What Donors Should Know About Police Reform

Amidst calls to “defund the police,” how are donors supposed to respond? Earlier this month, The Philanthropy Roundtable hosted a webinar to answer that question. 

Dale Sutherland, founder of the nonprofit Code 3, had some experienced advice. With support from the Diana Davis Spencer Foundation and other donors, he established his group after the Ferguson, Missouri, riots several years ago. Code 3’s mission is to “build more bridges” between police and the community. 

Sutherland worked for the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department for nearly 30 years. When he was an officer, he sometimes had non-police officers, such as mental-health experts, accompany him on calls. “Policemen are not domestic counselors, or mental-health counselors, and they don’t want to be,” Sutherland says. He suggests reformers should look into options for providing that kind of support to police officers. “It may be worth” the effort and increased costs, he believes. 

Code 3 is also working on a project to help police and the communities they protect understand one another. It connects neighborhood residents in the Washington, D.C., area (where the nonprofit is based) with police in discussions of what it’s like to live and serve in the area. Code 3 also offers grants to “innovative projects and campaigns that encourage collaboration among police and the communities they serve.”

“There are significant problems with law enforcement, but I’m afraid most of the conversation doesn’t address those,” Sutherland says. A lot of problems arise from mutual misperceptions, he believes. And that’s what his group is working to change. 

Tony Woodlief, executive vice president at the State Policy Network, said on the Philanthropy Roundtable webinar that his network’s interest in police reform is a matter of justice and practicality.

First, justice: “If you have even one agent of government that can abuse people’s rights without consequences, that undermines everyone’s reliance on the law, period. And if you don’t have rule of law, you don’t have a thriving society.”

Then, practicality: “At a practical level, what we’ve seen with other problems like this is if leaders in the state don’t step up and start doing their job to defend the rights of their citizens, the federal government will come and do it for them, and that is going to be expensive, it’s not going to be effective, and it’s going to be rife with all kinds of political point-scoring instead of protecting communities.” 

One need for reform involves law-enforcement incentives. Federal programs like the 1033 Program, which provides military-grade weapons to local law enforcement, and civil asset forfeiture, which allows police to profit from seizure of property, have pulled policing away from community engagement.

“These programs have arguably tilted local police towards federal-level initiatives around narcotics and illegal immigration, and away from community policing,” Woodlief says. “At the state level, what we’d rather see is state and local governments police the police.” 

One SPN goal is to empower local or state attorneys general to monitor law enforcement instead of the U.S. Department of Justice. “They’re closer to the problem, they’re more likely to hear about it sooner, they have better subpoena powers, they’re accountable to the voters,” Woodlief explains. 

Another opportunity for states is to reform police unions. SPN is working on providing language for police union contracts that would protect police pay and tenure but take away language that makes it difficult to deal with problem officers. It also aims to push for more transparency in contracts. “Our chief priority is promoting federalism and the constitutional bounds of power,” Woodlief says. 

Adam Gelb, president of Council on Criminal Justice, says people want the police to be “guardians,” not “warriors.” Bipartisan criminal-justice reform in the past 10-15 years has focused on sentencing, but how can we approach the front-end, not the back-end, as Gelb puts it, of police reform? In order to do so, we need better data.

“As critical as this issue has been,” Gelb says, “it is really a sad thing that we have so little research on what works. Basically what we have right now is people throwing a lot of spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks.” Good information is needed on which policies have proven effective, particularly in areas of accountability, transparency, and internal police culture: “Who’s recruited, how are people trained, how are they acculturated to this job?”

Donors could help by funding more data on crime, incidences of police misconduct, and effective reform measures. “One of the chief reasons why we don’t know more is the government has not done a good job,” Gelb says. 

Panelists also noted that policing is an extremely difficult, dangerous, and thankless job, and officers need support, appreciation, and respect. Sutherland notes that donors can back initiatives like the Code 3 program that aids wounded police officers. “We need the police to feel encouraged enough to go do their jobs. That affects all of us.”