fergusonLaw enforcement in America has often strayed from the role they should be playing in a fair and democratic society. We have seen police turn into warrior cops instead of keepers of the peace. There is no easy solution for a complex problem so long in the making. Undoing centuries of racism and decades of bad policies is not going to be accomplished quickly, but here are three broad goals to at least create a less adversarial relationship between the police and the public:

1) End the Drug War – Ending the drug war means truly deciding to treat drug use as a public health problem instead of a law enforcement issue. It has poisoned the relationship between the police and the public in numerous ways.

Harsh drug laws have turned a huge swath of the population into criminals, making them see the police as adversaries not protectors. It makes drug users afraid to seek help from authorities when they are the victims of crime. It redirects police resources away from where they should be spent on issues like violent crime.

The drug war has caused our prison population to explode, especially among minorities. This created a destructive cycle of criminal records, lost employment opportunity and poverty.

2) End the Militarization of Police – If you tell people they are fighting a “war” and arm them like soldiers, don’t be surprised when they start acting like soldiers instead of cops. Ending the war mentality starts with ending the drug war and ending this insane practice of supplying local law enforcement with military equipment. If you provide people with toys they will find a reason to use them. We have seen a frightening rise in SWAT teams and raids in the past few decades.

3) Police Departments should not be money making operations – The sole job and duty of police should be to protect the public, but several terrible policies have undermined this function by instead turning many law enforcement agencies into revenue generators. This leads to law enforcement focusing on what makes money, not what is best for promoting safety. Some local government, like Ferguson, have come to rely on cops writing tickets to meet their budgets. Even worse is the corrupting influence of asset forfeiture laws, which allow police departments to keep assets they seize in a possible drug case even if no one is ever convicted of a crime. Pursuing rapists costs police money but arresting suspected small time drug dealers can make them money even if they never find any drugs. These terrible incentives breed distrust for the police.

4) More Accountability for Everyone – Dashboard and body cameras improve accountability for everyone. Indications are they make both the police and the public behave better in interactions. When police in Rialto, California started using body cameras they saw a 88 percent decline in complaints against officers and nearly a 60 percent reduction in police officers using force.

I won’t promise these changes alone will fix all the problems but they will go a long way to dramatically improve things.

 Photo by Helium Factory under Creative Commons license