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Policing in a New Political Era

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

As ever, black lives are being relitigated. We saw this again on Monday, when new video challenged what many thought they knew about the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man fatally shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, back in 2014.

Indeed, in recent years, tension between police departments and the public has risen to the forefront of American social awareness. Many see the newly visible string of police beatings and killings as an issue of race, since the most prominent cases have involved an unarmed black person and a white police officer. Others think it more a matter of people merely lacking respect for police officers in the heat of escalating situations, though this latter view hardly addresses the lopsided use of force that often spirals out of control during these altercations.

A panel recently met at New America to discuss reforms that could pave the path to mitigating violent police run-ins in the future—particularly important under an administration that shows little willingness to quash issues of policing. There was a consensus that cooperation between police departments and the people they serve can help build respect in uncertain times. The question, then, is how do we build trust between the police and those who are often over-policed?

The answer: We need to tackle the problem from the ground up.

Up to this point, we’ve pushed community engagement aside in favor of consent decrees from the US Department of Justice. These decrees aim to resolve issues without requiring an admission of guilt, and they’re the DOJ’s method of choice for reforming police departments from the top down. But these decrees haven’t been a silver bullet. For one, consent decrees require the consent, clearly, of the jurisdictions they seek to reform. Those police departments most in need of intervention decide not to cooperate with the DOJ, meaning that those with the the worst problems may never receive necessary attention. Second, with perhaps more implications for the future of policing, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has expressed his intent to end or scale back consent decrees and community-focused policing programs.

This means that it’s on police departments and the locales where they operate to generate a grassroots approach to create real change.

In order for police reform to work like this, we have to determine how police effectiveness is measured, and what determines a successful reform. Making arrests doesn’t prevent crime from happening, of course—just like increasing police numbers doesn’t necessarily reduce crime rates. Rather, what is important is making sure communities have the ability to hold police accountable to the people they serve. Although federal oversight may be somewhat effective in preventing police from committing acts of brutality, the general public can work through their local government to improve the actions of their local police—often to greater effect. Civilian oversight of the police force comes at many different levels, and can range from simply electing the mayor to having a civilian organization in charge of the police department.

In the middle of these two extremes—a completely hands-off police department and a civilian-run one—lies what Brian Corr, president of the National Association of Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), considered to be the answer. The Cambridge, Massachusetts, police department has community service and involvement as its core mission statement. The “Cambridge model,” Corr said, was developed over many years by way of relationship-building between the police and their city. The Cambridge police learned how to work across diverse populations in their city to generate understanding and respect, emphasizing positive police interactions. Corr is also the executive director for the Cambridge Peace Commission, which played a role in the city’s police reform.

Focusing on positive interactions between the police and the populace is crucial. Christy Lopez, Former Deputy Chief of the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division at the DOJ, spoke briefly about the dubious “Ferguson effect,” which says that police officers allegedly feel the weight of scrutiny more heavily than other community members, leading to fewer arrests—often out of police officers’ concern that they will be involved in a violent and publicized encounter. While some argue that this leads to an increase in crime, there is no evidence to support this claim. In other words, the Ferguson effect may lead to fewer, and more thoughtful, arrests, but we shouldn’t take this approach to police involvement—it puts the police in a position of suspicion, which fails to solve underlying issues of distrust.

All of the panelists emphasized the benefits of mutual respect in policing. While community pressure on police reform—through protest and lawsuits, among other methods—is crucial to progress, it’s also clear that police need to be made part of the community. Lopez said that the police need to know that their community trusts them, while at the same time holding them to a high standard of ethical enforcement. Similarly, Corr pointed out that procedural justice is possible when everyone feels they are treated with dignity. “We have to ask of ourselves just what we ask of police officers,” he said.

In order to build this respect, transparency from police departments could be the way forward. Denice Ross, a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America, said that police department demographics were particularly easy to provide. Demographics could be used to show the racial and ethnic makeup of police departments, leading to an emphasis on hiring diverse applicants. In addition to being transparent and open with their communities, police departments should also share data and best practices with other departments across the country. Departments that follow a ground-up, community-oriented model, like the one we’ve seen in Cambridge, could make progress toward a more just policing strategy.

While there is no panacea for the policing crisis, it is key that both police and the public work together to foster understanding. Creating jurisdictions where police know and understand the people they serve means officers can respond more accurately to their needs and concerns.

It’s also important, the panelists remarked, to start sooner rather than later—because once a policing crisis happens, it’s usually too late for meaningful conversation.


Jonathan Moyer was an intern at the Better Life Lab. Before joining New America, he worked for the 2016 Clinton presidential campaign in North Carolina. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.