What Current Police Reform Efforts Lack: A Call to Federalize
Updated: Apr 16, 2021
(Note: An earlier version of this essay appeared as an Op-Ed in The Hill on July 17, 2020).
What if we reimagined the very nature of American policing? And what if we started by acknowledging that local policing has been a failure in this country since its origins in the 19th Century? From slave patrols in the South, to controlling the Dangerous Classes in the North, the foundations of local policing were built on the assumption that state-sanctioned coercion was to be weaponized by the white and wealthy against the poor, black, and brown.
And while the House of Representatives recently passed a comprehensive police reform bill, it still largely aims to control the "downstream" aspects of policing: use of force, restraint holds, methods to hold police accountable. The bill ignores that the federal government actually maintains little control over local policing; and it fails to address the structural features of local policing that produces such uneven policing service across the U.S. And so, at this crossroads, I pose what only six weeks ago would have sounded like a ludicrous question: Why not disband most local police forces and federalize them? Not under the seemingly obvious choice of the Department of Homeland Security -- which would simply perpetuate policing's singular focus on crime fighting -- but under the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS).
Instead of spending the $115 billion it takes to annually fund local policing, states could cost-share to fund policing under the USPHS, an arrangement that could realize many benefits. First, the USPHS -- with the help of a national advisory board of expert practitioners, members of the public, and academics -- could standardize policies, training, recruitment, and hiring processes across the U.S., which would increase professionalism and eliminate the disparate quality of policing across jurisdictions. Moreover, federalization limits the ability of known "problem" officers jumping from one police department to another due to lack of data sharing across agencies. Perhaps most importantly, bringing local police under the authority of the USPHS would give policing the attitude adjustment it needs to start viewing itself as a key institution in advancing the overall public health mission of the United States.
The Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service is charged with protecting the health of the nation, particularly in vulnerable and under-served communities. These tend to be the very communities in greatest need of protection by police, but which often require protection from the police due to disproportionate rates of deadly force, K-9 deployments, and serious misconduct. Federalizing the police under the USPHS allows us to realign our crime fighting strategies with our public health goals; and it increases the capacities of both institutions: Police would still "fight" neighborhood crime, sometimes using force, occasionally even using deadly force. But they would be recruited, trained, and socialized to view crime through the lens of public health, acknowledging that high-crime communities are often unhealthy communities. And for its part, the USPHS would control a national workforce of locally deployed police officers trained to -- among other things -- case find, contact trace, and help educate the public on the best practices to slow the spread of highly contagious diseases.
The USPHS falls under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and therefore the Executive Branch. Thus, it already has some "regulatory" authority embedded into its 11 professional divisions, which center around nursing, medicine, dentistry, and engineering. A new professional division of Policing and Community Safety could easily integrate into the Commissioned Corps' existing bureaucratic structure and would elevate policing to a true profession that could finally see itself for what it is: A social determinant of health, requiring a diverse workforce of people who understand the tragedy of sometimes having to use coercive force as part of an overall protection of life mandate.
To many Americans the idea of a nationalized police system is anathema because policing in the U.S. -- unlike most countries on earth -- has always been organized at the lowest levels of government and championed as highly responsive to local communities. But which communities, precisely, are we talking about? Surely not the one in which George Floyd was murdered, or the one where Rayshard Brooks was shot in the back. Besides, several big-city police departments in recent years have operated under federal control in the form of consent decrees -- think, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia -- due to unlawful use of force and stop-and-frisk practices. Rather than use the federal government as an occasional instrument of police accountability, we should simply federalize local policing and expand its role to include the preservation of public health.
But federalizing would be a delicate matter, partly because the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution provides that local policing is a state -- not a federal -- government enterprise. This means that states would have to voluntarily transfer local police authority to the U.S. Public Health Service; and they could do this through something analogous to Britain's Police Act of 1996, creating local policing authorities, and outlining the nature of the agreement between the states and the federal government. Indeed, the Tenth Amendment provides the perfect backstop that would give states the authority to prohibit (in the collaboration agreement) the Executive Branch from using this new Policing and Community Safety division in destructive deployments as it did the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Portland, Oregon earlier in mid-July. With proper safeguards and legal controls, a federalized policing system under the USPHS could remain responsive to local authorities while evolving into a professional, highly standardized, and coordinated policing system that brings a public health mentality to law enforcement and community safety.
The convergence of a pandemic and the protests against police in response to the killing of George Floyd demonstrate how public health and policing intersect with one another in America's most vulnerable and under-served communities of color. If ever there were a time to initiate a national conversation about how policing and public health might work as a national-level singularity to advance health and reduce crime, now is that time.
Robert J. Kane is Professor and Head, Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, and the coauthor of Jammed Up: Bad Cops, Police Misconduct, and the New York City Police Department. His current book, Policing Beyond Coercion: The 'New' Idea for a 21st Century Mandate (Wolters Kluwer), is due out in early 2121. Follow on Twitter @rjohnkane