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Don’t call on Washington to reform your police

Pity poor Loretta Lynch.  On her first day as attorney general of the United States, riots worsened in Baltimore and her meet-and-greet with her new boss, President Obama, became a planning session about how to respond.  After meeting with city officials in Baltimore, she and her top civil rights enforcement staff announced that the Department of Justice will investigate the practices of the Baltimore police department.

But matters of civil unrest, poor policing, and neighborhood conditions are fundamentally state and local problems.  There are many things cities can do to change the police-neighborhood relationship and the deep social inequalities that strain it.  But Washington has only a small role to play.

{mosads}Nevertheless, it would simply not do to have the nation’s top law enforcement officer stay silent at such a time.  Lynch’s admirable record as a federal prosecutor and her close relationships with state law enforcement officials rendered her the top choice for her new job, and people naturally look to the Washington for guidance in times of crisis.  In her first speech as attorney general, she announced that “I will bring the full resources of the Department of Justice to bear in protecting those under threat, investigating wrongdoing, and securing an end to violence.”

Realistically, what does that mean?  Ending the violence was a matter for the National Guard, which Maryland’s governor, Larry Hogan, quickly mustered.  The Baltimore police chief also called surrounding jurisdictions for police officers to come help, and the number of local police on its streets doubled.  Painfully and slowly, the unrest subsided.  There was no role for the federal government at that point, nor should there be.  Would we want the president to send in the Marines?  To fight our own citizens in their own neighborhoods?  Never.

Yet Lynch did point to two powerful federal capacities: “full resources” and “investigating.”  If these can “secure an end to violence” over time, the federal role in helping reform local police will be vindicated.  The feds can cajole local agencies into better behavior by offering resources such as training for community-oriented policing, or in this case by promising to provide body cameras to police departments that apply for them.  Lynch announced this week that $20 million will be made available for cameras nationwide.

As for “investigating,” the problem is that past experience shows these capacities are mostly ineffective if not married to local officials’ true willingness to reform.  In a take-off on the old light bulb joke: “how many prosecutors does it take to change a city?  Only one, but the city really has to want to change.”

Surely Baltimore wants to change.  Its mayor asked the federal DOJ to step in, and its officials will work with the DOJ to get the facts about what has been happening in its police department.  But this is just the beginning.  Experience in other cities – many of which had mayors like Baltimore’s who invited the DOJ to investigate and help – has been that police culture is not easily changed even after abuse is exposed. 

Policing is quintessentially local, as is primary education.  To affect municipal agency performance, Washington turns to “carrots and sticks” to make the mule move.  But giving carrots, such as body cameras, is costly and usually requested mostly by those departments that already want to change.  As for the stick, top-down directives from Washington, no matter how well-intended, can meet great local resistance not easily deflected. Take a look at what has happened with “No Child Left Behind” and national testing standards for schools, and imagine what would happen if the feds applied the same change-inducing methods to local police.  Instead, the resources of the federal government are best applied in developing best practices, national standards for good policing, and serving as a resource for police departments as they themselves determine how to meet them.

Investigating and negotiating reform agreements with cities that the Department of Justice determines are violating the constitutional rights of their citizens is also an important tool.  Lynch was referring to her Department’s power under section 14141 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code.  Yet, since 1996, of the nearly 12,000 police departments in the USA, only about 75 have negotiated such agreements and only a handful resulted in consent decrees enforced in federal court.  The “full resources” of the Department have been well spent, but they are limited.

Furthermore, research shows that the cities which have turned their brutal, racist police departments around – for instance, Cincinnati and Los Angeles – were able to do it not only because federal oversight was applied, but mostly because bottom-up hard work from affected communities was organized and sustained over time.  The police change when the neighborhoods tell them what is needed for providing public safety, not the other way around.

In short, federal intervention to improve policing in cities like Baltimore is probably necessary but scarcely sufficient.  Change will come when people in the neighborhoods are asked what they need from police, when the police work with them to figure out how to provide it — and when city officials really want to change.

McCoy is a professor of criminal justice at the Graduate Center and John Jay College, City University of New York, and the author of “How Lawsuits Improve American Policing,” in Holding Police Accountable (Urban Institute Press.)

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