The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and the successive deaths of unarmed Blacks at the hands of police and trigger-happy civilians have pricked the American conscience and made criminal justice reform the current cause célèbre. Despite clamoring calls for reform and recommendations from government agencies and civil rights organizations, however, real change – so far – has been negligible, advocates say.
“We’re seeing some movement to address these concerns but they are not going far enough,” said Hilary Shelton, the NAACP’s Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for advocacy and policy. He added, “Until we hear about local police departments and city councils moving to create more effective policy around policing then we’re still missing the point.”
Tanya Clay House, public policy director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said it is difficult to “directly identify” which police departments are really implementing changes and that reform efforts are mostly at the review stage.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out how to effectively guide agencies how to implement these guidelines,” she said.
She added, “In some places you need to have a change in the charter for police agencies” and other legislative changes and “that could be a hold-up.”
Most of the movement seems to be occurring around outfitting police officers with body-worn cameras, though that, too, has been bogged down with matters of legality, funding, and logistics. Ferguson, Mo.; Arizona, Florida, California, Texas, Baltimore, Kansas and other jurisdictions either already have body cameras or are investigating its use. Just last week, the D.C. Council held a hearing on the matter. Most seem to agree it is a useful tool for providing accountability, transparency, and accuracy in interactions between the public and police. However, advocates warn, that is but a small part of the solution.
“Body cameras are not a panacea,” House said. “It is kind of that low-hanging fruit that many agencies will take – and we’re not opposed to that, but they’re not going to get away with just doing that.”
“What we are talking about is changing the very premise of policing in America,” she added, “and body cameras cannot do that.”
Most officials and activists agree that the slow pace of progress on police reform could be attributable to the deeply entrenched nature of the problem. “We’ve had to deal with aspects of police misconduct and brutality for decades,” said Shelton. “In Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois talked about law enforcement as one of the biggest challenges for African Americans.”
The real difference, today, is the prevalence of mobile recording devices and social media which have brought the ongoing travesty from the darkness into the light.
“But for that, a great many people would not be willing to acknowledge there is a different relationship between African-American communities and police and White and upper-middle-class communities and police,” said House.
For example, she said, “many urban communities are over-policed” with disproportionately high numbers of police officers for their populations compared to significantly fewer officers in low-minority, jurisdictions with much larger populations.
“Police continue to use over-policing of communities for minor incidents out of a belief that it would deter major crimes. But it’s not working. If anything, it leads to higher incidents of racial profiling and instead of communities of color looking up to police, they fear police,” House said.
Shelton supported that statement, saying in the NAACP’s discussions with different Black communities, many say that “police officers there appear like an occupying force and not as if they are there to protect and serve. The residents say they felt like they were under siege.”
Meanwhile, he added, Blacks in majority-White communities reported being targeted and racially profiled as if “officers were there to maintain segregation.”
“The relationship between police and communities of color have always been somewhat strained,” acknowledged Cedric Alexander, president of The National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives. “A great deal of work needs to be done to continue – and in some cases begin – to create relationships between police and communities.”
For example, Alexander said, in DeKalb County, Ga., where he is the chief of police, “We have a department that demographically reflects the community. We have a department that is fully engaged in community meetings. Members of the community have access to all precinct commanders. And the department has relationships with the leaders of the county and those in the community. Therefore, even when we have our challenges, it becomes easier to work through.”
Alexander also cited Indianapolis, Ind. and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. as jurisdictions where the police departments have made concerted efforts to foster amicable relationships between communities and law enforcement.
Besides fostering good relations, officer training – including standard guidelines for use of force, diversity awareness and sensitivity, etc. – is also a must, Alexander said.
Building public trust and ongoing officer training were among the recommendations included in the March 2015 interim report from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The use of body-worn cameras among police officers and other technology was also recommended. And, in December, the president proposed a three-year $263 million investment package to provide 50,000 body-worn cameras, a $75 million outlay that states and local jurisdictions would have to match; expand training for law enforcement agencies; and supply other resources needed to implement reform.
But Congress also has an important role to play, House said. “There’s legislation that can be passed to help facilitate this process. It’s not just a state responsibility,” she said.
“We all can do something,” she said of the general public. “We cannot allow entire communities to be trapped and targeted and just stand by. Start contacting your state elected officials and members of Congress; get engaged through social media or any forum you have and say something. Everybody doesn’t have to march, just do one thing to make a change.”