With nearly 300 officers leaving in the past two years, the city’s sworn ranks shrank from more than 900 in early 2020 to just 621 a month ago. The city’s attorney described it as “an unprecedented loss of personnel that is not easily corrected.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising to hear the mayor has failed to fulfill what the court called his “clear legal duty” to keep at least 731 officers on staff. After all, his city has been the epicenter of renewed scrutiny on law enforcement since George Floyd’s murder two years ago sparked a nationwide reckoning on racism and policing.
Policing recruiting in 'crisis' nationwide
Recruiting and retaining police officers may be especially tough now in Minneapolis, but it’s not easy anywhere. Major cities throughout the country have reported severe challenges, citing factors related not only to the overall climate for policing and reform efforts but also to COVID-19 and the Great Resignation. And even before the pandemic, law enforcement leaders were calling recruitment headwinds “a crisis.”
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All of this is happening as violent crime rates have ticked upward, stoking concerns about public safety. The eight residents who sued to force Minneapolis to hire more cops based their arguments on concerns over rising crime.
It’s no wonder that law enforcement leaders and their allies were so concerned before President Joe Biden issued his executive order last month to improve police accountability. They worried about how it would affect an already difficult situation.
Once the order was released, political opportunists claimed the Biden administration was “declaring war on law enforcement.” But that’s untrue. After a leaked draft order spooked police leaders in January, the administration made a conscious effort to work with law enforcement stakeholders while also pursuing real accountability.
What police leaders say now
You don’t have to take our word for it. Police leaders said so themselves:
►The Fraternal Order of Police and International Association of Chiefs of Police said the order represents “a good faith effort by all involved to reach accord without compromising any core values or issues.”
►The Major Cities Chiefs Association called the order “an important first step” that incorporated a lot of the group’s feedback.
►The head of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association said the order “strikes the correct balance between understanding the public need for accountability and understanding the law enforcement needs for ensuring all communities are safe and protected.”
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They may not love certain pieces of Biden’s executive order, but they recognize that America's not yet where it needs to be and that the White House is earnestly seeking collaborative reforms. The finish line is still far off, but there is value in establishing this shared baseline to start on the same page.
Accountability includes investments
Critics have sought to portray Biden as lockstep with those in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party who have chanted “defund the police” as they call for more of limited taxpayer resources to be redirected to social services. That claim, too, misrepresents reality.
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Biden proposed a $1.7 billion budget increase for federal law enforcement. He called on cities and states to use federal stimulus money to bolster their police forces. And his executive order on policing includes several important initiatives to nurture healthier policing teams with nonfinancial resources as well.
For one, the order aims to improve police recruitment and retention efforts by pulling together a working group that will identify best practices and publish a plan within a year for federal law enforcement agencies. The work is supposed to lead to guidance for state and local agencies.
The order also calls for officials to publish a report on ways to support officer wellness, taking on challenges related to substance abuse, mental health and job-related trauma. The undertaking will include a focus on suicide prevention.
Biden’s order also promises guidance for state and local officials on responding to calls and working with people who have disabilities or are experiencing a behavioral or mental health crisis. The idea is to consider alternative response models in which police are teamed up with other professionals who can swiftly connect people to the services they need.
These types of investments in health care and social services have been shown to lighten the burden on local police and better serve communities, so we are pleased to see this type of holistic approach is part of Biden’s overall strategy.
Need more partners for policing reform
Critics have rightly noted that Biden’s order doesn’t go nearly as far as the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act would have gone. That’s thanks to the U.S. system’s limits on executive power. America needs members of Congress to enact a package of broader reforms – including rethinking how to regulate cannabis and overhauling the immunity doctrines that the Supreme Court refuses to clean up.
Americans also need state and local leaders to do their part. The new requirements imposed by Biden’s order – including tighter restrictions on chokeholds and restraints like the one that caused Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and no-knock raids like the one that led to Breonna Taylor’s death in Louisville, Kentucky – apply to federal law enforcement agencies. Biden plans to dangle discretionary grants to nudge state and local authorities to follow his lead on use-of-force policy improvements, but he doesn’t have much authority to boss local police chiefs.
With this executive order as a shared starting point, we hope to see police leaders and policymakers nationwide embrace efforts like the Biden administration’s forthcoming credentialing process for law enforcement and its police misconduct database.
America's problems are real, and America's politics are fraught, but this doesn’t mean the nation's leaders should squander an opportunity to work together to make communities safer for everyone.
This editorial is part of a series by USA TODAY Opinion about police accountability and building safer communities. The project began in 2021 by examining qualified immunity and continues in 2022 by examining various ways to improve law enforcement. The project is made possible in part by a grant from Stand Together, which does not provide editorial input.
USA TODAY's editorial opinions are decided by its Editorial Board, separate from the news staff and the USA TODAY Network. Most editorials are coupled with an Opposing View, a unique USA TODAY feature.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: As crime surges, Biden takes moderate approach to reform policing