Making Sense of Policy News
So you’ve seen a news headline with information about a policing bill introduced in the legislature, moving through the process, voted out of the legislature, and/or signed by the governor. How do you know what this (proposed) legislation changes about the way police act in your community?
Step 1: Identify the Bill
Many news outlets will describe components of the bill in a news article, but to get the full story, the best place to look is the piece of legislation itself. To find it, you’ll need the bill number. All legislation has a title and a number based on when it was introduced into the legislature. Those numbers are always preceded by an abbreviation; HR (House Resolution), SB (Senate Bill), S (Senate), and A (Assembly) are some common examples. The abbreviation indicates in which chamber of a bicameral legislature the bill originated. Check the page about legislatures to better understand the differences between the two houses.
Step 2: Search your State's
Some news articles will not name the bill by title or number, but they often do refer to legislators who sponsored, aka proposed the first draft of, the bill. If you are having trouble identifying the bill but know some of the sponsors, or even if you have the bill name/number but not a direct link to the bill, the next place to look is the state legislative webpage. Every state has its own webpage for its legislature—some even have separate pages for the two houses. Those legislature webpages also have a search bar for those interested in the details of a piece of legislation.
Using the search bar, type in the number of the legislation or its sponsor to find the legislation in question. If you have trouble finding the piece of legislation, try keywords like “law enforcement” “police” and “justice.” Searches will typically lead you to pages with information about the bill, and a hyperlink to “Read the Full Text.”
You may find two bills with identical text, but different numbers and abbreviations. This is an example of a bill for which lawmakers from both houses strategized to draft legislation, which was introduced separately in each house. This strategy speeds up the legislative approval process because both houses consider the points of the bill at the same time and then reconcile the differences rather than the traditional process of passing in one house, moving to another, and then sending the bill back to its original house for the final review.
Step 3: Understand the Legislation
Once you’ve identified the legislation and located its full text, it may feel difficult to make sense of all the legal jargon and confusing formatting. Here are a few tips for navigating the text of the legislation.
Check the first page for a summary of the legislation. These oftentimes describe the key components of the text.
Note subdivisions of the same point because they will usually explain smaller details of a key theme.
In cases where new bills adjust earlier laws, look for text that is underlined or text that is italicized to indicate the changes proposed by the new bill.
Utilize Ctrl + f to locate provisions key to your topic of interest like “warrant” for no-knock warrants or “attorney general” for independent investigation.
Finally, pay attention to the type of legislation you are reviewing. Laws become laws when they are engrossed, a.k.a. signed by the governor. Before that, they are bills, or amendments to bills. Resolutions are not legally binding, but rather are a reflection of the views of a legislative body. Joint Resolutions are non-legally binding statements passed by both houses of the legislature.
Step 4: Red Herrings vs.
Given the diversity of actions that can be considered “police reform,” here is a list of reforms that sound important, but may not have an outsized impact on policing in your community.
Most bills do not completely ban no-knock warrants, but instead limit their execution. Bills that mention requiring all warrants be conducted between specific hours of the day or requiring officers to receive approval from multiple command levels before executing a warrant do not undermine the system by which officers enter a home without announcement. These bills chip away at a smaller part of a larger problem.
Limits on controlled equipment, specifically MRAPs and lower than .50-caliber weapons, advance the disentanglement of military practices and law enforcement. Programs that require community approval before equipment requisition are good, but not guaranteed to be effective.
Military style training:
Diversity and inclusion training will not change the inherently militant response of police forces. De-escalation training is well-intentioned, but usually similarly ineffective. Arbitrarily requiring more training hours for officers leads to increased police budgets, not decreased militarization.
SWAT teams are rarely referenced in police reform efforts, so if the bill mentions data collection for SWAT Teams, the main point to identify is who will have access to the data.
For Profit Policing
Civil Asset Forfeiture:
States may try to change the incentives of civil asset forfeiture by requiring that all funds are pooled together in a state general fund, or the state’s education fund. This reform does not address the perverted need for citizens whose assets have been forfeited to prove that they were not involved in a crime. Eliminating civil asset forfeiture at the state level would be a small step in the right direction, but does not capture the full problem. Because of a practice known as equitable sharing, local law enforcement can receive some of the proceeds of investigations technically begun at a federal level. True asset reform involves requiring all asset forfeitures to be limited to criminal convictions a.k.a. the state cannot take your assets without charging you for a crime.
Quotas are easy to eliminate de jure (legally), but may persist de facto (in reality) without significant accountability measures and local commanding officer buy-in.
Cost of misconduct:
Attempts to hold law enforcement individually responsible for paying misconduct suits are unreasonable and politically infeasible. Adjustments to how city and police budgets pay for misconduct costs can be effective in limiting liability.
Broken Windows Policing
Check to see that the decriminalized offense in question has had its criminality dropped to the point that police officers are no longer involved in its enforcement. If officers can still arrest someone for committing that low-level nonviolent action, it has not been truly decriminalized.
Data collection is important, but its publication is more relevant. Note who has access to the data in addition to what information is collected.
Note who is responsible for overseeing a misconduct investigation. If another officer is involved in determining the offending officer’s misconduct, then the investigation isn’t truly unbiased.
Since the justification for Qualified Immunity is based on rulings from the supreme court, it is still unclear at this time whether legislative bans against it will be upheld in the long term. Also, abolishing Qualified Immunity will not prevent bias in juries, investigations, or prosecutors, though it may allow cases to come to trial more frequently.
Bonus—Community Accountability Boards:
Community accountability boards rarely have the authority to discipline an officer convicted of misconduct, to bring allegations against an officer, or even to subpoena an officer to provide testimony. Community accountability boards draw attention to a problem, but usually are ill-equipped to resolve it.
Body cameras in and of themselves do not create accountability. They require significant funding to purchase the cameras and save the recordings, are susceptible to malfunction or officer negligence, and are not automatically released to the public. Though body cameras do serve to bring to light issues of misconduct that may otherwise go unnoticed, they do not stop that misconduct from occurring.