Before electoral politics and the violence of the 2020 summer protests monopolized everyone’s attention, Americans were on the verge of actually engaging in meaningful dialogue about criminal justice reform.
Now, in the 2021 legislative session, Nevadans might be able to pick up where the summer of unrest (and partisan politics) interrupted this important conversation.
Motivated to enact reform following last year’s tragic death of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, Attorney General Aaron Ford has introduced a proposal to restrict the use of “no-knock” raids in the Silver State.
Despite all the complexities, controversies and disagreements regarding the details of the botched raid that lead to Breonna’s death, the key takeaway was simple: When police misuse—intentionally or not—the vast amount of power they are given over the citizenry, it can result in catastrophic and tragic consequences.
And that is precisely why Ford’s proposal is a desperately needed limitation on the use of excessive policing practices. It’s also one that progressives, libertarians and conservatives should all be willing to embrace.
Progressives have long argued for such limitations on law enforcement, arguing that current practices disproportionately harm minorities and disadvantaged communities. Libertarians, for their part, have long believed that in addition to racial disparities, such practices are antithetical to the basic civil rights and protections enumerated in America’s constitutional order.
Conservatives should embrace such reforms as well. After all, a belief that government power must be limited and restrained is a core component of conservative thought—it should make no difference whether we’re talking about the power of government to tax a business, or the power for it to send state agents (authorized to use deadly force) into a private citizen’s home.
Unfortunately, conservatives have traditionally been only peripheral supporters of such limits on government’s policing powers—which demonstrates a bizarre cognitive dissonance within some corners of the movement. However, in recent years this has been changing. A growing number of conservatives have been increasingly vocal in their support for criminal justice reform. For example, Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) sponsored the “Justice for Breonna Taylor Act” last year, which would have prohibited no-knock raids nationwide.
When a conservative U.S. senator and a progressive state attorney general are echoing each other’s proposals, it is a reasonable sign that bipartisan consensus isn’t too far away.
Unfortunately, the legislative process is largely driven by petty politics—not consensus.
During the hearing last week for Ford’s proposal (SB50), Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) expressed concern over an ACLU-backed amendment that would have strengthened the limits suggested by Ford.
Given that Scheible works for the Clark County district attorney’s office, her hesitation illustrates one of the largest and longstanding challenges to advancing meaningful criminal justice reform: law enforcement’s political influence.
In both 2017 and 2019, now Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D- Las Vegas), who also serves as a deputy district attorney in Clark County, killed equally popular criminal justice reform aimed at eliminating the practice of civil asset forfeiture—a practice that allows law enforcement to confiscate property without filing criminal charges against the property owner.
Cannizzaro’s decision to (twice) kill a reform that had gained such broad bipartisan support illustrates the unavoidable conflict of interest that occurs when the state’s executive branch—in this case, the law enforcement community—has its own colleagues serving in legislative leadership positions. While there is currently a lawsuit pending to end such blatant conflicts, the issue is unlikely to be resolved before the end of this session.
Another potential obstacle to the bill’s passage could very well be the politically powerful police unions themselves—as they have successfully stood in the way of similar reforms elsewhere. Just as conservatives have become more vocally supportive of reforms, progressives have grown more suspicious of the political activities of unions operating in the law enforcement arena—often using talking points that sound eerily similar to the arguments used by conservatives complaining about the destructive educational influence of teacher unions. Ideological blind spots, as it turns out, exist on both sides of the political spectrum.
Such challenges aside, however, the conversation that was initiated last year illustrates that most ideological tribes outside of these niche political insiders are on the verge of some sort of consensus. Last year, reform was a real possibility after Breonna’s death… At least, it was before the riots, electoral politics and calls from fringe activists to “defund the police” robbed Americans of their focus on the issue. Since then, a truly intercultural and interideological discussion about returning accountability and restraint to the policing community has, seemingly, been on pause.
Ford’s proposal is an invitation to resume that conversation without having to wait for another tragedy like Breonna Taylor’s death. Lawmakers—regardless of party affiliation or political alliances—owe it to their constituents to take that invitation seriously.
Michael Schaus began his professional career in the financial sector, where he became deeply interested in economic theory and the concept of free markets. Over a decade ago, that interest led him to a career in policy and public commentary—working as a columnist, a political humorist and a radio talk show host. Today, Michael is director of communications for the Nevada Policy Research Institute and lives with his wife and daughter in Las Vegas.