Interim studies highlight how other states passed meaningful law enforcement reform (Capitol Update)

There have been multiple interim studies on law enforcement reform in the past few weeks. Two of the better efforts, primarily because they brought in “how to” information from other states, was a bi-partisan, bi-cameral study in the House last week and a Senate study on September 16. The House request was made by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond, Rep. Monroe Nichols, D-Tulsa, Sen. Adam Pugh, R-Edmond, and Sen. Kevin Matthew, D-Tulsa. The Senate request was by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat. By “how to,” I mean they heard how other states managed to pass meaningful reforms.

Both studies featured a survey from the National Conference of State Legislatures about what is going on in other states, including increased police training, increased oversight, use-of-force standards and restrictions, imposing a duty to intervene when witnessing use-of-force violations, and a duty to provide medical support for injuries. Also, many states considered new de-certification measures and creation of databases police departments can access to determine if an officer left their previous job during an internal review investigation or was de-certified.

The studies also included presenters from two states to tell how they were able to accomplish reforms in their own state. In Colorado, legislators brought all parties to the table in drafting the legislation. It took about a year of working to craft language that everyone could at least “live with.” In the end no law enforcement group in Colorado opposed the legislation, while some supported and some were neutral even though it included capping qualified immunity.

Iowa took a different route. The Republican House majority leader saw media reports of young people saying they felt elected leaders were not listening to their concerns. Later, he saw some Democratic members talking with protesters to keep a confrontation peaceful and hear their message. He decided it was time to do something. Working together, the Republican governor, the Democratic attorney general, and legislators from both parties quietly crafted a measure banning most police chokeholds, making it illegal to rehire police fired for misconduct, and allowing the Office of the Attorney General to investigate police misconduct. The bill quickly passed in the House and Senate unanimously. Iowa legislators consider the bill a first step, but they made some progress.

Either of the approaches the committees heard, and perhaps others, would work in Oklahoma. But to accomplish meaningful reform in a controversial area such as police or broader criminal justice reform, at least one highly placed legislator who is a top legislative leader, or who can enlist such support, will have to decide it is time to do something — and then act on that decision. Perhaps these studies will play a role in making that happen.


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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