San Antonio Express-News
Fed police reform would trickle down
The House Committee on Oversight and Reform recently released a report documenting how U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents engaged in racist behavior and general misconduct without facing serious accountability. They mocked dead migrants and attacked Hispanic lawmakers. This wasn’t just a one-time problem but part of a pattern of misbehavior that undermines trust in law enforcement and perpetuates unnecessary violence.
A systemic problem requires a systemic solution, and the White House has the opportunity to enact lasting reforms not only for Customs and Border Protection but for policing nationwide.
The Biden administration can use its executive authority to reform the myriad law enforcement agencies under federal authority. These agencies include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Agency and other federal-local partnerships, and employ around 130,000 full-time officers across the country.
While partisan feuding appears to have stalled comprehensive policing legislation, the president, federal law enforcement and outside stakeholders can work in concert to create federal policing guidelines and procedures that will not only protect communities now but also set an example for state and local leaders.
At the top of the agenda, department heads can set clear policies that set a standard for conduct, and curtail officer misconduct and excessive use of force. Agencies like Customs and Border Protection, for example, have been accused of extreme violence, such as the 2010 death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas at the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Ongoing litigation by the Institute for Justice is seeking to reform the near-absolute immunity enjoyed by federal officers so they can be sued for unnecessary violence. But we shouldn’t have to rely on judges and lawsuits to change unjust and unaccountable policing practices. The Biden administration has all the power it needs to implement policing reforms, increase transparency and restore public trust in law enforcement institutions.
The Department of Justice already has imposed strict limitations on the use of chokeholds and no-knock warrants by federal law enforcement, and more can be done to regulate and curtail the use of lethal and nonlethal force, including chemical irritants, conducted energy weapons, like Tasers, or other nonlethal projectiles, such as rubber bullets.
To ensure transparency, such regulations should also include enhanced data collection on use-offorce incidents, investigations and disciplinary actions against individual officers, all accessible through a public database. Federal officers also should be subject to swift due process when they violate these rules, which requires setting a national standard for officer decertification to prevent bad actors from moving to other departments.
These executive reforms don’t have to be limited to officer accountability and use of force. Federal law enforcement agencies can show their commitment to reducing racial disparities by collecting and sharing data on the demographics of people involved in stops, arrests and other policing actions.
The Biden administration also has the ability to emphasize noncarceral solutions at the federal level. For example, the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, can continue to expand and invest in community responses to mental health crises and other nonviolent behavior by establishing partnerships with health or social service providers.
The DOJ, in partnership with federal law enforcement agencies, can incentivize performance metrics of departments and individual officers in ways that better match broader community needs, such as incentivizing the use of discretionary powers, diversion from arrests and detention, and advancing public health objectives, such as decreased overdose rates.
Prioritizing these metrics — rather than exclusively punitive metrics — would ensure that officers who are genuinely serving their communities receive the promotions and credit they deserve. While this purview may be more limited within federal agencies than in local and state law enforcement, changing how federal officers are measured can elevate principles of good leadership throughout our nation’s leading policing agencies and begin improving the culture from the top down.
The Biden administration already has shown that it takes police reform seriously by nominating reform-minded law enforcement officials like Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus, recently confirmed to lead CBP; and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez for ICE. The next step is to take executive actions that will support these leaders in their pursuit of accountability, transparency and fairness. Not only will this improve federal law enforcement, but it also will provide a model for the nation’s 18,000 local departments.
Dozens of states have already shown an appetite for reform. The Biden administration can lead the way for further change.