6 Clear Ways to Improve Policing

March 18th 2015

In response to the recent officer-related killings of unarmed black men -- including Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner -- and the protests sparked by those deaths, President Obama convened a task force to make recommendations on how to "strengthen community policing and trust among law enforcement officers and the communities they serve." The task force consisted of top law enforcement representatives, community leaders, academics and youth leaders who heard testimony from experts and leaders in the field. This month they released their initial report on strengthening trust between police and communities while also reducing crime. The full report will be released in April. The President will review the recommendations and advise the Department of Justice on how to proceed. 

The report is broken down into six sections or pillars. Here are some highlights from the Interim Report of The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing

Pillar One: Building Trust and Legitimacy

The report points out that police officers are better trained and equipped than they've ever been, but citizens' confidence in law enforcement has flat lined. However, for some populations, including people of color, trust actually declined in part due to mass incarceration, and the belief that police officers aren't acting in "procedurally just ways." The report defines procedurally just behavior as "treating people with dignity and respect; giving individuals 'voice' during encounters; being neutral and transparent in decision making" and "conveying trustworthy motives."

Law enforcement was also advised by the report to acknowledge that an important part of procedural justice is acknowledging bias. All human beings have implicit and explicit biases about other people. To fail to acknowledge these biases or to believe that only "bad people" have biases, leads to those biases going unchecked and allows them to grow and continue to be used in decision making. Bias must be acknowledged, and training should be given to mitigate the effects of that bias.

The report also advises that departments attempt to create an internal culture that challenges bias because workplace culture is more effective than rules in encouraging desired behavior. Since police officers work unsupervised most of the time, the values they follow need to be more than just guidelines, they have to be internalized. The task force advises that departments recruit more diverse officers as well as recognize policing's history in past and present injustice and discrimination. 

Pillar Two: Policy and Oversight

The report advocates that police department policies be examined for "disparate impact"* on various segments of the community. Policies with a disparate impact should be reviewed and either rewritten, and/or police officers trained to mitigate the bias causing the impact. The task force also advises that all departments have a specifically stated sanctity of life policy and collect and evaluate information on all uses of excessive force. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 requires the Attorney General to collect data on uses of excessive force, but it has never been funded. 

A key recommendation made by the report is to prohibit profiling and discrimination not just based on based on race, but also ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, housing status, occupation or language fluency. The report also asked that officers respect gender identity in searches and lock-ups. While racial profiling has been in the spotlight recently, many are unaware that disabled, Deaf, and transgender people are abused by law enforcement at alarming rates

Another important recommendation in the report is that departments refrain from requiring officers to issue a predetermined number of tickets or make arrests for reasons other than public safety, such as for the purpose of generating revenue. This was determined to be a major issue in Ferguson, which generates the majority of city revenue through fines and fees that escalate to arrest when poor residents can't pay. Citizens are typically fined for small infractions like parking tickets or failing to obey orders during stops where a crime wasn't committed, and there is no threat to public safety. In this scenario, stops may be made simply because the officer has a quota for stops to make. A citizen who feels that they were improperly stopped is likely to fail to follow orders, and then be arrested and fined for it, creating a self-fulfilling cycle that disadvantages citizens. This action also erodes trust in law enforcement, making it more difficult for them to investigate actual crimes.

*Disparate impact is a legal term that basically means that a policy or law doesn't have to be discriminatory in its intent; it must only have disparate impact on a protected group -- even when applied equally. For example, a law that required all people to pee standing up would have a disparate impact on people who don't have penises, even if it did not have sexist intent and was applied equally to every one. For a more serious, real world example, most police department policies allow for use of force when an officer feels threatened. If it turns out afterwards that the officer was not in danger (like if they thought they saw a gun, but it turns out there was no gun) the use of force is still justified by the perceived threat. However, many studies have shown that due to implicit and explicit bias and racism, many people perceive black men as a threat even when they aren't one (and are more likely to incorrectly believe that they saw a weapon they did not when dealing with black men). In this way, the perceived threat rule has a deadly disparate impact on black men.

