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How Exactly Should the US Reinvent Its Police Departments?

The nation's Founders offered a couple clues on how to deal with guys with guns.

Police officers take position to shoot tear gas at the demonstrators in Downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo: Apu GOMES / AFP via Getty Images)

Police officers take position to shoot tear gas at the demonstrators in Downtown Los Angeles on May 30, 2020 in protest against the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died while while being arrested and pinned to the ground by the knee of a Minneapolis police officer. (Photo: Apu GOMES / AFP via Getty Images)

The Founders of the United States of America had it right: control the guys with guns.

At the Constitutional Convention in 1787, our nation’s Founders put our military in a box, which has prevented a military coup for over 240 years.

We have to do the same today with our police.

While the Supreme Court today is deciding whether to reevaluate "Qualified Immunity" for police officers, cities across America are considering how to reinvent their police departments.

Minneapolis is leading this charge, with one suggestion being to eliminate the police altogether and replace them with a community-based "public safety" service.

This is a great start, and at the very least cities should require 100% of their police to be residents of their communities and emphasize public safety.

But there are other vital steps communities should consider.

All across America, we need police oversight boards that are independent of police departments, complete with subpoena and indictment powers, and that can impartially rule on police actions and matters.

We also need the leadership of police departments, the top authority, what we now call the Chief of Police, to be an elected civilian who's main responsibility is to protect the community, not the cops.

When the Founders sat down to write the Constitution, they had a big debate over whether America should have a standing army during times of peace. They had that debate because armies had a nasty habit of overthrowing elected governments, all the way back to the time of the Greeks.

Our Founders didn't want an armed military under the control of a military official, because they knew how badly that could turn out.

As James Madison told the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, "A standing military force… will not long be safe companions to liberty. [...] Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people."

So, our Founders wrote in the Constitution that the chief executive of the military and armed forces had to be an elected civilian, the president, who could be replaced by the civilian voters every four years.

They also time-limited military appropriations to a maximum of 2 years to force Congress every session to re-evaluate the military.

But the military coups that our Founders feared have now been undertaken at the level of our cities by another armed force: our police.

That same constitutional principle—that the head of the armed force, the ultimate authority to which they must daily answer, should be an elected civilian—is needed for oversight of police in America.

Additionally, funding for police needs to come under regular scrutiny.

When it came to the army in 1787, the Framers of the Constitution said explicitly that Congress must, every two years, reevaluate the entire military appropriation from top to bottom. It is the only place in the entire Constitution where the ability of Congress to appropriate and spend money is time-limited.

They wrote in Article 1 Section 8 of the Constitution, that Congress only had the power: "To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years..."

Similarly, police departments should have their entire budgets, from top to bottom, reevaluated by their communities every two years and subject to complete control by their elected officials.

The power to carry and use weapons, and employ violence in general, is one that has been limited in the United States since our founding when it comes to the military.

We need to extend that idea to police, so that citizens nationwide are protected from what are now clearly far too many out-of-control police departments.

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