Institute for Policy Studies
It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage, but smart reforms that minimize police violence and racial bias — and improve accountability and transparency — can help put us on a path to better policing and safer communities. Here are a few of them.
- Institute Community Policing
In part, it means taking police officers out of their offices and patrol cars and placing them on foot patrols throughout the community. That enables them to build a presence and personable connections with local community members before a crime or shooting happens.
Camden, New Jersey is a great example of a police culture shifting
from one of intimidation to one that intentionally builds community ties.
In 2012, Camden reached its peak murder rate. That year, the city dissolved its police department and created a new one governed by the county. And, most importantly, it took a new approach to policing neighborhoods haunted by crime. “We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” said police chief J. Scott Thomas.
After two years of instituting community policing reforms — including hiring more officers, eliminating squad car patrols, knocking on doors to ask residents their concerns, and hosting neighborhood events like push-up contests with youth — violent crime had decreased by over 20 percent, and shootings by over 40 percent.
In uprisings from Baltimore to Ferguson, a major point of contention was the highly militarized response by the police, who greeted nonviolent protesters with military-grade weapons and vehicles
But shooting tear gas from the top of armored trucks doesn’t exactly suggest that the local police are there to serve and protect. Those tactics, noted President Obama
, “can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”
Many of these weapons are surplus equipment granted to local departments by the federal government. In the wake of the Ferguson
and Baltimore uprisings, President Obama announced a limited
ban on transferring some types of military equipment to local police departments. That ban should be expanded to include heavy-duty MRAV trucks and armored vehicles like Humvees, as well as M-16 rifles, drones, flash bangs, and other non-lethal explosives and teargas.
- Appoint Independent Prosecutors
One way that police officers can begin to be held more accountable for their actions is by ending the grand jury process for officers involved in shootings.
In most jurisdictions, prosecutors ask grand juries to consider whether charges should be brought against a defendant. But the process is completely secret, and the evidence presented is completely at the discretion of the prosecutor — who may be sympathetic to police. As one Slate
writer explains, this amounts to “using grand jurors as pawns for political cover
” to exonerate officers who may have shot unarmed suspects.
Instead, these cases should be tried by independent prosecutors who don’t have any connection to the local police force. That would send a strong message to the communities most impacted by disproportionate police violence that police officers will be held accountable for any wrongful death on their hands.
- Set Up Civilian Complaint Review Boards
Community oversight of police is crucial to establishing greater accountability, and this is especially true in communities of color.
In Newark, New Jersey, a scathing Department of Justice report found that local police often used excessive force and violated the constitutional rights of Newark residents. In response, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board
with the power to investigate and subpoena police officers. Civilian oversight boards are a great way to empower members of the community to seek their own evidence in cases of police violence — and ultimately create a more transparent process.
- Provide Racial Bias Training
The fact of the matter is that black and Latino people face discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice system. Police officers should be required to explore how their implicit biases, unconscious prejudices, and stereotypes may cause them use violence against people of color disproportionately.
There’s no way that racial bias training alone can get rid of racial discrimination in policing, but the only way to work against implicit bias is to raise awareness about it. And police chiefs should lead the way on this by offering racial bias training to their officers.
Calls to implement these reforms have reverberated from grassroots activists all the way up to the presidential race. Both Hillary Clinton
and Bernie Sanders
, for example, have made policing and criminal justice reform top priorities. But trust can only be rebuilt community by community. Local departments need take the initiative in healing the broken relations between police and the communities they serve.