Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Defund Your Local Sheriff? Police Reform on Ballots Nationwide

Numerous measures curbing police power or pursuing criminal justice reform ideas are on state and local ballots this year. They predate the George Floyd protests but reflect current concerns.

People gather in protest in response to the police shooting of Walter Wallace Jr. on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020 in Philadelphia, Pa. Police officers fatally shot the 27-year-old Black man during a confrontation Monday afternoon in West Philadelphia that quickly raised tensions in the neighborhood. Shortly before 4 p.m., two officers fired their guns at the man in the 6100 block of Locust Street. Police then transported the man to Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)
Philadelphia has become the latest flashpoint in the national debate over police violence. Since the killing of William Wallace Jr. on Monday, the city has seen prayerful protests, as well as looting and attacks on police.

As it happens, Philadelphia residents already have one potential policy response on the docket. On Tuesday, citizens there will vote on whether to create a civilian review board. “We have the opportunity to create a Citizens Police Oversight Commission, with more authority to investigate citizens’ complaints — a question on the Nov. 3 ballot,” says Darrell Clarke, president of the Philadelphia city council.

Civilian review boards are not a new idea, but they’ve gained renewed currency since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. In addition to Philadelphia, measures to create or expand the power of civilian review boards are on the ballot in Pittsburgh, San Francisco, San Diego, Columbus, Ohio, Portland, Ore., and a number of smaller cities. Other types of oversight entities could be created or empowered in Oakland, San Jose and Sonoma County, Calif., and King County, Wash., which includes Seattle.

For civilian review boards to be effective, they have to be provided with staff and resources and true independence — not be overseen by former police chiefs, says Olugbenga Ajilore, an economist at the Center for American Progress who has studied civilian review boards

“They have to have teeth,” he says. “Any sort of recommendation has to be honored by the police agency. If the police department doesn’t have to honor it, there’s no point.”

Civilian review boards are not the only policing or criminal justice reform idea on ballots this year. Philadelphia voters could also ban a police tactic known as stop and frisk. King County voters could make the sheriff an appointed position and give the county council authority to limit the duties of that office.

Some of these measures were in the works long before the death of George Floyd and the waves of protests that followed, but they clearly reflect public interest in finding ways of holding police accountable.

“There’s clearly a frustration with the pace and depth of reform that is happening in city councils and state capitols,” says Adam Gelb, president of the Council on Criminal Justice, a think tank. “Activists and funders are turning directly to voters.”

Not every measure seeks to limit law enforcement or create avenues for punishing officers. In DuPage County, Ill., for instance, voters may pass an advisory measure affirming that law enforcement and public safety are the county’s top budget priorities.

But most of the measures fit somewhere within the rubric of policing or criminal justice reform. Oregon voters could choose to decriminalize recreational use of hard drugs including heroin and cocaine. Voters in Washington, D.C., could approve a measure making arrests and prosecution of psychedelics a low priority. Measures to legalize marijuana have spread to Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota, while Mississippi will vote on a medical marijuana question.

An initiative in Oklahoma would block the use of past felony convictions in determining sentences. The fact that such a red state may approve that type of sentencing reform is an illustration of how much things have changed since the 1990s and early 2000s, when practically every criminal justice measure on the ballot was aimed at lengthening sentences or imposing other “tough on crime” mandates.

“These citizen initiatives reflect greater recognition that the scale of correction control and the powers given to law enforcement include significant costs and potential harms, perhaps outweighing the benefits,” says Jake Horowitz, director of public safety projects at the Pew Charitable Trusts.

L.A. Becomes Center of Reform

Nearly 30 years ago, riots erupted in Los Angeles in response to police officers found innocent of criminal charges after the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Now, Los Angeles has emerged as one of the main centers for police reform debate.

In March, voters in Los Angeles County approved a measure giving the Sheriff Civilian Oversight Commission subpoena power, while authorizing it to come up with a plan to decrease incarceration. In July, the Los Angeles City Council voted to cut police funding by $150 million, bringing the department’s budget and its number of officers to their lowest levels since 2008. L.A. County could become the latest in a string of large jurisdictions electing reform-minded prosecutors, with former San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón challenging incumbent DA Jackie Lacey

A measure that pursues some of the objectives of the “defund the police” movement is on Tuesday’s ballot in L.A. County. Measure J would require the county to devote not less than 10 percent of its locally generated revenues to addressing racial injustice through community investment and alternatives to incarceration. Spending on health, housing, jobs and youth development programs for minority and low-income communities would be encouraged, while law enforcement and corrections would be blocked from receiving that tranche of funds.

Measure J doesn’t specify that the 10 percent has to come out of the sheriff’s budget, but the intent is pretty clear. Sheriff Alex Villanueva has warned that the measure would “defund” his department while potentially turning L.A. into something resembling the post-apocalyptic Mad Max films.

Measure J was sent to voters by a 4-1 vote of the county board of supervisors and is backed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, along with a number of community groups.

Limits on Law Enforcement

For years, accountability in public safety was exclusively concerned with holding criminals to account, Horowitz says. Now it’s starting to look more like a two-way street. The public still wants to punish individuals who break the law, but they also want to ensure that police and sheriffs provide equal protection and are called to account for excesses. 

“Traditionally, going back 15 to 20 years, citizen initiatives were calling for stiffer penalties,” he says. “Now, the public is pulling back on what they see as the greatest excesses of the tough-on-crime era.”

Back in 1994, San Francisco voters approved Proposition D, which required the police force to have at least 1,971 full-time officers on staff. Next week, they’ll vote on Proposition E, which would repeal that requirement. “Mandatory minimums are not best practices and are not going to serve the city well,” says Caitlin Vejby, legislative aide to Norman Yee, the president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Proposition E’s sponsor.

The measure is the culmination of five years of negotiation between Yee and the sheriff’s office and other players, but Vejby notes it very much resonates with concerns and priorities of the nation’s George Floyd moment.

In Philadelphia, the Wallace family was expecting an ambulance to come help William Wallace Jr., who reportedly had mental health issues and was brandishing a knife on Monday. Instead, police showed up with pistols drawn. That’s the type of scenario that has led to calls for social service agencies, rather than uniformed police, to respond in more cases.

In order to make such a shift, Vejby says, the city needs flexibility around policy and police staffing levels. “Here in San Francisco,” she says, “our mayor and other city leaders have talked about an effort to move forward to things like teams of social workers to people dealing with mental health crises or drug addictions.”

Ballot measures can be a blunt and imperfect instrument when it comes to policing, or any other complicated policy arena. There isn’t a lot of flexibility that can be written into a 100-word measure that requires a binary up-or-down vote.

Although polls show that the public is broadly supportive of the idea of criminal justice reform, people get wary quickly when presented with the nitty-gritty details. Even seemingly low-hanging fruit such as limiting incarceration for probation or parole violations can encounter opposition.

“These measures, some of them, will really test where the lines are drawn on these issues,” Gelb says.

Over the past few years, California voters have approved initiatives that reduced many felony crimes to misdemeanors and allowed some inmates to receive early release from prison. This year, Proposition 20 would reverse those measures, while expanding DNA collection. The initiative is backed by law enforcement officials, but former Gov. Jerry Brown has appeared in an ad complaining that “Proposition 20 is a scam, a prison spending scam.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Special Projects