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Obama's Policing Task Force Releases Recommendations

A national policing commission set up by President Barack Obama after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is recommending independent investigations of police-involved deaths.

By Chuck Raasch

A national policing commission set up by President Barack Obama after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson is recommending independent investigations of police-involved deaths.

The Task Force on 21st Century Policing, while urging reforms in training, record-keeping, technology, and the way that police interact with communities, did not offer an unqualified endorsement of police use of body cameras. The commission said that while cameras can help, their use is complex and can have negative effects on relationships between police and the communities they serve.

Obama said that body cameras, while seen as a "silver bullet or solution" by some, are not a "panacea," and their use "has to be embedded in a broader change in culture and a legal framework that ensures that people's privacy is respected, and that not only police officers but the community themselves feel comfortable with how the technologies are being used."

Obama applauded the overall findings after meeting with the task force chairs, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, now a professor at George Mason University. Brittany Packnett, executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, was one of the task force members.

"We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported," Obama said.

But, he acknowledged, "There are going to be some controversial recommendations in here."

He immediately mentioned as one of those controversies, "the importance of making sure that the sense of accountability when ... law enforcement is involved in a deadly shooting that I think communities across the board are going to need to consider."

On Aug. 9, Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson. A St. Louis County grand jury did not indict Wilson, and critics said St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch should have been replaced by an independent prosecutor. McCulloch's defenders said he conducted a thorough investigation hampered by conflicting testimony.

In December, Obama formed the task force to come up with recommendations, and gave it 90 days to produce Monday's report. It was not universally praised.

William Johnson, executive director of the National Association of Police Organizations, said that some recommendations make sense, but that many are already in place or have been put in motion by Obama's Department of Justice, including tying federal law enforcement aid to agencies that emphasize diverse hiring.

Johnson also said he was not surprised by the report's "emphasis on (police) departments needing, in the task force's view, to acknowledge their history of racism" given that the commission included no rank-and-file police officers.

"You have academics, law school professors, chiefs of police, community organizers, but you don't have any cops" involved in writing the recommendations, Johnson said. "It is kind of hard for me to hear some Yale professor talk about inclusion when they exclude rank-and-file cops."

The 112-page report took "input from criminal justice experts, community leaders, law enforcement and civil liberties advocates," Obama said

He said his administration is reviewing the 63 recommendations. Some, he said, can be done by his Justice Department, but he also pointed out that "law enforcement is largely a local function."

Some recommendations deal directly with issues that arose during the investigation of the Brown shooting, and the sometimes violent demonstrations that followed. Among them:

  • Law enforcement agencies "should have comprehensive policies on the use of force that include training, investigations, prosecutions, data collection, and information sharing." Those policies "should also mandate external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force resulting in death, officer-involved shootings result in injury or death, or in-custody deaths," the report said.
  • Police should tamp down on "militarization" of law enforcement response to demonstrations and violence -- a criticism widely leveled at the initial police response in Ferguson. The report recommends police forces "employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust."
It also calls for "soft look" police uniforms and urges officers to remove riot gear "as soon as practical."

  • Police departments should refrain from seeing traffic tickets and arrests as revenue generators, an allegation leveled at local law enforcement. This recommendation included one of the sharpest references to Ferguson, quoting an American Civil Liberties Union official saying those thrown in jail for nonpayment of fines and fees are victims of "debtors' prisons."
  • Police should issue more warnings and fewer summonses, focusing on "de-escalation or alternatives to arrests or summonses." It calls for police to use the latest in nonlethal technology and fewer guns. "Law enforcement should embrace a guardian mindset to build public trust and legitimacy," the report recommends.
  • All law enforcement agencies should adopt and enforce policies prohibiting profiling "based on race, ethnicity, national origin, age, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, immigration status, disability, housing status, occupation and/or language fluency."
(c)2015 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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