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Checks and balances for law enforcement and lawmakers

For the first time in many years, the political momentum is not in police’s favor. People are saying it’s time for some extra scrutiny and oversight to nudge the balance of power to a more just midpoint.

State lawmakers passed several police reform bills this week, including banning chokeholds, requiring officers to wear body cameras, and guaranteeing the right to record police activity. One of the most controversial steps would change the decades-old law known as Section 50-a to make law enforcement officers’ disciplinary records accessible to the public. We cautiously support it, but we also note these same lawmakers’ hypocrisy. They specifically exempt themselves from the state’s Freedom of Information Law — a flagrant abuse of power. If they don’t make themselves accountable, too, it will eventually come back to hurt them.

They also shouldn’t have rushed this so much. They did so for political expediency and did not give police agencies a fair hearing. Doing so would have not only let their side of the story be heard; it also would have helped troubleshoot problems that are sure to be come from some of these legal changes.

Nevertheless, we support police reform measures such as banning chokeholds, getting rid of military armaments, increasing reporting and records transparency, and increasing training to deescalate and communicate before using force. In the long run, they will help police have fewer problems, more discipline and more trust from the people who pay them “to serve and protect.”

The main way a government and its police keep the peace is not “enforcement,” a term we Americans tend to overuse. It’s more accurate to say police “uphold” the law. Force is actually a relatively small part of police’s day-to-day activities — or at least it should be. When force becomes the norm, police, criminals and community members become hardened and damaged.

The main way police do their job is by the consent of the governed.

For the most part, people obey laws because they realize we need laws to keep all of us in our lanes and not crashing into each other’s lives. Things go pretty well when people trust police to uphold these laws fairly.

Even for those who bristle at authority, the knowledge that police officers are out there on patrol is enough to keep most of them in line. For others, all it takes is for police to show up and remind them. For those who still won’t stop damaging other people’s lives, we, the people, license police to use necessary force — even deadly force, although we hope it is never needed.

This is a big leap of faith for the public. They give police a lot of power, which comes with a lot of responsibility.

Maj. Ruben Anthony Oliver, the new commander of State Police Troop B, made an important point about leadership when we interviewed him recently. He said it’s important for a leader to have humility.

“If you’re not humble, you’re going to have a hard time learning new things,” he said.

Our nation needs to learn a lesson right now. We have seen a string of abuses of police power against black people and protesters who support them. It should remind us that our justice systems have never been fully just to African Americans, who often don’t get the necessary presumption of innocence. Any white people who feel targeted by the Black Lives Matter protests should remember that black people have been targeted in this country for hundreds of years, and continue to be. Maybe you don’t see it, but they do.

The American public is ready for some checks and balances. It’s not “anti-police,” as some say. It’s a correction needed to sustain our government of, by and for the people.

Elected officials are rushing to follow the crowd as the Black Lives Matter movement is normalized, but they should keep in mind that this is not just about police. It’s about power, granted by the people, and how it comes with responsibility. Checks, balances and transparency are needed for those who make laws just as much as for those who uphold them.

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