The State of the Union address serves as an opportunity for the president to present their top issues and goals, and it was heartening to hear President Biden use his speech this year to advance police accountability, crisis response, and firearm safety at the highest levels.
Arnold Ventures is dedicated to leveraging research and advocacy to promote scalable policies that can create systemic changes for safer communities and more accountable, transparent and effective policing — and the State of the Union provides a potential road map for some of the opportunities and challenges on the path forward.
The seats of Congress during the State of the Union are usually filled with politicians, celebrities, and special guests. But when President Joe Biden began to talk about policing, he pointed to the parents of Tyre Nichols, who were seated in the grand chamber. Nichols had died just a few weeks earlier after being beaten by Memphis police officers in an act of grave injustice that has been condemned by the entire political spectrum.
It may not even have made headlines were it not for the fact that it was recorded on officers’ body cameras, that family and friends shared photos of Nichols in the hospital, and most painfully, that he lost his life. American law enforcement killed over 1,176 people in 2022 alone based on public records and news reporting. This does not account for the number of instances of nonfatal excessive use of force or other misconduct that are often not counted.
The death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of now-fired police officers is just the latest incident of excessive use of force. Sympathy and condemnation of such acts are important, and they must be followed up with action from both sides of the aisle.
“Here’s what Tyre’s mom shared with me when I asked her how she finds the courage to carry on and speak out,” Biden said. “With faith in God, she said her son ‘was a beautiful soul and something good will come from this.’”
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others in acts of police violence have sparked calls for reforms that will help hold law enforcement accountable — but partisanship and political theater have served as a barrier to policy change.
Yet this moment feels different. There’s a growing nuance among some one-time skeptics about the values of accountability and transparency in policing, while longtime advocates for police reform legislation change are increasingly open to negotiations.
It is clear that police accountability is essential for both justice and community safety in America. The question is whether this will be the moment for change.
Last year, Biden issued a presidential executive order on policing that aimed to move reforms in federal law enforcement in order to set a standard for local and state police to follow. The federal government is also on path to incentivize local and state police participation through a combination of best practice development and grantmaking. While more can be done to ensure civil rights compliance through federal grantmaking, at the federal level, the most meaningful action depends upon Congress.
Congress had been working on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act (JPA) but stalled principally over a fight about qualified immunity for police officers. While it is encouraging to see members of Congress indicate some willingness to take up the policy debate once again, it is well past the time of rhetoric and time for bipartisan action. Even putting qualified immunity aside, much can be done and the groundwork is laid in the previous iteration of the JPA. Many of the provisions included in the JPA resonate with reforms that we and our partners have worked hard to pass at the state level and with significant results. These professional policing policies include: the strengthening of use of force standards and investigations, improving data collection and transparency requirements, and enhancing officer discipline primarily through licensure and decertification, in addition to other areas.
As Biden said: “Public safety depends on public trust. But too often that trust is violated.”
“We all want the same thing,” Biden said. “Neighborhoods free of violence. Law enforcement who earn the community’s trust. Our children to come home safely. Equal protection under the law; that’s the covenant we have with each other in America.”
Biden’s remarks on police accountability were one of the few moments during the address that was met with a standing ovation on both sides of the aisle. Now is the time to move from applause to action.
Congress can help make that happen by moving these policies forward to bolster community engagement and trust with law enforcement, improve community safety, and prevent any future unnecessary loss of life.
As Biden observed, one of the challenges with policing today is that we have been asking law enforcement to do too much.
“To be counselors, social workers, psychologists; responding to drug overdoses, mental health crises, and more,” he said. “We ask too much of them.”
This challenge has been exacerbated by America’s dual crisis of the opioid overdose epidemic and a rising mental health crisis. Too often, law enforcement serves as the first if not primary response for people facing acute and chronic behavioral health problems, such as substance use disorder and mental illness. At the same time, police often lack the training and resources necessary to effectively handle these complex situations — and all too often conflict results in arrest and use of force rather than connecting people with the help they need.
