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What Dallas Means for Criminal Justice Reform

Police reform is alive and well, activists and experts say, but the assassination of cops doesn't exactly help the cause.

This story was co-published with the Marshall Project.

When five police officers were shot and killed in Dallas on Thursday, with seven others wounded, the sniper fire threatened to leave another casualty: the campaign to reform policing, sentencing, and other criminal justice practices, according to interviews with advocates, experts, and law enforcement officials.

In the world of criminal justice, pushes for change can be diverted or stalled by major news events. In recent days, the shooting of two black men by police—captured on video—mobilized demonstrations across the country, demanding police be held more accountable for violent encounters with black civilians. But the sniper killings of five officers in Dallas seems to have stiffened the opposition to reforms. With legislation to reduce prison terms for some crimes stalled by election-year politics and efforts to repair police-community relations moving slowly, leaders across the political spectrum are watching to see if such efforts can survive this heated moment.

"Police reform is not dead," insisted Laurie O. Robinson, co-chair of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and a former assistant attorney general in the Obama and Clinton administrations. The task force, which was created following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson two years ago, urges departments to encourage officers to act more like "guardians" and less like "warriors," particularly in communities of color. "Building, or rebuilding that trust—that is the question," Robinson said. "I am an optimist. And I believe that it can be done. But it's going to take some very hard work. And that has to happen on the ground. It can't be imposed from the outside."

Her optimism was echoed by prosecutors and police leaders working with the administration. "Times like these remind us that it's a vital relationship that we have to have with our communities," said Ronal Serpas, a criminology professor who has headed police departments in New Orleans and Nashville, and now chairs Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. "Things have to evolve....Thirty years ago, when I started as a police officer, under the law you could shoot at a fleeing felon, and that changed in 1985.

"It is a tragic part when people lose their lives, but we should learn from that," Serpas said. "We should never lose the opportunity to learn. Learn more about de-escalation techniques. Learn more about mental health issues."

But police advocates—particularly those who believe that local elected leaders have failed to adequately fund police training—see in Dallas evidence that the high-minded efforts were doomed from the start. Reform has "been DOA for generations," said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the lobbyist arm for police unions across the country. Police are being handed the community's problems with "rotting infrastructure," and "a lack of economic opportunities, and poor educational and mental health systems," he said.

On the other hand, Jonathan Smith, who under Obama led Justice Department investigations of police departments in Ferguson, Seattle, and Cleveland, saw in the week's events a sign that changes to policing had not gone far enough. "What we are seeing in the departments [that] have responded are cosmetic changes," he said. "The movement is getting frustrated." Between the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers, Smith said, "we are at a crossroads—unless we take seriously, in this moment, that something has to change, there will continue to be a growing hostility between communities of color and police departments."

The events in Dallas, Baton Rouge, and Falcon Heights will have reverberations beyond conversations about policing. Police officer murders are always touchstones in debates over the death penalty, and the latest will likely figure into upcoming votes over whether to retain the punishment in Nebraska and California. This week, Republican Party leaders will publish their 2016 platform, which has been expected to reflect the recent conservative embrace of some criminal justice reforms.

Pat Nolan, a prominent conservative activist working with the Right on Crime campaign, said Friday that as he presses lawmakers to support shorter sentences and smaller prison populations, dramatic news accounts tend to push and pull in competing directions. The deaths of Eric Garner, choked after being stopped by New York police for selling untaxed cigarettes, and Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after failing to signal a lane change, have "raised concerns among conservatives about whether we have gone too far with being tough on crime," and such events tend to politically "strengthen our hand."

But when police officers are killed, "there is really a feeling that they are under siege," which strengthens critics of reform, Nolan said. "I've heard discussions about more mandatory minimums for crimes toward law enforcement."

One Republican senator, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, reacted to the news by promoting the Thin Blue Line Act, which would add killing or "targeting" a law enforcement officer to a list of "aggravating factors" considered in decisions to hand down the federal death penalty in murder cases. Last October, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, reversed his support for shorter sentences for federal drug crimes, in part because "police officers across this country are under assault right now." Killings of police have been trending downward since the 1970s.


Killings of Police, 1961-2015

Every year, the FBI tracks "felonious killings" of police, in which officers are killed by injuries suffered in the line of duty. The agency counts these cases separately from accidental deaths. After a peak of 134 officers killed in 1973, the annual number has been trending down steadily. Preliminary data for last year counted the second fewest killings in a half-century. Only 2013 was lower with 27.

Source: Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, The FBI's Annual Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Reports. Graphic by Anna Flag


It is impossible to know how exactly the tragedy in Dallas will impact these wider, more diffuse conversations about policing and punishment. But the lessons of one historical parallel reaffirm the idea that the deaths of police tend to discredit leniency.

In Washington State in 2009, five police officers were killed in two separate incidents a month apart. One of the perpetrators, Maurice Clemmons, had been bailed out of the Pierce County jail, where he was being held on eight pending felony charges. In November 2010, a year after the shootings, Washington voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing judges to deny bail to anyone facing charges that could result in a life sentence.

On a national level, the Clemmons case was viewed as a blow to the practice of clemency. Before moving to Washington, Clemmons had been imprisoned in Arkansas, where he was serving a 108-year sentence before then governor Mike Huckabee commuted the term to what in effect was time served. With all the political risks attached to it, clemency was already a tool used rarely by state executives. After the officers were killed—with Huckabee criticized for his role in Clemmons's release—displays of mercy figured to become more rare yet.

Such debates will carry on throughout the summer and its two political conventions as we learn more about the perpetrators in Dallas. For now, there is mourning. Mike Walton, president of the Dallas Fraternal Order of Police, said Friday, "The focus I have right now is burying the officers who have died."

This article was originally published by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the US criminal justice system. Sign up for the newsletter, or follow the Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.