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Jenna Mehnert is a doctoral student with a dissertation focused on the role of departmental procedural fairness and psychological safety in advancing systemic police reform. She was previously employed by New York City’s Office of the Criminal Justice Coordinator.
Recent criminal use of force events resulted in the profound loss of public trust and elevated calls to eliminate qualified immunity for law enforcement. Removing the safeguard afforded to all government employees is a simplistic and overly personalized approach that will not result in positive change.
Qualified immunity does not prevent officers from being charged criminally, nor does it prevent them from being fired. Qualified immunity prevents civil lawsuits against individual officers; it does not prevent departments from being sued. Allowing individuals to file lawsuits against respective officers will not address the cultural challenges that beg for reform. These polarizing actions fuel the political divide and further prevent impactful change from occurring.
The policy challenge inherent in reforming law enforcement is that meaningful solutions require an understanding of the culture and identity of policing. For most police officers, it is not a job; it is a core aspect of their identity.
Law enforcement officers are called to respond far too often to situations that are not public safety situations. According to a police chief, in one month in 2020, 54 percent of wellness check calls to one of Maine’s larger municipal departments came from the crisis agency funded by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to serve that community. Advancing effective police reform starts with funding 24/7 mobile crisis and assessment centers to ensure that police officers are not the gateway to behavioral health assistance.
To right-size the role of law enforcement, we all need to stop calling the police just because someone makes us uncomfortable. An individual with a mental illness is 11 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general public.
After right-sizing the role, we need to implement lessons learned. Evaluation of excessive use of force cases found that officers who held at least an associate’s degree were less likely to engage in excessive force. An associate’s degree should be the statewide standard for all new officers. As with teachers, there should be a state-mandated minimum salary to increase the application pool.
The established partnership between the Maine Criminal Justice Academy and the University of Maine at Augusta enables law enforcement cadets to earn college credit for completing their academy certification. A stronger partnership should be forged, resulting in Maine’s only criminal justice training center having a more formal connection to the University of Maine System.
One of the historical challenges present in law enforcement is the lack of an inclusive training process. The process of indoctrinating officers plays a significant role in how they engage with the public. Approaches that include messages about Sheep (citizens) and Sheepdogs (cops) further advance the “us against them” mentality that can lead to the dehumanization of members of the public. Law enforcement training, which often resembles basic training more than professional skill acquisition, must become inclusive and multidisciplinary. The operating principle that “only cops tell cops what to do” needs to end.
If we are to modernize policing in Maine, we must advance how officers are selected, trained, and promoted. Research highlights that the culture of police departments is more determinate to officers’ psychological well-being than responding to traumatic calls. There is an established correlation between the amount of procedural fairness displayed toward officers by their leaders and the degree to which officers engage in procedural fairness and citizenship behaviors with the public. Departmental procedural fairness means an end to the “good old boys” club.
Decisions around hiring, promotions and specialty practices require standardized and formal processes. Uniform accountability for officers who engage in inappropriate or illegal activities is another aspect of procedural fairness. It provides another avenue for Maine lawmakers to establish consistent legal requirements.
The proposed strategy of eliminating qualified immunity punishes all police officers without creating uniform transparency and accountability. For example, when implemented according to national best practice guidelines, body cameras provide an avenue to evaluate officer performance. The video of George Floyd’s murder enabled law enforcement leaders to condemn officers’ actions in a manner that would not have been possible without the footage.
Maine’s police force must also become more diverse. It will require intentional actions to make Maine’s police culture safer for people of color, LGBTQ-identifying individuals and women. It is also time to elevate women into leadership roles. There are too many occasions when female officers are sexualized and limited by their co-workers and superiors. Maine has some outstanding female officers, but we need more of them in leadership roles.
Modernizing and professionalizing Maine law enforcement should not be an issue that divides us. I believe all Mainers want the police to show up when houses are being robbed or intervene when our neighbor’s husband beats his wife, putting her life at risk. Still, we also want officers held to the high standards of the oath they took.
There is real work to be done in Maine; eliminating qualified immunity is not part of that work.