Police leaders, including L.A.'s, call for reforms to reduce prison population

Leaders of some of the nation's largest law enforcement agencies, including Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, banded together in Washington on Wednesday to call for criminal justice reforms they said would greatly reduce the U.S. prison population.

“I’ve been through the war on drugs, the war on gangs," Beck said. "What I’ve learned in the past 40 years is that police departments cannot be at war with the communities they serve.”

The group of nearly 130 active and retired police executives, Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime & Incarceration, is led by Beck along with Chicago Police Supt. Garry F. McCarthy, New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton and Washington Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier.

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The assembled leaders called for national policy changes that would include the reclassifying nonviolent felonies as misdemeanors and courthouse reforms that would divert people with diagnosed mental illnesses or substance abuse issues toward rehabilitation programs instead of prison.

McCarthy said law enforcement leaders and legislators need to reconsider "what constitutes a crime."

“If you stick a gun in somebody’s face and say, 'Give me your money,' that’s a crime," he said. "If you get caught with 10 bags of heroin, do you think that those two crimes should carry the same weight in the criminal justice system?”

McCarthy and Beck were joined at the event by Ronal Serpas, the former head of the New Orleans Police Department; Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland; and Benjamin David, the district attorney of New Hanover County, N.C.

Bratton was scheduled to attend as well, but he remained in New York City after an NYPD officer was shot and killed in Manhattan on Tuesday night. Lanier was unable to attend because of travel complications.

The group released a 28-page mission statement on its website Monday, outlining its concerns about mandatory minimum sentences and the perceived erosion of trust between police and the communities they serve. Pointing to high national recidivism rates, the group said current sentencing guidelines for minor drug offenses are accomplishing little else besides turning drug addicts into career criminals.

"We know that putting too many people behind bars does not keep us safe, especially for drug and nonviolent offenses. Research shows that imprisoning people at today's levels has little measurable crime control benefit," the mission statement said. "In fact, jail and prison can kick-start a cycle of incarceration that turns first-time offenders into repeat offenders."

Speaking at the event in Washington, Beck referred to the effect that California Proposition 47 -- a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced drug possession and several other nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors in the state -- has had on policing in Los Angeles. In the last year, just 10% of the arrests recorded by the LAPD have been for drug offenses, he said.

Beck believes the change has allowed his officers to focus on more violent suspects, and he dismissed the notion that the policies could be considered soft on crime.

“You are not going to find tougher cops than right here," Beck said. "You’re just not. They don’t exist. There’s nobody here weak on crime. What we are strong on is results.”

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