|Police and Communities: Council Perspectives|
CHanging the Culture of Policing
Board of Directors Chair, Council on Criminal Justice
After Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, MO, in 2014, President Obama asked me and Chuck Ramsey, then Philadelphia’s Police Commissioner, to co-chair a White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. I never imagined that the extraordinary public debate, anguish, and outrage over that fatal encounter could be eclipsed.
Yet here we are, six years later, a nation awash in trauma brought on by yet another tragic incident.
How do we move forward now to build trust between police and the communities they are sworn to protect? While our Task Force recommendations have been embraced by many police agencies, and while there has been substantial progress in areas like de-escalation training and use-of- force policies, much more is needed. One important first step is to think hard about how we want to use the criminal law and the power of arrest in this country – and which duties we should be assigning, or not, to the police.
According to federal data, there were some 10 million arrests in the United States in 2016, but less than 5% of these were for serious violent crimes. Instead, most involved low-level crimes like disorderly conduct, drug-abuse violations, and non-traffic offenses. An analysis of this data by the Vera Institute of Justice suggests the arrests were disproportionately applied across demographic groups, a practice that affected Black people, in particular. And beyond the enormous fiscal costs of such arrests, they take a profound human toll on people ensnared by the system.
Those pushing to defund the police rightly question our heavy reliance on law enforcement to respond to the full spectrum of community troubles. Why are police handling issues of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness? The answer is that in most jurisdictions, homeless services, substance abuse treatment, and mental health care are inadequate – and there's no one else to do it at 3:00 in the morning. Changing the paradigm won't be solved by a simple shift in budget line items. And, as with most things at the nuts-and-bolts level of government, the devil will be in the details.
We also must change the culture of policing from one based on a warrior model to one rooted in the notion that officers are guardians of their communities. This was a central tenet of our White House Task Force report. Culture change will have to begin with recruitment to create a police force that embraces the guardian mindset and looks like the community it serves. As our report noted, genuine diversity in departments – diversity of not just race and gender, but also of identity, experience, and background – can "build greater trust and legitimacy with all segments of the population."
None of this is easy, and the killing of George Floyd has badly eroded the progress made by reform-minded police leaders since Ferguson. But these are urgent challenges that every community must confront. Doing so is essential – not just to rebuild trust in law enforcement, but to restore faith in our democracy.
It's time to speak out, but also listen
Senior Fellow, Council on Criminal Justice
I will never forget my first interaction with police. It happened when I was a young kid, about 11 years old, but the memory is stuck in my mind to this day.
One summer evening, I was sitting on the front steps of my aunt’s house in South Side Jamaica, Queens, a neighborhood that had been over-policed for decades, when suddenly an unmarked car screeched to a halt in front of me. Two plain-clothed detectives jumped out and said, “Don’t f***ing move.”
Terrified, I complied. But before I knew it my friends and I were grabbed by our shirts, thrown to the ground and against a fence, and searched. I was stunned that it was happening to me, but I was not stunned that it was happening. That’s because I’d seen police treat older boys and men in my neighborhood the same way many times. Paralyzed by fear, I heard a series of questions: What’s your name? Where do you live? Got any weapons on you? I gave the only answers my young mind could muster.
That interaction set in stone my boyhood view of law enforcement: police were hostile occupiers, and as a young person of color, there was nothing I could do to change what they thought of me. In my neighborhood, we did not grow up learning to trust or interact with those in blue uniforms and squad cars. There were simply too many troubling episodes eroding the possibility of respect.
As an adult and advocate for criminal justice reform, my relationship with law enforcement has been different. During my policy travels, I have worked with policing organizations to create and implement reforms that impact communities just like South Side. As part of those efforts, I have sat shoulder to shoulder at conference tables with police chiefs and other top brass, hammering out solutions. It’s fulfilling work, but fraught with anxiety as well. To this day, when I see law enforcement, I am transported back to my aunt’s front steps, to those chilling moments of fear. I have worked hard to manage and mask it, but it is still there.
Despite my discomfort, I won’t stop sitting at those tables. For one thing, I owe it to all communities like South Side to represent them. But I also believe wholeheartedly in the collaborative process. I f I demand to be heard, I must also listen, even when I disagree with the message or the messenger. We cannot heal the tensions between communities and police unless both sides engage in a meaningful and sustained conversation.
The murders of unarmed people of color at the hands of law enforcement have sparked an unprecedented and desperately needed national dialog around policing. That’s gratifying, but it’s only a start. Making effective short- and long-term improvements that represent the best interests of communities will be hard work, requiring us to leave behind the business-as-usual approach and fight for equity, fairness, and lasting change. We can do it. We’re who we’ve been waiting for.
Real Chance for Change
Over the past quarter century, countless initiatives and measures have sought to reduce police violence and improve police-community relations: psychological screening of recruits, enhanced training and supervision, community policing programs and liaison officers, police athletic leagues, civilian oversight boards, body-worn cameras, and much, much more. Yet the killings continue, with men of color the disproportionate victims. So far, the most potent tool seems to be a civilian witness bearing a smartphone.
Law Enforcement Must