The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Police leaders can’t wait for legislation. They must reform themselves.

Supporters hold candles during a vigil for Tyre Nichols at Tobey Skatepark in Memphis on Thursday. (Brandon Dill for The Washington Post)
4 min

Val Demings was Orlando’s chief of police from 2007 to 2011. She represented Florida’s 10th Congressional District in the U.S. House from 2017 to 2023 and was a Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate in 2022.

After the death of George Floyd in 2020, some law enforcement executives looked internally and acted. They changed hiring standards, modified use-of-force policies, increased training and enhanced accountability. I’m thankful for their leadership.

But other law enforcement executives have still failed to admit that our beloved profession is in trouble. Instead, they spew tough talk, look the other way, blame everybody else, make derogatory remarks about victims and criticize legislation that would protect both officers and citizens.

These shortsighted so-called leaders need to look at what happened to Tyre Nichols. The 29-year-old father of a 4-year-old boy died this month after being beaten during a traffic stop in Memphis. Five police officers have been charged with second-degree murder.

Perry Bacon Jr: The police killing in Memphis is a reminder we must change policing

Many law enforcement executives in our country must be thinking, “It could have been my department. It could have been my officers.” What are you doing to stop such incidents from happening? What are you doing to protect the innocent and prevent your officers from being rightly prosecuted to the full extent of the law they are supposed to enforce?

Some obviously believe that inaction protects law enforcement. But good police officers know that inaction seldom protects anyone.

As a former law enforcement officer and chief of police, I love the profession and consider it family. I have worked with some of the bravest and most compassionate men and women the profession has to offer. I have seen law enforcement at its best and at its worst.

Eugene Robinson: Tyre Nichols video shows policing must be done with a community — not to it

What happened in Memphis was clearly a night that went off the rails. How can any responsible elected or appointed leader who says they love their community turn a blind eye? This keeps happening, and it has to stop. After George Floyd’s death, I asked my fellow brothers and sisters in blue, “What the hell are you doing?” I talked to police executives, suggesting they look inward and ask the tough questions.

These leaders will need to step up to make change happen. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely any serious reforms will come from Congress. In 2020, House Democrats passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a bill that was not perfect but at least made a real start. Senate Republicans blocked it, however, hiding behind blatant lies about defunding the police and claiming the legislation went after good officers just doing their jobs. (In fact, House Democrats also passed legislation to increase, not decrease, police funding — including one of my bills.)

President Biden signed an executive order for federal law enforcement that put into place some of those ideas, but we still need reforms for local departments. I am not optimistic under the current conditions in our nation’s capital. There is little appetite to protect even members of Congress.

Perhaps state legislatures can fill some of this gap by passing bills to improve policing and enhance accountability. But America’s law enforcement agencies cannot wait for legislation. The reforms that became urgent after George Floyd’s death are only more so today.

Val Demings: My fellow brothers and sisters in blue, what the hell are you doing?

Police departments should take the lead to revise and reform use-of-force policies, hiring and training standards, and oversight and accountability. Techniques such as chokeholds need to be banned, and practices such as no-knock warrants should be tightly controlled. Officers on special units need to be highly seasoned, fully accountable and regularly rotated.

Transparency and accountability should be seen for what they are: tools to allow executives to strengthen departments. There is currently no national database of police misconduct, meaning that when officers are fired for cause, they could be hired by another department elsewhere. Law enforcement executives have a duty to ensure that misconduct is never tolerated.

I’ve spoken with many law enforcement executives who are trying to make changes on their own. Any current or former officer who loves the profession should be doing the same. But there are some police leaders who seem to think that no criticism is valid and that any reform is a personal slight. That way of thinking is wrong. As an officer and chief, I sometimes had to put my ego and politics aside while honoring my oath to protect and serve. They must do the same.

Doing nothing fails everyone. Our police officers as well as the citizens they protect and serve deserve better.