Do We Need Police Reform? Here’s What President Obama Thinks

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It’s been a little over eight months since the events in Ferguson, Mo., and the protests sparked by the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man. The events spiraled out into the rest of America with the death of Tamir Rice and law enforcement concerns across communities in the United States. These include issues surrounding police accountability, racial targeting, community trust and relations with local police, use of force, and the equipment supplied to police departments.

A number of actions have been taken in response to these events. Body cameras were donated and purchased by many police departments in the wake of and during protests. Racial inequality and prejudice became important topics on the public radar once more, and various movements mobilized by such events and ideas began, including “I Can’t Breathe,” “Black Lives Matter,” and “Police Lives Matter.”

In March, President Barack Obama presented a report compiled by his appointed task force — headed by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson — which has spent recent months conducting hearings and considering changes that would be best going forward. In doing so, he emphasized the importance of reform and the need to follow through on these issues even after the initial media coverage from failures to indict and the resulting protests have died down.

The report itself is 115 pages and contained six “pillars” for change, which we’ll look at in summary in a moment. But first, let’s consider at a few overarching qualifiers Obama put into his discussion of the report. He emphasized the need for research moving forward in order to have accurate data on which to base new policies. He made it clear that while body cameras would play their part, they are not a “silver bullet” or a “panacea.” He also talked about the local nature of law enforcement.

“Law enforcement is largely a local function as opposed to a federal function … a lot of our work is going to involve local police chiefs, local elected officials, states recognizing that the moment is now for us to make these changes,” said Obama. The local focus will likely be very important given the regional differences in needs and requirements, as well as the different ways communities and enforcement departments function. But the focus on evidence-based encouragement of effective programs is a strong one.

Moving on to the report itself, it looks at six items: community trust improvement, policy and accountability, the use of technology, continuing to cut into crime rates, how officers are trained and involved with education, and the good of officers’ own health and safety. The issue of “building trust and legitimacy” deals in large part with bias, looking at both conscious and unconscious prejudice, and how the police officer mindset must be transformed from that of the “soldier” to that of the “guardian.”

The report also pointed to specific police department experience, like the force in Baltimore and how it has acknowledged past problems and put into place a system for reviewing its police actions. This idea feeds into the “policy and oversight” section, which also highlights the need for data collection and the necessity of working with the local community to make policies fit the environment as necessary.

The “Technology and Social Media” section of the report considers the need for a careful study of possible new tools and tools already in use (i.e., the pros and cons of equipment like body cameras), particularly in relation to privacy concerns. Communication with local residents via a well-kept social media presence was also encouraged, while certain individual behaviors of officers were considered in need of regulation.

The “Community Policing and Crime Reduction” portion recommended encouragement of “community engagement in managing public safety,” as well as looking for ways to curtail crime without massive arrest efforts and working with other resources to develop “community team approaches for planning, implementing, and responding to crisis situations with complex causal factors.” This calls for a stronger community-police relationship in dealing with crime and how to reduce it, from youth intervention and treatment to neighborhoods in general.

Continued education and training were included in the “Training and Education” section on the principle that “tactical skills are important, but attitude, tolerance, and interpersonal skills are equally so.” Finally, “Officer Wellness and Safety” went into details on the cumulative stress — physical, emotional, mental — faced by a number of law enforcement officers, and the need for better support from within the department, nationally, and at the community level. One item outlined was funding for a “Blue Alert” system to help find perpetrators who have killed officers in the line of duty.

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