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A letter to the American public: Here’s what real police reform looks like

Real reform means accepting that change is hard and expensive – but it’s worth it, if you do it right


Real reform looks like more funding for more positions, and more funding for more training.

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Police reform is in the air, in the news and on the Senate floor. Let’s define that phrase, and do real reform before “reform” gets done to us.

There’s nothing to lose. Doing things the way we are is leading to increasing crime rates and decreasing recruitment rates while hemorrhaging institutional knowledge as officers leave the profession in droves.

Current reform initiatives are ugly, expensive and do not work. I’ll tell you what real reform looks like. Then, let’s get it done.

Real reform means more officers

Real reform looks like more funding for more positions, and more funding for more training – for every officer, everywhere, not just those fortunate enough to work for big, rich departments in cities with large tax bases. More officers means lower crime rates and emptier prisons, and that’s what everyone says they want. So let’s do it.

More officers means better coverage. It means officers can leave for training, take classes, vacations or sick days, work out, stay fit, take a BJJ class, or sleep more than four hours.

Tired cops with shoddy training make bad decisions and develop short tempers, because who doesn’t?

Real reform means more training hours

More training means more confident officers and fewer lawsuits. It means officers who aren’t functioning under pressure for the first time on the streets. It means officers with a chance to distinguish between someone with autism and someone with an attitude. It means officers who have used their sidearms and rifles and shotguns in low light, in a crowd, from a vehicle and from the ground, building muscle memory before they’re taking fire. It means officers who can seal a sucking chest wound while they wait for dust off during a standoff. It means a coherent answer in the courtroom when a lawyer says, “Show me your training records.”

Real reform means no green officers patrolling alone before attending an academy, ever again, no matter what. It means this is the 21st century, and policing is a profession.

Real reform means adequate equipment

Real reform looks like officers wearing vests that fit, not vests that are hand-me-downs from two hires back and two sizes too big or too small, or that don’t accommodate inconvenient breasts. It means rifle plates that protect officers against current threats.

Real reform looks like fewer back injuries with load-bearing external vests when managers and selectmen decide an officer’s health carries more weight than optics.

It looks like IFAKs and tac med training, no matter where the officer works and without having to beg. It looks like an officer who doesn’t bleed out from a leg wound because a county supervisor balked at spending $40 on a tourniquet.

Real reform looks like patrol cars with good tires and good brakes no matter how small the department or large the patrol area. It looks like radios that work, repeaters that repeat, and dispatchers who get time to eat and pee, so they can keep track of their officers’ locations and situations without the distraction of empty bellies and full bladders.

Real reform means extending OSHA regulations to every cop in every state. Firefighters have nationally recognized training, staffing and safety standards; cops should too because real reform means ending the snarky fallacy of “They knew what they signed up for.”

No one signs up to wear a bullseye without a chance to defend themselves or to spend days in a cartel grow full of banned neurotoxins without the veil of Tyvek and gloves. No one signs up to track that trash back to their homes and families.

Real reform means supporting injured cops

Real reform means no cop’s family ever again gets a bill for the helicopter that evacuated their bleeding officer from a crime scene before they’re even discharged from the hospital.

It means providing care to the wounded without making them do battle alone with a work comp system loaded in favor of their employers.

It means not firing them when they get beat up, or shot, or run over and can’t get all better in six months or less. Officers are your department’s assets, not blots on a balance sheet.

Real reform means understanding that real life isn’t like TV; the good guy won’t be back by the next episode, cracking jokes with his arm in a sling. Everyone celebrates when a cop shop hires a wounded combat veteran, prosthesis and all. That veteran didn’t go from battered amputee to overcomer overnight. Reform expectations so that officers who get hurt in the service of their city get the same grace we give the veteran.

Real reform means financial security

Real reform looks like pay scales that allow officers to live where their families are reasonably safe without working two side jobs. If you pay fast-food wages, you can’t complain when you get fast food quality. That’s not greed, it’s economics.

Real reform looks like secure retirement. Policing is a life-shortening field. It breaks people down physically and mentally, and the days of desk jobs for salty silverbacks are long gone.

Real reform gives the officers who do our heavy lifting a chance at a dignified life when their bodies and spirits are worn. In an economy that rationalizes millions of dollars for people who play with balls because their careers are short and hazardous, real reform uses that same reasoning to remake shoddy retirement and disability systems.

Real reform means being realistic about what cops can and can’t change

Real reform looks like changing laws that don’t work instead of penalizing officers who enforce them.

Real reform looks like contending with cops as people, instead of robots programmed to respond with emotion only when it’s convenient and photogenic.

Real reform looks like a deliberate end to the social betrayal and sanctuary trauma that comes from sending officers into the worst that humanity can wreak for years unending, and then punishing them for reacting like humans. Humans who are allowed to heal have the emotional reserves to treat other humans more carefully. That’s what everyone says they want.

Let’s do what it takes to get that.

We have long understood the nasty effects of othering, of dehumanizing, and of self-fulfilling prophecies. Real reform means pressure to apply that understanding even to cops.

Real reform means accepting that change is hard and expensive – but it’s worth it, if you do it right. Communities say they want reform now, and those communities express their priorities with their wallets as well as with their will.

If you mean it, then let’s do this – for real.

NEXT: A letter to the American public: Why you must decide what you want from cops

Kathleen Dias writes features and news analysis on topics of concern to law enforcement professionals serving in rural and remote locations. She uses her background in writing, teaching and marketing to advocate for professional levels of training and equipment for rural officers, open channels of communication for isolated departments, and dispel myths about rural policing. She’s had a front-row seat observing rural agencies – local, state and federal – from the Sierra foothills to California’s notorious Emerald Triangle, for more than 30 years.