubt to the very beginnings of policing, has been that police departments unfairly shield their own members from charges of misconduct. Data to support this suspicion are limited but not absent. For example, a 2006 special report by the Department of Justice, Citizen Complaints about Police Use of Force, indicates that, of all complaints made by the public against police officers and resolved by the time of the report, internal affairs investigations sustained only 8%; the remainder of the resolved complaints did not initiate any disciplinary action.

Is this in itself proof of widespread corruption? No. It is of course possible that the vast majority of complaints were unreasonable, unsupported by evidence, or rooted in misunderstanding of the scope of lawful police authority. It is possible, even if the 8% sustain rate were improper, that the rate has changed since 2006, and we would not want to draw conclusions about the current state of things from outdated data. However, we also have research to draw on—again, limited research, but still—suggesting that when civilian bodies are given the chance to review police agencies’ internal dispositions of complaints, the sustain rate increases. Why would this be true if the dispositions had been just all along?

Closing Thoughts

Police have a hard job. They work under great stress, often putting themselves in physical danger to perform their routine functions; they must grapple with the darkest aspects of people’s nature; their mistakes are broadcast mercilessly, especially now. These conditions would probably promote in anyone, as similar conditions do in military settings, an impulse of cohesion, an impulse to band together for the sake of survival. However, the point of police agencies is not to cohere, it is not to survive at any cost. Their point is to guard the public welfare. Police must have the trust of the people they operate among, or else they start to cause more problems than they solve. As the notion that communities cannot rely on their police to be fair grew in the public mind, legislation such as SB 19-166 was sure to follow.  

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