After Ferguson: We Need a Presidential Commission on Justice


Last summer, President Barack Obama addressed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by calling on Americans to “use this moment to seek out our shared humanity that's been laid bare by this moment –the potential of a young man and the sorrow of parents, the frustrations of a community, the ideals that we hold as one united American family.”

The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which will release its report shortly, is only the first step in what must be a much longer journey—one that must focus on more than the police.

He is not the first president to recognize these issues and challenges, and the need to address them.

During the 1960s, when the country seemed to be awash in urban unrest and had no clear direction as to how to deal with the problem, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson created several national panels that focused public thinking and generated congressional action.

His Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice, chaired by former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, proved to be extremely valuable in improving the quality of policing in the United States.

The Commission report led to federal funding for police training and technical assistance that helped to make police officers and whole departments more professional. The laws and programs that flowed out of the Commission's work gave significant emphasis to the need to enhance the relationship between the police and the communities they serve, and provided a clear and meaningful path to achieving that end.

As the events in Ferguson clearly demonstrate, however, we seem once again to have lost our way. That's why the establishment of a new review panel should hold great promise for us.

Ferguson is not alone in recent history. One only has to think of incidents in Cincinnati, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; and New York City; and the names of Timothy Thomas, Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and Eric Gardner to remind us of their suffering, and of the damage that was done to public trust in the wake of their troubling experiences.

In recent weeks, many experts and public figures have tried to address the underlying causes of the tragedy in Ferguson and Staten Island and posed ways to remedy the problems identified.

Among the recommendations shared are suggestions that many police departments need to move away from the over-militarized equipment, uniforms and tactics deployed; that the ranks of police departments are under represented by minorities and more should be hired; that law enforcement needs to make better use of technologies like body cameras for police officers which can provide greater accountability for individual actions; and that we need to develop and implement programs to improve police-community relations.

These are all valuable suggestions and need to be examined closely.

I believe the most promising of these suggestions is the creation and maintenance of good police-community relations. Our success can best be achieved when we ensure that the philosophy of community policing is embraced fully by every police agency, regardless of size, geography or demographics.

When the police and citizens come together to identify and solve problems, communities develop the kind of cooperation and understanding that leads to safer communities, greater trust and far less conflict.

Community policing, along with the proposals above and others like them, can truly make a difference in America.

The proposals all need close review and consideration by experts who can weave the best ideas into a series of meaningful initiatives that will provide us with a road map for building effective police departments that are supported by the communities they serve.

These problems are not for law enforcement alone. That is the reason the Task Force on 21st Century Policing is only a beginning.

Crime and its system of control is a much more complex issue.

A commission charged with developing such a plan must also include leading academicians, social scientists, economists, educators, community leaders, and members of the clergy. It should include leaders from the Senate and House of Representatives who can assist in translating recommendations made into new legislative programs and funding initiatives.

It's been nearly a half-century since President Johnson's commission. If we are truly to seek out and preserve our shared humanity – we need to put a new commission to work.

And we need to do it as quickly as we can.

Dr. Lee P. Brown is former Mayor of Houston and Past President of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. A former U.S. drug czar, he also served as police chief in Atlanta, Houston and New York City. He welcomes comments from readers.

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