Law enforcement agencies should measure community trust the same way they monitor crime rates. That’s among the recommendations of a task force established after police-involved killings of unarmed black people in Ferguson, Mo., in Cleveland and on Staten Island, N.Y.
The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing also emphasized the need for better training and equipment, including tactical first-aid kits and bulletproof vests. But it stopped short of insisting police wear body cameras to record their interactions on the beat, given concerns about people’s privacy and who will retain those images.
In another recommendation that’s resonating with community groups, the task force also encouraged police to focus on de-escalating situations, rather than ratcheting up tension and drawing weapons before pursuing other, less lethal options.
“The events in Ferguson and New York exposed a deep-rooted frustration in many communities of color about the need for fair and just law enforcement,” President Obama said in brief remarks Monday at the White House. “We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled … feel fully supported.”
The White House created the task force by executive order in December 2014. Since then, the 11-member panel has held seven “listening sessions” across the country and heard testimony from 120 witnesses.
The wrinkle is, law enforcement largely happens at the local level, with some 18,000 police agencies across the country. And the federal government doesn’t have a lot of power to compel local police chiefs and states to act. But Obama said he’d push the Justice Department and its Community Oriented Policing Services office to start making changes soon based on the report. Ron Davis, who leads the COPS office, is already familiar with the task force’s work, since he served as its executive director.
“The report was never meant to be a panacea,” one member of the panel tells NPR. “It’s not a solution to all problems.”
The 120-page report also touched on other controversial topics. Among them: recommending that after an officer-involved shooting, independent prosecutors and investigators look into the death, rather than district attorneys and police colleagues who may work alongside the officer.
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, co-chairman of the task force, said that recommendation was not intended to be an “indictment of various agencies; it’s just reacting to the perception that’s out there and certainly trying to get around the appearance of impropriety or lack of transparency in these investigations.”
“It takes time, it takes relationship building, and it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Laurie O. Robinson, a George Mason University professor who served as co-chairwoman of the task force.
Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ACLU has pushed for most of the elements in the task force report for years. “We strongly believe they will significantly improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve, particularly communities of color,” Bennett said.
“Most of the recommendations,” she added, “are essential and should be nonnegotiable.”