The Thin Blue Line Act Widens a Thick Divide

By Todd Cox, LDF Policy Director

This week, law enforcement throughout the country will observe National Police Week to honor and thank fellow officers who have died in the line of duty.

One officer that will be honored is Montrell Jackson, the Baton Rouge police officer who was killed less than a week after the police-involved shooting of Alton Sterling. Days before his untimely death, Officer Jackson took to Facebook to describe his unique struggles as a black police officer. He recounted the nasty looks he received: from communities that did not trust him when he was in uniform, and from other officers that considered him a threat when he was out of uniform. His experience dramatizes the need for a Police Week that not only focuses on the officers who have been lost, but also draws attention to changes that will improve community-police trust, as well as officer and public safety, in the future.

Unfortunately, Congress has chosen to spend this week considering unnecessary and redundant legislation that will only widen the gap between communities and law enforcement, without any added security benefit. These two bills, the Thin Blue Line Act and the Probation Officer Protection Act of 2017, which are scheduled for a vote in the House this week, prioritize divisive political pandering above meaningful reform.

The Thin Blue Line Act alters the federal criminal code to add the killing or targeting of law enforcement, fire fighters, or first responders as an aggravating factor in determining whether a death sentence is justified. This bill is thoroughly misguided and needlessly duplicative. Federal law alreadystipulates that crimes committed against law enforcement can be considered an aggravating factor in weighing the imposition of capital punishment, and all 50 states have laws on the books that heighten sentences for crimes committed against law enforcement.

The Probation Officer Protection Act would allow federal probation officers to conduct warrantless arrests of any individual an officer claims is impeding their work, well beyond their current authority and training to arrest only those believed to be violating a condition of their release. This dangerous legislation not only raises serious Fourth Amendment concerns, but also, if enacted, will lead to a greater number of tense physical encounters that probation officers are ill-equipped to handle.

Rather than promoting these unproductive measures, LDF encourages members of Congress and individuals across the country to learn about and work to implement some of the reforms that will transform policing to the benefit of all.

Real reform must start with training. Anti-bias training, for example, educates law enforcement officers about the explicit and implicit biases that can govern their decision-making. By facing biases head-on, officers can significantly reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system. There’s also use-of-force training, which teaches officers exactly when and how different types of force should be used, and de-escalation training, which can help prevent officers from resorting to force in the first place. While this may seem intuitive, recruits usually spend seven times as many hours learning how to shoot a firearm as they do learning how to defuse a situation. If police departments throughout the country were mandated to provide these courses, and given federal funding to do so, officers would be far better equipped to do their jobs safely and constitutionally.

Better training must be coupled with better data. We desperately need comprehensive legislation that makes federal funding to local departments contingent on superior data collection and reporting, so that we can more effectively identify troubled police departments and implement sustainable solutions. Unless we understand the scope of the problem, we cannot hope to solve it.

These are just a few of the steps that, when combined with substantive accountability mechanisms, including, for example, limiting federal funds only to police departments that implement constitutional policing practices, could bring lasting change to communities across the United States. Instituting and institutionalizing these much-needed reforms could hardly be more urgent. The desire to honor the sacrifice of fallen police officers should not prevent Congress from confronting the fact that our nation’s policing woes are not about a few bad apples or the need for more ‘law and order.’ The deaths of African-American members of our communities at the hands of police are not isolated incidents, and they will continue to tear at the fabric of our nation until we address the root causes.

Congress needs to be a part of the solution. Reform often starts at the local level, but it can be encouraged and accelerated by wisely crafted legislation. Unfortunately, bills like the Thin Blue Line Act and the Probation Officer Protection Act are little more than political posturing — posturing that we can ill-afford as we seek to build safer and more united communities.