In Case You Missed It: The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing

President of the United States: Barack Obama

In a democratic society, trust between law enforcement agencies and the people they protect and serve is essential to the stability of communities and the integrity of our criminal justice system. The fear of oppression and discriminatory law enforcement can be as debilitating to a community as the fear of crime. This has become abundantly clear in observing the public demonstrations that have been taken up across the country in the aftermath of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and others. Police use of force may be the immediate cause for gathering, but the protests are clearly about historically strained relationships devoid of trust and respect.

Established by an Executive Order on December 18, 2014, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing faced an ambitious goal. It needed to examine a broad range of issues facing contemporary policing and identify the best practices and otherwise make recommendations to the President on how to promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.

Under the leadership of co-chairs Charles Ramsey, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and Laurie Robinson, professor at George Mason University, six “pillar” areas were identified to guide the task force in its work. These were (1) Building Trust and Legitimacy, (2) Policy and Oversight, (3) Technology and Social Media, (4) Community Policing and Crime Reduction, (5) Training and Education, and (6) Officer Wellness and Safety.

In January and February, the task force hosted seven public listening sessions, six subcommittee meetings, and four deliberation sessions on these pillars. Through those sessions as well as through stakeholder meetings, written testimony, e-mails, and Twitter posts, the task force engaged federal, state, local, and tribal officials, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, academic and technical experts, young leaders, and the general public. Nearly 150 people contributed oral testimony at the listening sessions, and they all were consistent in their thoughtfulness and passion for helping to improve the practice of policing in this country, and to develop stronger relationships between police and communities. You can still read and watch all of the testimony and discussions by visiting the task force’s website.

All of these contributions led to a report with 60 recommendations and hundreds of action items. They are all concrete principles and strategies that the task force confidently believes can bring about long-term improvements to the ways in which law enforcement agencies interact with and bring positive change to their communities.

The entire report is available to read online, download, or even order, and here we offer just a taste of what that report contains. First is that task force calls upon law enforcement agencies to acknowledge the role of policing in past and present injustice and discrimination and how it is a hurdle to the promotion of community trust. This theme emerged in the very first listening session in Washington, D.C., when Jennifer Eberhardt of Stanford University told the task force, “Bias is not limited to so-called ‘bad people.’ And it certainly is not limited to police officers. The problem is a widespread one that arises from history, from culture, and from racial inequalities that still pervade our society and are especially salient in the context of criminal justice.” And it continued throughout every other session, notably in Phoenix, where a panel of police chiefs described what they had been doing in recent years to recognize and own that history and to change the culture within both the police forces and the communities.

Another common theme that ran through many of the hearings and more than one recommendation is the need for greater diversity in the recruitment, hiring, and promotion of police officers. Many witnesses spoke to the complicated issue of diversity in recruiting, including Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who said of youth in poor communities, “By the time you are 17, you have been stopped and frisked a dozen times. That does not make that 17-year-old want to become a police officer.” Ultimately, law enforcement agencies should strive to create a workforce that contains a broad range of diversity including race, gender, language, life experience, and cultural background to improve understanding and effectiveness in dealing with all communities.

What also carries through so many of the recommendations is that community policing emphasizes working with neighborhood residents to co-produce public safety. As Delores Jones Brown of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice testified, “Neighborhood policing provides an opportunity for police departments to do things with residents … rather than doing things to or for them.” Public safety is the responsibility of all, and the effective management of it requires collaboration across agencies, sectors, and communities.

A striking finding of the report is not the profoundness of any given recommendation but the fact that they are all the consensus opinion of a diverse task force. Whatever their background and experience, the task force members agreed that these are steps to move the profession and our communities forward. While every task force member brought their own perspective, they could all agree that individuals are more likely to obey the law when they trust that those who enforce it will treat them with dignity and respect, regardless of what they look like, where they live, or whom they love.

Deborah Spence
Supervisory Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from remarks given to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights thematic hearing to address matters relating to the general situation of race discrimination and criminal justice in the United States on March 16, 2015.

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