Biden should make the Community Relations Service his 'secret weapon'

Biden should make the Community Relations Service his 'secret weapon'
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The outcome of the trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin caused many to reflect on where we stand as a nation on the long march toward racial justice. For many, it was a small but important step in acknowledging that, for too long and too often, what should be manageable, nonviolent police encounters across race end up in tragedy, with the ultimate price often being paid by Black and Brown victims. 

But what if there were a way to make these encounters less frequent, less violent and less deadly? What if there were mechanisms to resolve conflict while promoting more positive police-community relations? Are there solutions available to leaders of law enforcement, civil rights groups, local governments and community organizations? The answer to these questions is “yes, there are.” 

More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson championed the creation of the Community Relations Service (CRS), which became Title X of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson had a deep belief that the ultimate resolution of conflict lay with community members themselves, assisted by conciliators able to offer creative mediation, facilitation and other tools for peaceful conflict resolution.  

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Since that time, as a small agency within the Department of Justice, CRS has played a role in resolving racial and other conflicts — from Selma to Wounded Knee to more recent cases involving police use of deadly force in cities such as Sanford, Fla., and Ferguson, Mo.. That history prompted Attorney General Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandHas Trump beaten the system? Biden administration moves to withdraw death penalty requests in seven cases Federal gun trafficking strike forces launched in five cities MORE to deploy CRS staff to Minneapolis in advance of the Chauvin verdict.

In recent budget testimony, Garland told Congress that he was surprised to find that CRS staff numbers had withered from when he last served in the Justice Department. CRS staffing is now at a historic low of 26, compared to 56 at the end of the Obama administration. 

CRS has enjoyed bipartisan support throughout its history, with critical support from LBJ at its founding and reaching its highest level of staffing (over 300) during the Nixon administration.  President Reagan’s attorney general, William French Smith, referred to CRS as his “secret weapon” for putting in place an early-warning system for communities at risk for conflict.  Paradoxically, the CRS mandate requiring confidentiality in its casework has meant that much of its work takes place behind the scenes and remains unknown to the general public. No reason should stand in the way of making this an area for bipartisan cooperation. 

Rebuilding CRS will take leadership and strategic deployment of limited resources. The first step for the Biden administration is to convince Congress to restore staffing and funding to levels adequate to the challenge at this moment of national racial reckoning. Step two will be to nominate a CRS director with the stature and savvy to bring credibility and confidence to key constituencies at the forefront of today’s debate — most pointedly in the areas of police use of force and the continuing plague of hate crimes, so sharply exposed with the recent spike in anti-Asian violence.

CRS can’t be everywhere, but its networks and contacts with local leaders and community mediation and advocacy organizations represent an infrastructure for conflict resolution so urgently needed today. Surely this is a model of federal and local partnership that Congress can and should support.

Grande Lum served as Community Relations Service (CRS) director from 2012-2016 in the Obama administration. He is provost at Menlo College and co-author, with the late Bertram Levine, of “America’s Peacemakers: The Community Relations Service and Civil Rights.” 

Grace Flores-Hughes served as CRS director from 1988-1992 in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations and is author of the memoir “A Tale of Survival.”