Pillar Three: Technology and Social Media

The task force advocates exploring best practices for the adoption and use of technology and examining the unintended consequences of doing so. For an example they advise against seeing body camera technology as a cure-all. There is significant evidence that body cameras positively influence the behavior of both officers and civilians, but they also invite major privacy concerns for both parties. Similarly, while social media can be an important tool for departments to gather and share information, transparency needs to be tempered with the need for privacy and fostering public trust.

Pillar Four: Community Policing and Crime Reduction

Police officers don't have to just respond to crime, they can also take proactive steps to address the conditions that give rise to crime and public safety issues. The report points out that while crime rates have decreased dramatically over the past few decades, some communities have not benefited as much from the decline. The increased, specific attention on those communities breeds resentment. The task force advises that law enforcement counteract this resentment by creating mutual trust, cooperation, and prevention strategies, foster community interactions outside of the context of investigations, partnering with churches and schools, and making community relations the concern of the entire department- not just one unit. 

They advise that police departments engage in problem solving, not just response after crimes have already been committed, and contribute to the informal social norms of communities, which can be much more effective than formal rules and laws. Police officers and communities who do not feel threatened by each other can work together more effectively. 

Pillar Five: Training and Education

The report advises hiring based on educational achievements and social skills. It also recommends that officers be hired who reflect the community they work in, with a focus on finding officers with character traits that support fairness, compassion, cultural sensitivity, and that respect all members of the community. They point out that exposure to violence doesn't only hurt community members, it also affects officers who can become prone to more violent behaviors after experiencing violence on duty and advocate training and education to help avoid officers using violence on the job whenever possible. 

To this end, they advise that police officers receive additional training in the following areas:

1. Community policing and problem-solving principles

2. Interpersonal and communication skills

3. Bias awareness

4. Scenario-based, situational decision making

5. Crisis intervention

6. Procedural justice and impartial policing

7. Trauma and victim services

8. Mental health issues

9. Analytical research and technology

10. Languages and cultural responsiveness

Pillar Six: Officer Wellness and Safety

Police officers face physical, mental, and emotional injuries on the job. A large proportion of officer deaths are due to poor physical and mental health and substance abuse. Car accidents are the number one cause of officer death, and officers die from suicide 2.4 times as often as homicide. In fact, research published on Tuesday in the American Journal for Preventative Medicine, found that workers in “protective service occupations” had the highest rates of suicide -- excluding military personnel. Officer deaths in confrontations have declined over the years, but more effort and research need to be put into the other prevalent causes of officer deaths. 

What Can These Changes Do?

The task force recommends that the President direct all law enforcement agencies to review their recommendations. They also recommend the implementation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force that can undertake comprehensive criminal justice reform (particularly in the areas of drug laws and sentencing and incarceration), and community-based initiatives (in the areas of poverty, education, health, and safety- the conditions that lead to crime).

The report is smart, comprehensive, and clearly benefits from the input of various disciplines. The main critique that can be made of it is that there are no suggestions for where the funding will be found for the many programs recommended (not that that was the task force's job, but the money does have to come from somewhere).

Other issues include conflicting messages on technology, including body cameras. Although President Obama has come out in full support of body cameras, the task force advised caution in the use of the technology. Other potential conflicts include independent review boards to investigate officer involved shootings, which someincluding the President, have remarked that they could be controversial in law enforcement circles. Other gaps in the report, include the assumption that training and increased contact with marginalized groups will reduce officer bias. The report makes no recommendations on how to address the issue of officers who continue to exhibit bias after the increased training.

While, the report does mention the fact that police officers lose credibility in part due to aspects of the justice system that are beyond their control, and despite the fact that he report also suggests reforming not only policing, but also the entire justice system, the report it does not make specific recommendations -- as the title implies -- beyond the scope of policing.

While the report does present important reforms, police reform is just a band-aid over a broken justice system. Laws can and should, be better, but that can only go so far. Many laws reinforce racism and continue to marginalize the poor. True reform would require a radical look at the way laws disproportionately target marginalized groups -- particularly the way laws criminalize of the effects of poverty. Hopefully, in addition to these task force recommendations, the President will also order a more comprehensive review of the entire justice system.

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