Last December, amid the civil unrest and national outcry following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., along with other cases of violence involving police and minority communities, President Obama signed an executive order creating a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. This May, the task force offered 59 recommendations for improvements in the ways law-enforcement agencies interact with their communities.
While the task force focused mostly on responses at the federal level, it did pose an important question: How can we bring unity of purpose and consensus on best practices to a nation with 18,000 separate law-enforcement agencies and a history of a preference for local control?
There are other systemic issues, including those having to do with the institutional nature of our police forces. Over the years, the profession of law enforcement has produced a close-knit bond among its members, often referred to as "the thin blue line." This family-like tradition adds value by providing important support in a dangerous, difficult profession, but it also can create a fraternity-like atmosphere that divides its members from the community and fosters a lack of accountability and transparency.
There is no perfect solution to these problems, of course, but here's an idea: a "community policing czar" for every local government. This would be a cabinet-level position within a local administration. The community policing czar, loosely modeled on the federal position of "drug czar," would have investigative authority, serve as a mediator with community groups and provide leadership and direction in the following focus areas:
• Equity training that focuses on applying the law in a fair and just way. Training that addresses the ethical and sociological issues that police officers will confront in poverty-stricken communities would help to close the disparity gap that creates negative interactions through behavior that dehumanizes citizens.
• Hiring that reflects the community being served. Particularly in areas that have a high concentration of poverty, many police forces are composed primarily of officers who live outside of their jurisdictions and don't have a vested interest in the municipalities where they work. To create a pipeline of future applicants, police need to establish positive interactions with their communities and particularly with young people. Programs like D.A.R.E., Gang Resistance Education and Training, police athletic leagues, Police Explorers and police cadet programs can produce future recruits while also reducing youth violence.
• Data-driven monitoring and feedback. Chicago, for example, is using a data-analysis tool called RespectStat that tracks the quality of police-citizen interactions to provide constructive feedback to command-level personnel.
Institutionalizing community policing czars could go a long way toward creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and cooperation between communities and law-enforcement agencies, lifting the veil that has long created a sense of isolation and mystery that has not served our communities -- or those who protect them.