You want radical police reform? Vote in local elections.

A child sits on her father’s shoulders as he carries a U.S. flag during a protest against racial inequality in the aftermath of the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, in front of the at Grand Army Plaza in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, New York, U.S. June 7, 2020. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
  • The protests against racism and police brutality are radically moving public opinion in a positive direction. But police reforms will mostly take place in governments at the local level.
  • Americans aren’t prolific voters as is, but they really don’t show up for local elections. And young Americans vote less than the rest of the adult population.
  • Incumbents are the system, they’re the ones who negotiate and sign-off on sweetheart police contracts. If an incumbent doesn’t unequivocally pledge to reform policing, vote them out. Vote them all out.
  • Unless you live in one of a small handful of swing states, a vote for president is almost never impactful. A vote in a local election, however, not only has a far greater effect on your own life, the vote itself matters exponentially more.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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“These protesters better show up on election day,” is a sentiment likely to grate on the ears of young people who have lost faith in the system.

Who could blame them?

Politicians, for good reason, have a reputation for saying all the right things when campaigning and doing things just as they have always been done when legislating or governing.

Young voters consistently rank at the bottom of the age cohorts for voter turnout, which is a big part of the reason their concerns are never made a top priority.

This makes it imperative that the young demonstrators who have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and racism in the wake of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of Minneapolis PD police recognise that protest is just one step towards reform.

Protesters should also focus their energy on the places where the reform will meaningfully happen. In a presidential election year it’s easy to focus on making Donald Trump a one-term president, but protesters should acknowledge that meaningful police reform is not going to be determined by who’s in the White House. Reform efforts will live or die based on state and local governments.

Local elected officials need to be terrified of the wrath of the voters. They need to believe they will be summarily swept out of office if they don’t push for substantial and meaningful changes from police departments.

They need to know their time in office will be short if they don’t tear up the contracts they have made with police unions that are the foundation of the systemic rot at the heart of policing in the US.

Federalism prevents a top-down solution, local elections will determine the future of reform

America’s federalist system itself is arguably the biggest impediment to top-down criminal justice reform.

Each community in each of the 50 states, plus Washington, DC, is endowed with myriad rules and regulations on the use-of-force, officer discipline, record-keeping, transparency, and accountability.

This hodgepodge of rules can be exemplified by one issue, does someone need a licence to become a cop?

If you want to legally cut hair In New York, 1,000 hours of training plus “written and practical examinations,” are required to obtain a cosmetology licence. If you want to be a police officer in New York, no licence is required.

New Jersey has finally pledged to licence police officers, so now there are only four states remaining that don’t require police officers to be licensed. They’re all blue states – Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, California – and include the first and third most populous states in the country.

Hawaii actually passed a law in 2018 requiring cops to be licensed, but the governor never signed or vetoed it, so while it’s in effect it has yet to be implemented, according to Roger Goldman, an expert on police licensing and professor emeritus of law at St. Louis University School of Law.

See, it’s all over the place.

But licensing is obviously not the only issue.

“There are many other states that have very weak de-certification laws,” Goldman said. He adds that in about a third of states, “You have to actually have been convicted of a crime to be decertified, which is ridiculous. I can’t think of any other profession, hairdressers, doctors, lawyers, school teachers, where you have to actually be convicted before you can lose your licence.”

There’s also the fact that a great many local PDs are not required to submit officer disciplinary records to their state’s police department Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) agencies. And there’s no national database that makes such records publicly available.

Then-FBI Director James Comey in 2015 admitted it was “ridiculous” and “embarrassing” that the FBI had no national database tallying the use of force by police. The bureau finally launched such a database in 2019, with some important caveats: “All law enforcement agencies are encouraged to participate,” but “The FBI has no legal authority to mandate reporting of any data to the UCR [Uniform Crime Reporting] Program.”

These are just a few reasons explaining how cops who’ve been fired for cause – or even for criminal convictions – manage to get law enforcement jobs in other PDs.

So without a massive reformation of the American system that devolves authority from the state and to the federal government – which is both improbable and ill-advised – change is going to have come at the local level.

That’s why elected officials who represent their communities in negotiations with police unions need to be afraid of the voters’ wrath.

Vote local, and vote them all out

It’s not just governors and attorneys general, it’s mayors, judges, district attorneys, city councils, and aldermen.

If a politician is a local liberal legend, they need to know that having a “D” next to their names will not protect them from being voted out and replaced by a candidate who promises to tear up police union contracts that don’t have substantial independent oversight and quantifiable measures to hold police accountable.

A Republican lawmaker who’s typically a union-buster but bends the knee to the police unions needs to know that “law and order” applies to the police as well.

Incumbents are the system, they’re the ones who negotiate and sign-off on these sweetheart police contracts which are not in the public service.

If an incumbent doesn’t unequivocally pledge to reform policing, vote them out. Vote them all out. Let them know that returning the rule of law to police departments across the country is not a niche issue but a prerequisite for office.

It will take thousands of unglamourous and little-covered elections, probably for several cycles, for systemic change to be visible at the national level.

Just 15% to 27% of Americans vote in municipal elections, according to the National Civic League. A Portland State University study found that voters over 65 vote at a median rate seven times higher than voters 18 to 34.

Low turnout leads to higher rates of incumbents winning reelection. That’s how incumbents come to call their seats “safe.”

A politician should never believe the seat is “theirs.” They’re not our leaders, they’re our representatives, who should always be following the lead of the people. But the people need to continually remind them of that.

If locally-popular incumbents won’t explicitly commit to taking on the police unions and insisting out on accountability, transparency, and clearly defined rules on use-of-force – the public should let them know their public service is no longer needed.

We should also demand that our leaders pass fewer laws, in general. This may seem counter-intuitive, since politicians are often judged by how much “work” they have done, which is typically interpreted by the number of laws they have helped pass.

But we are an absurdly over-criminalized country, and every law passed carries a potential for violent confrontation.

Unless you live in one of a small handful of swing states, a vote for president is almost never impactful. A vote in a local election, however, not only has a far greater effect on your own life, the vote itself matters exponentially more.

Activism, especially massive peaceful protests, can galvanize and radically change public opinion. But that change needs to be certified at the ballot box.