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Police Reform and Social Justice

For nine years I proudly served as a communications consultant within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, with a large part of my job working alongside local police from across the country. I learned a lot and had plenty of fun with law enforcement officers in places such as Stockton (California), New York City, Kearney (Nebraska), Birmingham (Alabama), and Seattle/King County (Washington).

But long before that, I spent time on the other side of law enforcement. As a teenager I got into a lot of trouble, committing serious enough crimes to have warrants for my arrest, and eventually serving four months in county jail in Florida as the world came into the new millennium.

While in county jail, I was treated nicely, assigned a responsive public defender, and was quickly offered a plea deal to remove the felony I was facing without even having to ask for it – no strings attached. As a white kid from the middle-class suburbs, I thought that was normal.

However, I also saw so many of my fellow inmates who were in for far less severe crimes than I was be assigned public defenders who never met with them, frequently had the system lose or delay their paperwork, and were harshly charged with maximum sentences instead of offered any kind of plea deal. The vast, overwhelming majority of these inmates were black or other people of color.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the start of my awakening for major criminal justice and police reform in our country. It would take me a few more years, but I eventually came to realize the need for reversing minimum sentencing laws, abolishing cash bail, ending Qualified Immunity, providing better mental health crisis support, and stopping our clearly racist drug laws.

Instead, we must redirect the time, money, and effort of our local police away from victimless incidents towards the actual crimes in our community: sexual assaults, gun and knife violence, domestic abuse, reckless driving, robberies, and burglaries.

Advancing police reform isn’t about “hating the police” – it’s about building a community police force for the modern era. If we’re good enough at it, we can even step up to be leaders, taking a spot as role models for the rest of the nation on how police can both protect the public’s safety and its civil liberties.

MOBILE CRISIS FOR MENTAL HEALTH

We often do not know how to properly handle people experiencing mental health issues and therefore see calling the police as the only option. I fully support the “Mobile Crisis” model to train mental health professionals to serve as First Responders for appropriate incidents, and will make sure it is funded as a public safety priority.

TRUE ACCOUNTABILITY

Setting up the new Civilian Oversight Board was a good step, but it entirely relies on county leadership to implement recommendations and act on findings. We should ensure it is independent of the County Manager, and push the state government to allow oversight of the Sherriff’s Office and county jail. Another task for the state legislature: ending Qualified Immunity, which is easily abused to keep officers who commit crimes on the job from being held accountable.

REVERSE AND RESTORE

With legal, regulated sales of cannabis on the horizon, it’s critical that Arlington and Virginia use this new opportunity to reverse decades of immense harm done to individuals, families, and their communities by prioritizing giving these licenses to those affected. Fully restore the rights of all felons after they’ve served their sentence – or in the case of the right to vote never remove it in the first place. Pursue new models of ‘restorative justice’ with reconciliation and rehabilitation instead of relying on only punitive measures.

DE-MILITARIZATION

It is impossible for a militarized police force to be a community police force. Even here in Arlington we have armored vehicles and literal “assault weapons”. Any counter-terrorism and SWAT functions should be provided by regional or state agencies, not embedded in our communities. Sell off the equipment and use the funds for mental health programs.

END OUR WAR ON DRUGS

The War on Drugs has needlessly destroyed lives, families, and communities – especially minority ones. We often think of it as a big, national issue; however, we can have a role in ending it by better directing efforts of our police department, Commonwealth’s Attorney office, and county health services. It’s time we treat all drug possession, use, and addiction as personal health issues to be treated and not as criminal issues to be punished. Getting people the help they need among the friends, family, and jobs they already have – not forcing them into impersonal systems of police, judges, and jails- is the only way to really stop drug use.

HIGHER REQUIREMENTS, HIGHER PAY

While greatly increasing the standards our police are held to, requiring a greater level of education and certification, and ensuring each officer passes a thorough background check against national databases, we should also make sure they are paid very well. Not only should our community police officers be able to afford to live in the community, but they should not have to use overtime, ticketing quotas, or other tricks to earn a great salary.

FAIRER Traffic ENFORCEMENT

It won’t be cheap or easy, but in order to eliminate bias in encounters between civilians and police officers, we should begin carefully building automated systems that use smart cameras and other sensors to enforce parking, traffic, and perhaps also noise violations. These systems must uphold the highest levels of privacy and cybersecurity protections, never have biometrics such as facial recognition enabled, and be isolated from all other government agencies that may misuse the data.