In a mere 90 days, a task force assembled by the Obama administration has issued an ambitious plan for improving police forces around the nation.
Now the question is whether police leaders will take its recommendations seriously, and put those that make the most sense to them into practice.
The report was prompted by the widespread outcry over the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of officers in Missouri, New York City, Ohio and elsewhere in recent months.
Law enforcement at all levels has taken much of the credit for falling crime rates in the U.S., while critics have said that police officers should take some of the blame for oppressive tactics that too often lead to unnecessary deaths and injuries.
The Obama task force laid out 59 recommendations calling for more police diversity, better training, wise use of technology, and public transparency in law enforcement policies and practices.
In a country without a national police force and nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies, many of which are local operations with only a handful of officers, there is no mechanism for forcing police to adopt agreed-upon best practices.
The killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson focused attention on the fact that data are incomplete on how many police shooting episodes occur in a given year. There have been many calls for more studies of the problem, including from the Obama task force, but it’s not clear that the funding or the will is there to compile such numbers, which Congress asked for as long ago as the big 1994 anticrime law signed by President Bill Clinton at the height of the nation’s crime wave.
Speaking to journalists after the report was issued, task force co-chairs Charles Ramsey, Philadelphia police commissioner, and Laurie Robinson, former Assistant U.S. Attorney General now on the faculty of Virginia’s George Mason University, said that the federal government could give local law enforcement more incentives to improve by offering federal aid to police forces that agree to provide data on officer-involved shootings and train officers better on responding to violent suspects.
The reality is that the agency that provides such aid, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is a small part of the U.S. Justice Department stemming from that same 1994 crime law–one that must fight for its appropriations from Congress each year.
“Incidents like the killing in Ferguson are more commonplace than many of us recognized,” Robinson told The Crime Report. “It’s not clear yet if the increased focus on the problem will result in continued public attention that will translate into pressure for change.”
Robinson is optimistic, in part because major organizations like the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have supported many of the changes advocated by the Obama task force, such as wider use of police body cameras to record evidence of interactions with the public.
The IACP and other groups have engaged in soul-searching about law enforcement issues in the same way that the government corruption that became apparent in the 1970s Watergate scandal led to soul searching in the legal profession, she said.
The Obama task force, mindful that it could not thoroughly cover every major issue in three months, urged the president to create yet another task force, this one to examine the entire criminal justice system.
“Police are obviously not responsible for laws or incarceration policies that many citizens find unfair,” the Obama group said in its draft report. “This misassociation leads us to call for a broader examination of such issues as drug policy, sentencing and incarceration, which are beyond the scope of a review of police practices.”
A half-century ago, President Lyndon B. Johnson established a Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice that has not been repeated since. Congress narrowly failed to set up such a panel a few years ago.
Some federal reports have led to dramatic change, while others have been left to gather dust.
The Obama panel’s report includes enough specific, doable recommendations that the Justice Department and its supporters in Congress could find the funding to make many of them happen if the issue isn’t ignored in an era of largely dysfunctional government.
Ted Gest is President of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes readers comments.