A Year of Change: A Look at State-Driven Police Reform Efforts

It would be an understatement to say that in the last 12 months the world has changed in ways no one could have predicted. A global pandemic disrupted social norms, healthcare infrastructure and economic stability. Add to that a series of high-profile law enforcement incidents that ultimately resulted in renewed calls for police reform — and it’s easy to see how historians will look back at this year as a pivotal moment for change in the face of challenge and adversity.

One of the outcomes was an unusually active legislative environment, with states from coast to coast focused on enhanced as well as new police reform legislation. During this tenure of rapid change that continues today, it’s important to step back and look at the big picture in state-level policing reforms — to more thoroughly understand them in a broader context. According to a recent analysis by The Washington Post more than 2,000 policing-related bills have been introduced across the country since June of 2020. By unpacking and understanding the broad aims of these bills, departments and their leaders can better anticipate potential reform efforts that affect them and implement more effective change management strategies in response.

state-driven police reformTypically, most states have a pre-determined legislative period, with some not even meeting on an annual basis. In the last 12 months, 23 of them held special legislative sessions outside of their normal legislative periods. While many of these sessions were called to tackle the impacts of the pandemic and provide special funding for first responders, it also gave lawmakers the opportunity to address urgent calls for police reform specific to use of force as well as accountability and transparency.

Newly compiled numbers from the National Conference of State Legislatures show that almost half of the states enacted some form of legislation that changed the way police operate. These reform efforts covered everything from physical interactions during arrests to record-keeping and compliance. In addition to these 24, several more states passed oversight reforms, calling for commissions or other groups to study ways to improve standards and transparency.

Two of the most common types of reform have been those addressing the use of neck-restraints, or chokeholds, and those mandating an officer’s duty to report or intervene. 18 states and the District of Columbia passed laws limiting the use of neck restraints with ten states banning them outright. Other legislation passed in 12 states requires officers to report and, in many cases, attempt to intervene to prevent out-of-policy instances of force by a fellow officer. Further, some states have enacted broader, more comprehensive reform measures — for example:

  • Colorado Governor Polis signed into law a broad accountability bill titled Enhance Law Enforcement Integrity, where agencies will be required – among other things – to report all details of all use of force incidents that result in death or serious bodily injury; track all instances when a peace officer resigned under investigation for violation of policy; and maintain a database on officer de-certifications
  • Governor Sununu of New Hampshire signed an executive order establishing the state’s Commission on Law Enforcement Accountability, Community, and Transparency. Benchmark Analytics was selected to develop and implement a state capture of employment, training, and disciplinary history as well as certification across 200+ statewide law enforcement agencies.
  • Washington state Governor Inslee recently signed a dozen police accountability bills into law, notably including the creation of a statewide database of police use of force incidents, through the Washington State Office of the Attorney General.
  • New York, where Governor Cuomo issued an executive order that every law enforcement agency in the state adopt a reform plan by April 1, 2021. Titled New York State Police Reform and Reinvention Collaborative, the order requires that agencies develop clear policies specific to Use of Force and Early Intervention.
  • In Virginia, Governor Northam signed sweeping legislation comprised of a dozen bills covering everything from use of force and tactics to crisis intervention protocol, all areas requiring additional training and certification for officers.
  • The state of Utah passed several law enforcement bills signed into law by Governor Cox, including requiring Utah agencies to meet the FBI’s standards for reporting use of force — as well as setting up a panel to consider and make recommendations on data collection.
  • After the passage and signing of the Minnesota Police Accountability Act of 2020, Benchmark Analytics partnered with Minnesota POST to implement a statewide portal to capture internal affairs misconduct complaints across 400+ of the state’s law enforcement agencies.

Additionally, some states are mandating the reporting of incident data to both state and federal agencies. These reporting requirements as part of oversight trends are generally aimed at increasing the dataset available to the communities that agencies serve — as well as policymakers, researchers and data scientists. One of the thoughts behind these new requirements is that, with a larger dataset to study, it will better enable evidence-based decision-making at multiple levels of government and law enforcement.

Most observers see these legislative actions as the beginning, rather than conclusion of a process towards meaningful change in the way law enforcement agencies track and manage their forces. Comprehensive personnel management systems can make a substantial difference in the ease of which this data is monitored internally and reported out to various agencies and oversight bodies.

The Benchmark Management System (BMS), for example, features reporting tools designed to simplify data retrieval and review, putting incident-based data for individual officers, comparative stats for units, and a host of other data analysis features in one, simple-to-implement tool. This not only allows leaders to ensure accurate and timely milestone reporting to satisfy the requirements of any new legislation mandates, but day in and day out it empowers them to monitor performance data in real time, giving them an up-to-the-minute picture of the officers under their command. BMS also includes a next-generation Training Management System to help agencies track and manage any additional requirements and certifications as a result of new reform standards.

Law enforcement agencies are experiencing a time of rapid change in the way they do their work. New legislation will undoubtedly continue to shape not only law enforcement practices, but also training and the way data is managed and reported. By having a deeper understanding of not just the mandates of new legislation but the trends they represent, law enforcement agencies and their leaders can better rise to the occasion, ensuring their officers are well-equipped to navigate these changes.

Our next article will be looking at the role that state POST organizations are expected to play in these latest reform efforts.