21st Century Policing

The Issue

Protecting the pursuit of liberty and other constitutional freedoms is a critical mission for our nation’s peace officers. But many outside their ranks assert that confidence in the police in this role has fallen. Militarization, lack of transparency, and over criminalization often surface as contributing to distrust. Our law enforcement personnel deserve the highest respect and support, and it’s important they are given the best policies that enable them to keep our communities safe and defend our liberties.

Some police departments have introduced armored personnel carriers, high-powered rifles, and combat-style uniforms to their ranks. Little transparency exists in the process for obtaining equipment, or in its use. Paramilitary- style SWAT teams have increased as a result. Training and tactics for these units are determined by individual department policy as the state provides no guidance in the formation, training, and deployment of such teams. Statewide tracking of actual deployment of SWAT or the use of their military-style gear is nonexistent. The use of protective gear such as helmets and vests is not in question. The acquisition of personnel carriers, grenade launchers, and the like are where transparency should be improved, especially in jurisdictions that do not initially seem appropriate for the use of such military grade equipment, such as a school district police department.

Certainly situations occur requiring special weaponry and procedures, but a fine line exists that must be monitored, regarding the deploymnet of SWAT teams, so that citizen liberties—those protected by our Bill of Rights—do not suffer collateral damage. Training and equipping police officers to protect the public and keep the peace is critical, especially when lives are on the line. But a balance must also be struck that does not infringe upon the liberty our Founding Fathers fought for in revolutionary times, and policing must instead be a part of the overall “guardian” model we need from our police officers as protectors of our rights and keepers of the peace.

Overcriminalization is coupled with militarization. Both can lead to questionable police tactics and certainly alter public trust. Committing a traffic violation—or any violation— can be grounds for citations and related fines. A police officer can also make an arrest for even the most minor of infractions if they so choose. State statute and case law affirm this latitude. A simple warning is allowed, but this is at the officer’s discretion. Pretextual traffic stops are a gateway to detecting other violations, and can even be used for seizing property and money through civil asset forfeiture laws.

Traffic enforcement is meant to educate the public, reduce accidents, and save lives. Constant enforcement for simple infractions however, especially in minority communities, can foster distrust and create an atmosphere of animosity. Legitimacy of authority and acting justly can powerfully affect a citizen’s choice to follow the law.

Indisputably, a law enforcement focus—a mission—is necessary and welcome in our society. But “mission over liberty” should never pilot the course.

Recommendations

  • Require greater transparency in the use of equipment procured from military sources, including the related costs for upkeep.
  • Task Texas Commission on Law Enforcement with formulating qualifications for SWAT teams, their members, and their training requirements.

Stay Informed

Do you want to receive the latest research and commentary on issues facing the Texas Legislature?