Earlier this month, after the events in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y, the White House announced the creation of what it’s calling a Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
The group’s job is to find ways to strengthen the relationship between police and the public, and to share recommendations with the president by late February.
President Obama picked one veteran police officer and one attorney to lead the task force: Charles Ramsey, the Police Commissioner in Philadelphia, who has also served on police forces in Washington, D.C. and Chicago, and Laurie Robinson, a professor at George Mason University who served as an assistant attorney general under Presidents Clinton and Obama.
Ramsey and Robinson spoke with NPR’s Renee Montagne about what they see as the biggest challenges facing police departments around the country, and what they hope to accomplish.
On local vs. federal authority
Robinson: There are 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in this country and the federal government can’t order any of them to do specific things. But, there are levers that can be pulled. For example, tying change to federal grants — like specific changes that the way training is done as a requirement for receiving federal grants in the area of criminal justice.
On police training
Ramsey: There are some differences, because, you know, state laws obviously vary from state to state. So, there are some differences. You know, we do a good job of training police in the mechanics of policing, [but] not necessarily spending enough time on the educational component, having officers understand the role of police in a democratic society. How do you establish trust?
Robinson: And I would add to that … the whole issue of how to de-escalate confrontations. We’ve seen in many of the incidents that have sparked controversy that de-escalation could have been a very helpful skill for the officers to have had. Oftentimes, in training, there’s a lot of technical training, how to drive cars, how to shoot. But people skills are so critical.
On Ramsey’s past problems with protest crackdowns in Washington, D.C., where he was police chief
Ramsey: You learn, as time goes on. That was 12 years ago. It was one year after 9/11. So, there was an overreaction, there’s no question about that, in hindsight. I learned a great deal about having a little more flexibility when it comes to protests. If you look at what is taking place in Philadelphia, we have a totally different approach. During Occupy Philadelphia — even now, in the wake of the Brown and Garner decisions — before roll call, we read the First Amendment to our officers, reminding them people have a right to demonstrate. People have a right to protest. Now, you don’t have a right to break windows and cause property damage. Protests can turn violent on occasions, and I think we’ve even seen that recently. So, you do have to be careful. You can’t just not take any action at all. But, at the same time, I think you’ve got to really measure your response very carefully.
On potential solutions
Ramsey: Establishing lines of communication and touching communities where we have the most tension and strained relationships, making sure that people are treated in a respectful fashion, and also understanding that we’re not going to get to a situation where there is zero uses of force throughout the country in the course of any year. I mean, we do have a lot of violence in many of our communities and officers are sent in[to] those communities to deal with the people who are committing acts of violence and not everyone wants to go to jail peacefully. The question to me, and the issue to me, is making sure that if officers do have to use force, that it’s only that force that’s appropriate based on the situation they find themselves in. If you do have to resort to deadly force, then your life or the life of another has to be in immediate jeopardy. And we’ve got to constantly train, constantly reinforce and hold people accountable if their actions fall outside of policy or guidelines.
Robinson: This has to do with local police departments having dialogue with their communities. It’s about open communication and discussion of accountability — and ongoing discussion. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s about establishing relationships.
On police accountability and transparency
Ramsey: One of the things that obviously … people are concerned about is how these cases are reviewed. Is a grand jury, for an example, the proper way of doing it, with the district attorney’s involvement and that so forth? I don’t have the answer to that, but one of the things that we will be looking at as a task force is independent review of these kinds of cases and how should that take place. But, we also want to make sure that everything we do protects everyone’s rights and that includes the rights of the police officer, as well. As much information as you can get out publicly, I think, ought to be given out, so that people understand all these circumstances [and] not just the bits and pieces of what has may have taken place, and then they form an opinion based on that. And the only outcome is one in which a person is either indicted or fired or what have you. That may be appropriate, but, we need to really let the facts drive that.