Cornell University: Police bills of rights don’t lead to more civilian fatalities

Law enforcement officers’ bills of rights may limit accountability, but new research shows they don’t result in an increase in police-related fatalities.

Known as LEOBRs, these bills of rights have been a legislative priority for police unions since the 1980s and, according to the National Urban League, they have been adopted by 19 states.

In the wake of several recent high-profile police killings of unarmed civilians, the LEOBRs are receiving heightened scrutiny from activists and legal scholars. Are these laws limiting the ability of police management or oversight bodies to ensure officer accountability leading to extreme use of force?

The answer is no, according to research by economist Jamein Cunningham, a professor in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics.

Cunningham’s collaborators included D.L. Feir and Rob Gillezeau, both of the University of Victoria; Matthew Harvey of the University of Washington, Tacoma; and Abdul Nasser Rad of Oxford University. An article about their findings, “Law Enforcement Officers’ Bills of Rights and Police Violence,” was published in May by the American Economic Association.

Opponents of LEOBRs say their limitations on who can lead an investigation, the length of an investigation, officer access to evidence, limits on the scope of disciplinary action and restrictions on external oversight could result in a lack of accountability for inappropriate use of lethal force, resulting in an uptick in civilian fatalities.

Proponents say the nature of police work can result in unwarranted complaints. “The LEOBR is intended to protect law enforcement officers from unreasonable investigation and persecution caused by the extraordinary circumstances often faced in the official performance of their duties,” according to the Maryland Fraternal Order of Police.

The researchers examined statistics on police-involved killings of white and non-white civilians before and after states adopted LEOBRs and found no evidence of a significant change. They noted that their results do not rule out changes in the use of non-lethal force.

“LEOBRs have not played a meaningful role in high levels of civilian deaths in the United States in the short run,” Cunningham said. There still could be long-run implications as policing norms and the collective bargaining process incorporate the protections offered by LEOBRs over time.

Little research has explored the impact of LEOBRs, Cunningham said, and they remain controversial. Maryland was the first state to enact a state LEOBR, and in April 2021, it became the first state to repeal the law, according to the Urban League, which tracks legislative actions concerning the issue.