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Time to terminate nation’s policing crisis once and for all

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The killing of hundreds of African Americans each year nationwide is an unbearable tragedy that demands an urgent response. We have failed to stop abuses from law enforcement and must make necessary changes, but we must also condemn the killing of police officers in response. Violence against police is not the answer. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us that “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

The president cut short his trip from Europe to meet with his Task Force on 21st Century Policing and to hold public dialogues on race and policing. President Obama’s leadership was critically important and underscored how little meaningful action has been taken to address this national crisis.

{mosads}The president’s task force, which includes law enforcement and civil rights leaders, was formed in the wake of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere. It was given 120 days to develop recommendations to address the policing crisis and issued its final report on May 18, 2015, which includes scores of recommendations including building community trust, training, oversight, and officer wellness.

The report, issued by the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Service, revealed that few of the nation’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies have implemented more than a handful of the recommendations and very few departments have meaningfully addressed the crisis.

While the task force was an important step by the president, it yielded little new information and, in some ways, is “déjà vu all over again.”  In the wake of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King and the resulting rebellion in Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley appointed the Independent Commission on the LAPD (Christopher Commission). The commission issued a report in 1991 and its recommendations largely mirror those of the task force. The Kerner Commission, following urban riots in 1967, reached conclusions consistent with the Christopher Commission and made startlingly similar recommendations some 30 years earlier.

Additionally, the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division’s investigative findings and consent decrees on policing provide vivid documentation of the problem and a road map to constitutional policing. The reforms contained in these agreements are an indispensable element in addressing the crisis in policing, but far too few departments are looking to these agreements to initiate internally driven reforms.  

While the reform efforts of the Task Force, the Civil Rights Division and others are critical, more fundamental transformation is required. Continued dialogue is necessary to overcome the legacy of racism that deeply divides the nation, but it is also time to start taking action.

First, police are just one component of a criminal justice system that has profoundly harmed communities of color. The War on Drugs has not been fought equally in White and Black communities and as a result, African Americans are wildly disproportionately harmed.   Prior to 1971, most prisoners in the nation were White. Whites are now a distinct minority behind bars and one in five Black men is in prison or jail. This is a result of police practices, but also because of state legislation, abuse of prosecutorial discretion, the underfunding of public defense, judicial misuse of bail and implicit bias in sentencing decisions, overcrowded prisons and a failure to meaningful address the needs of former prisoners when they come home. The whole system needs to be fixed.

Second, policing needs to change the dynamic that causes communities of color to be over policed, but under served. Practices like stop and frisk and the use of fines and fees to fund government subject communities of color to intense police pressure. While at the same time, violent crimes committed in communities of color all too frequently go unsolved either because it is not a priority or witnesses necessary to solve the crime do not trust the police enough to cooperate. Crimes committed against whites make front page news and become a top police priority. The same crimes committed against African Americans are quickly forgotten. 

Third, police departments must become part of the democracy. Their current structure as paramilitary organizations with little meaningful external oversight allows them to operate outside of normal democratic controls. Meaningful community control is essential. Those most likely to be policed – African Americans, Latinos, people in poverty, youth, members of the LGBT community and others – should have a voice in policy, priorities, training and accountability.

 Peaceful protests around the nation have demanded change. Movements like Black Lives Matter have led us all to demand justice and create fundamental change and we cannot allow violent acts of a few diminish their sacrifice. If we move on without fundamental change or implement reforms that merely tinker around the edges, we dishonor those officers who died in Baton Rouge and Dallas and all who died in Baton Rouge, St. Paul and so many other places across this nation.

Jonathan Smith is executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and Kristen Clarke is president and executive director of the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.


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