Legislatures Can pave the way to Refrom by Redefining the role of the police
By John Fennell
On the evening of October 26, 2020, police in Philadelphia were called to the home of Walter Wallace Jr.. The family said he struggled with mental health issues and on this day, he was also wielding a knife. The police arrived with guns and tactical training; the outcome was one that has become all too familiar around the country. Wallace was shot multiple times after he allegedly walked towards the police. He later died at the hospital. What is left is a community wondering did it have to end this way.
Pennsylvania State Senator Daylin Leach, a Democrat whose district covers parts of Montgomery and Delaware counties, voiced his concerns about this recent incident and the growing trend of the police-involved shootings.
“These incidents are becoming all too common and is why we need to talk about redefining the role of the police," Leach said. "Imagine how differently this situation would have ended if instead of a police officer with a gun and a trained social worker was there to give this young man the help he desperately needed.”
So the question that always seems to come up after an incident like this is what can be done to reform the police? One of the many avenues that are brought up is legislation. What should the legislature do to help bring about the types of reform that communities across the country are begging to see happen? For Leach, that means set broad policy and mandates while ensuring that those mandates are appropriately funded. The example he gave was body cameras for police officers, the state can push for transparency and accountability while mandating that body cameras are worn. And in the case where a municipality is unable to afford them, the state should help provide them. In Leach’s own district he is working with the Bridgeport, PA police department to find the grant money so they can afford to equip their officers with body cameras.
Looking at this problem holistically is key to striking the right balance so more communities can be impacted. Municipalities are free to make the changes they need based on the factors in their areas. For Leach, this presents itself in the form of redefining the role of the police. A common solution that is thrown out there is the term “defund the police” - a term that often mischaracterizes what people want to achieve. Leach suggests, redefine the role of the police and reallocate money from their budget to other entities that are better equipped to take on those roles. In the case of Walter Wallace, if a social worker had been called, instead of the police, they are better equipped to de-escalate the situation and better assess what kind of treatment he needs. This has a better likelihood of achieving an out that benefits all parties in the long term.
Leach, who has been on the forefront of criminal justice reform, has co-sponsored many pieces of legislation that not only address reforms but the inequities in the system. He has introduced bills like civil asset forfeiture, ending felony murder and most recently his bill to end the prohibition on marijuana.
He believes an out-of-the-box way to bring about police reform is to make fewer things illegal. This would lessen the number of encounters the police have with the general public. This idea especially with regards to adult-use marijuana is something that has the support of some police chiefs because it means one less thing their officers have to police.
To reform the police is going to require shifts in attitudes at state and local levels about what things are police enforcement responsibilities as well as what should and shouldn’t be illegal. But for Leach, it’s also going to require a shift in the culture both within the police and within society.
“The role of the police as the heavy-handed hammer for all society’s problems is a misplaced notion and we need to move away from that,” said Leach.