Federal Police Reform Talks have Failed – but Local efforts Stand a Better Chance of Success


Bipartisan talks over police reform ended with no agreement on Sept. 22, 2021, with House Democrats and Republicans blaming each other for the lack of progress.


It isn’t the first time that reform at a federal level has been attempted – nor the first time it has stalled.


The sticking points this time appear to be centered around proposed changes to use-of-force procedures and plans to strip officers of qualified immunity, which shields them from being sued.


As scholars of criminal justice – one a former police officer of 10 years – we were not surprised by the collapse of bipartisan talks. Policing in the U.S. is politicized, making it harder to reach consensus in an age of polarization, even though most Americans believe that major changes are needed.


In determining the magnitude of this failure, it is important to keep in mind that policing in the U.S. is inherently local. The nearly 18,000 police departments in the country face a variety of different issues, ranging from problems recruiting enough officers – and of a sufficient caliber – to a breakdown of trust with the community.


Even without legislation from Congress, there is a national blueprint for police reform. President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing set out six pillars to guide departments toward better practices. Those included strategies to build trust with the community, provide oversight, implement better training and procedures, and improve officer safety and well-being.


The federal government can play a clear role in regard to financing reform and addressing non-policing issues that contribute to crime, such as underlying poverty and the lack of green spaces.


In the years after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government made funding available for local departments to buy military-grade weapons and vehicles through the Defense Logistics Agency’s 1033 Program and the Homeland Security Grant Program. The federal government might now be better placed playing a similar role as a funder for local law enforcement reforms.


City by city

While reform has stalled in Congress, there has been movement elsewhere. Steps toward reform are underway in many U.S. cities, including Philadelphia; Oakland, California; and Portland, Oregon.


Many of these efforts are geared toward ending specific practices, including those that tripped up negotiations in Congress, such as the granting of qualified immunity and the use of no-knock warrants. Mayors and city councils nationwide have also pushed reforms emphasizing accountability and transparency, with many working to create independent oversight commissions.


From Ferguson, Missouri, to Baltimore, Oakland and Chicago, numerous city police departments have undergone transformation efforts following controversial police killings.

Not all of the reform movements have lived up to their promises.


After the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown in 2014, police in Ferguson agreed to a reform program that included anti-bias training and an agreement to end stop, search and arrest practices that discriminate on the basis of race.


But five years into the process, a report by the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson found the reforms had done little to change policing culture or practice. This was backed up by a Ferguson Civilian Review Board report in July 2020 that found the “disparity in traffic stops between Black and white residents appears to be growing.”