The United States is in the midst of a major crisis of conscience and confidence in the justice system, as thousands of citizens demand meaningful change. The touchstones of reform are greater accountability, transparency and real consequences for official illegality.
The crisis is not limited to a few instances in a few locales.
From 2010-2013, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reported nearly 1,700 “justifiable homicides” by police, but this number is based on voluntary reporting. Most experts conclude that it misses many cases of citizen deaths due to police actions. These officer-involved deaths or serious injuries have disproportionately involved men of color. Indictments, prosecutions and convictions in the cases have been exceedingly rare.
Listening to the “taking heads” on TV, one could conclude that either there is no problem at all, or that deeply ingrained racism is the root cause of these abuses. Still, there appears to be no confusion among those protesting in the streets.
The time for decisive action is now.
President Barack Obama has created a high-level Task Force on Policing in the 21st Century that is required to report back with specific proposals in 90 days. That prestigious group may wish to consider some of the ideas set forth below.
A great deal of attention has been paid to the value of grand juries in sorting out police misconduct. The grand jury is a very old concept in Anglo-American law that may have outlived its usefulness. It is worth noting that the criminal grand jury has been abandoned in the United Kingdom.
There is an inherent conflict of interest when prosecutors must investigate the police agencies that are so central to their work. While there have been some recent and extremely troubling grand jury actions in citizen killings, other equally controversial decisions not to hold police officers accountable have been made by prosecutors themselves or by regular juries. Any of the proposed alternatives to the grand jury system must deal with the broad discretion given to prosecutors and their genuine reluctance to alienate the police.
But what actions and by whom?
While much of the etiology of police misconduct and public skepticism is complex, longstanding and difficult to disentangle, there are remedial steps that can be taken in the near term.
Here are 10 reforms at both federal and local levels that could be expeditiously enacted by government agencies that would result in very positive changes (in addition to the effort already announced by the President to equip 50,000 officers with body cameras):
- Mandate reporting to the FBI of police officer-involved deaths and severe bodily harms; produce an annual national report on the findings;
- Expand police training to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations and to interrupt the use of deadly force or severe harm to citizens whenever possible;
- Eliminate criminal grand juries and replace them with appropriate preliminary hearings in cases of alleged police misconduct. Another proposal is for the appointment of special prosecutors to investigate possible serious police misconduct and the consideration of changes of venue to increase the objectivity of these inquiries;
- Mandate credible and independent analysis of possible racial profiling including practices such as “broken windows” policing, routine use of stop and frisk, and civil gang injunctions; require good faith remedial actions by jurisdictions to reduce racial profiling as a prerequisite of receiving federal Department of Justice grants;
- Establish enforceable national standards for police recruitment, background checks and training; police departments must meet very high standards and be credentialed before receiving federal crime funds;
- Recruit and deploy law enforcement officers who are connected to the communities where they work;
- Increase legal aid resources for citizens who have been allegedly victimized by police to pursue appropriate remedies;
- Expand the use of civilian oversight and review boards with real powers to sanction police departments;
- Increase citizen and media access to information about incidents of alleged misconduct;
- End federal subsidies of unused military equipment to police departments: reduce the militarization of the police.
This is not an exhaustive list of recommendations and there well may be better ideas than these.
We need more than just a “conversation” about fundamental reforms of the police. It is imperative for the future of American democracy to start pursuing concrete changes immediately.
The lack of clear standards and the real mechanisms to assure transparency and accountability for the police runs up against a strong tradition of local control and autonomy of law enforcement agencies.
Yet past civil rights struggles and progress prove that strong federal laws and consistent enforcement of legal mandates are difficult to achieve but they are essential to expand fairness and justice for all of our citizens.
Barry Krisberg is a Senior Fellow of the Earl Warren Institute at the University of California Berkeley Law School. He welcomes readers' comments.