Although exact numbers are unknown, because of a lack of robust data collection, it is estimated that between 20 – 25% of those killed in encounters with law enforcement are experiencing some form of acute mental health crisis or emotional distress. One in four people in jails are experiencing “serious psychological distress” while 43% of those in state prisons and 44% in local jails have been diagnosed with mental illness. This is why it is significant that President Biden acknowledged the importance of addressing these crises through a combination of approaches that include harm reduction services and mobile crisis teams to be dispatched to people experiencing behavioral health crises.
“We […] need more first responders and other professionals to address growing mental health and substance abuse challenges,” he said.
Arnold Ventures has invested in building the evidence base to make appropriate policy decisions. This includes, for instance, research investments to understand the impact of naloxone distribution by law enforcement, the problems facing our emergency call centers, and how to better handle certain types of emergency and non-emergency 911 calls, particularly those that are non-criminal in nature. Leveraging administrative data and working closely with impacted communities, researchers in Maryland, North Carolina, and South Carolina are examining the demand for emergency response — looking at calls for service and their outcomes — and identifying potential alternatives that allow jurisdictions to better use their resources. Notably, the RTI-led study of seven sites in North and South Carolina found that, rather than simply creating new programs, it is important to first connect programs with existing departments and services at the city and county levels across the state. In the search for more effective responses, not everything needs to be created from scratch.
Veterans, Safe Storage + Firearms
The president also addressed another crisis within our communities: gun violence. About 40,000 Americans die every year from gun violence. Suicides comprise two-thirds of all gun deaths, and a disproportionate number of those suicides kill veterans. With the passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act Congress has begun to support policies aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of people who pose a threat to themselves or others. But this should be the first of many steps to implement evidence-based policies that will help decrease firearm deaths, suicides, and injuries. Research and data are needed on what interventions might be most effective in preventing deaths and injuries from firearms. Unfortunately, gun policy in America has been intentionally understudied for the past two decades.
To help fill this gap in funding, Arnold Ventures supported the launch of the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research (NCGVR). For example, a NCGVR grant to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research is funding a study about risk factors for gun suicide and urban gun violence related to veterans and other understudied and disproportionately impacted groups. Initial survey findings by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research last year revealed that more than five million California adults keep a firearm at home, with gun use most prevalent among veterans (38.1 %) and people in rural areas (31.9%). Veterans were most likely to have a gun at home loaded and unlocked (13.9%) compared to non-veterans (6.8%). Veterans were also least worried about gun violence, with 4.4% reporting being “very worried”. These initial findings underscore the need for unique interventions for veterans around safe firearm storage practices and addressing the crisis of suicides among veterans — an issue that Biden addressed in his speech.
“[W]e cannot go on losing 17 veterans a day to the silent scourge of suicide,” he said. “The VA is doing everything it can, including expanding mental health screenings and a proven program that recruits veterans to help other veterans understand what they’re going through and get the help they need.”
As one example to support this complex issue the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) will provide additional resources around counseling and safe storage expanding its lethal means safety campaign KeepItSecure.
This is an important step that is supported by evidence. According to a recent research review by the RAND Corporation’s Gun Policy in America (GPIA) there is “some evidence that lethal means counseling, communication campaigns, or trainings, are effective at changing gun owners’ storage practices.” Although it should be noted that RAND researchers also point out that “distributing storage devices might be most effective”.
‘Finish the Job’
If the State of the Union speech had one major call-to-action, it was Biden’s call for Congress to “finish the job.” The nation has taken some steps toward improving our policing systems and community safety over the past several years. Thousands of policing reform bills were proposed in all 50 states and Washington D.C. since 2020, according to a National Council of State Legislatures database supported by Arnold Ventures. The White House, with support from foundations like Arnold Ventures, has supported community-violence intervention programs across the country in addition to building the evidence-base. Congress has passed the first new gun safety law in a generation and has begun funding research into firearm policy after a two-decade gap. But the goal of professional, accountable policing that protects and serves everyone regardless of race, neighborhood, or economic status remains elusive . Scalable change backed by research and evidence can overcome the partisan barriers and pave a path to that goal.
“Give law enforcement the training they need, hold them to higher standards, and help them succeed in keeping everyone safe,” President Biden said.
Arnold Ventures will be part of that mission by supporting research, studying policy, and advocating for the change our nation needs.