NCSL’s yearlong Legislator Police Academy brought together lawmakers from very different backgrounds to work across the aisle and across the country on policy topics related to police accountability. In this episode, we learn how the legislators put aside seemingly insurmountable differences and, with patience and constructive conversation, discovered plenty of common ground.
This is Across the Aisle, a podcast on bipartisanship by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
I’m Kelley Griffin
In 2021, first-term Assemblywoman Shondra [AW1]Summers-Armstrong had big plans to address policing issues in Nevada. After all, before winning office, she had been an activist working with the Black and Latino communities in Reno on criminal justice reform.
As a Black Democrat she did not plan to find great ideas and support from a white, Southern Republican man who had spent 37 years with the state patrol.
But that’s what happened when she sat down next to Arkansas Rep. Dwight Tosh.
Summers-Armstrong joined Tosh for dinner during the opening of NCSL’s Legislator Police Academy last year. The Academy was a year-long peer training opportunity for lawmakers from 11 states who were interested in policing policy.
She admits she brought a little attitude with her.
Summers-Armstrong: “I have a lot of family from the South, and were sitting next to a gentleman from Arkansas and we were talking about justice issue, certification and all these things.”
Tosh started telling her about the work they’d done in his state to improve policing.
Summers-Armstrong : “Well I had made the little smart remark, ‘well, Arkansas’ and he looked at me very seriously and he said, “we do good stuff in Arkansas and y’all might want to take a lesson.”
She says Tosh was gentle in his rebuke.
Summers-Armstrong :“He was really, really kind. And after the little reprimand, which I deserved for being sassy, began to really give us some insights on how they had done this and why it was important to them. And here we are in Nevada, we think we’re so forward-thinking and we did not have this in place.”
Tosh laughs about that first encounter.
Tosh: “I think really she liked my Southern accent more than anything!”
They became friends and Sommers-Armstrong quickly realized the reforms in Arkansas would be good for Nevada. It opened the door to working not just across the aisle, but across the country.
In recent years, Tosh and the Arkansas Legislature have been quietly working on improving state policing policy. So, when George Floyd’s murder sparked a national discussion about policing, his state was already setting things in motion that other states were just beginning to consider, or maybe hadn’t thought of at all.
For one thing, Tosh had led an effort to ensure officers fired for misconduct couldn’t work for another Arkansas police department again. weed out cops. One bill he created led to a decertification process and central registry to track people who were fired from law enforcement. On another front, he sponsored a bill to offer an alternative when police encounter people needing mental health support.
Tosh “What do you do with someone who is in mental health crisis? And they were locking them up. I mean, I spent all those years in law enforcement, I mean, what do you do? You can’t just leave them out there. So, jail was the only place to take them. And so now in Arkansas, instead of them spending the night in jail, law enforcement can take them into one of our crisis stabilization unites and there they’re treated by a mental health expert.”
Tosh also succeeded with a bill this past session that gives officers support for their mental health, offering them 12 sessions with a mental health professional each year. Tosh had seen the need for it first hand, especially during his leadership roles at the state patrol, particularly with the SWAT team.
Tosh “As someone that’s spent 37 years in law enforcement, I’ve dealt with all those issues and it’s not something you go home, you don’t discuss it with your spouse. You just keep it bottled up on the inside.”
Nevada Sen. Dallas Harris was also at the Legislator Police Academy with her colleague Summers-Armstrong. Harris jointly sponsored a bill with Summers-Armstrong that was a version of the Arkansas decertification program, alerting jurisdictions when a potential hire had problems in a prior job. It also connects the state to a national registry to learn about job candidates and share names of Nevada officers with serious violations.
Harris says the exchange of ideas through the NCSL academy was particularly important on such a fraught topic as policing.
Harris “It was really nice to be able to see different perspectives with everyone really kind of having a base level agreement on a desire to improve how things are done and better outcomes for our citizens.”
And even when Summers-Armstrong was working to gain the support of her Democratic colleagues, she was happy to give credit to the Arkansas Republican who had the idea first.
Summers-Armstrong:“Yes, I tell everyone and I think it’s important that we’re honest about that, the whole purpose of NCSL and these gatherings is so that we exchange ideas. So, it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that this concept did not come from the other side of the aisle. And if we are not honest about these things, we never open up a pathway for there to be collaboration.”
Amber Widgery, a program principal in NCSL’s Criminal and Civil Justice Program, led the planning for the Legislator Police Academy.
Widgery:“Really what gave us the idea to start this program was that the role for state legislatures surrounding policing policy really started to change and evolve in 2020 after the death of George Floyd. And so state legislatures took a much more active role in terms of how involved they were in policing policy and///the demand on NCSL for resources and educational opportunities really just sort of skyrocketed.”
NCSL brought together lawmakers who were working on this front. But not just to talk policy. The group also met with police departments to learn more about their practices. Widgery says it was heavy at times. In one session with Washington training commission instructors, she says the team wanted to show how they have evolved away from old tactics. That meant demonstrating on a fellow officer how they used to gain control of a suspect by body slamming him to the floor and also demonstrating how officers are trained to respond differently now.
Widgery: “I think that was hardest for the group to get through. We had so many people who had personal experiences, whether that is being an individual who’s a person of color and has been pulled over by police and perhaps had big feelings or been afraid// and then had members of our group who were former law enforcement officers and have been on the other side of that equation.”
Participants in the academy agreed sometimes things got tense because, after all, they didn’t all agree on everything. And the national debate around policing issues, with so much at stake, has sometimes been sharply divisive. But this small group was able to be constructive.
Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield took part in the police academy and says it was invaluable to hear from different states.
Westerfield : Police reform is never far from the discussion, and man, when you look across the country, there are divergent perspectives on policing and so I think it was good to spend some time talking and hearing from others about what’s working in the state’s and what’s not. ///17:25 I want to steal all the great ideas I can.”
Westerfield says Kentucky has focused on several reforms in prisons and when people re-enter society, and he’d like now to draw ideas from how the other states are helping police and citizens on the front end of the justice system, especially when people are in a mental health crisis.
Washington state Sen. John Lovick, a Democrat, brought a long career as a state trooper and with the U.S. Coast Guard to the NCSL academy. He says the year-long immersion through the academy, learning about policing issues and what other states are doing, gave him new perspective on bipartisanship in his own state.
He’s come to appreciate how much he can learn even by working with someone whose district would seem to be nothing like his. He notes that because of the police academy, he decided to accept an invitation from a conservative Republican to tour railroad tracks and grain fields.
Lovick: “There’s not a railroad track in my district anywhere. There’s no reason for me to go over to a wheat farm to ride on a train///21:is I said what’s the date, I will be there. I would not have done that had it not been for the way we were working in this group.”
Lovick says the trip showed him common concerns on an array of issues, and not even solely centering on policing.
Sen. Harris of Nevada notes that in the heated national conversation, people get painted in two extreme ways: being anti-police or as blindly backing the blue, even those who do harm.
Harris:“So the national narrative worries me, but the individual conversations or the smaller group conversations that we had definitely give me hope that there is a way forward.”
Thank you for listening to “Across the Aisle.” If you are a legislator or a staffer with interest in policing policy, please make use of the vast resources NCSL can provide, from details on every piece of legislation under consideration to research on best practices. I want to note that the NCSL Legislator Police Academy was made possible through support from Arnold Ventures.