For the New Republic.
As they strive to solve the public crisis of police use-of-force incidents, illuminated again by the deaths of several black victims last year, officials from the White House on down have coalesced around "community policing." When it comes to influencing the national conversation on a local issue like this, it doesn’t get more official than the U.S. Conference of Mayors, or USCM. The non-partisan organization is comprised of more than one thousand mayors representing the nation’s largest cities. Its mission is to shape national urban policy and the positions adopted at their annual meeting are distributed to the President of the United States and to Congress.
On January 30, the USCM released a report on strengthening "police-community" relations in American cities. The six-page report came full of recommendations for everything from "youth study circles" to new equipment. The report was completed with the help of a working group of police chiefs, including Philadelphia Commissioner Charles Ramsey, the man appointed by President Obama to chair his Task Force on 21st Century Policing in response to rising unrest around around the issue of police brutality.
Absent from their suggestions, however, was a single mention of officer discipline.
A full page is dedicated to the imprecise goal of "Addressing Racial and Economic Disparities and Community Frustration with and Distrust of Governmental Institutions." The use of "distrust," however, is disingenuous. While black citizens do report having less confidence than white ones in police, the overwhelming majority—more than three-quarters—report having some to a "great deal of confidence" in police. Trust isn’t the issue here.
What the #BlackLivesMatter protests made clear is that communities of color are increasingly fed up with the over-policing of our neighborhoods, extrajudicial killings of unarmed black people and the failures of the justice system to hold killer cops accountable. To ignore those complaints and suggest that the issue is merely one of distrust is dishonest, and it evades the very obvious fact that police brutality is a national problem that persists, in part, because cops can get away with it.
I’ve commented before on "community policing," but it’s worth noting again how troubling that term is. "Community policing" reframes the conversation around police reform from one that addresses police brutality to one that addresses the relationship between law enforcement and communities of color, as though they’re mutually combative. The relationship between the two isn’t the issue. It’s the manner in which law enforcement relates to communities of color that’s proven deadly, time and time again.
Comedian Chris Rock provided an apt analogy for this during his recent New York Magazine interview.
"If you saw Tina Turner and Ike having a lovely breakfast over there, would you say their relationship’s improved? Some people would. But a smart person would go, 'Oh, he stopped punching her in the face.' It’s not up to her. Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has nothing to do with Tina Turner."
Similarly, ending police brutality isn’t up to the communities that are brutalized. It’s up to the cops.
Now, the USCM report is not all bad. Its call for independent investigations of deadly police encounters is a substantive step. It makes helpful nods toward improving hiring and training practices. However, the report's failure to get serious about police reform and combating police abuses and to instead focus on "relationships," while politically convenient, doesn’t begin to solve the problem. The report fails, for instance, to address the systematic failure of police departments nationally to discipline officers who are found to have inappropriately engaged citizens and used excessive force.
Take the New York Police Department, for example, the nation’s largest. It is often at the forefront of innovation in the field. But, when it comes to disciplining officers for misconduct, the NYPD fails miserably. Just last year, the department decided not to discipline 25 percent of the officers who its Civilian Complaint Review Board found guilty of committing misconduct. A WNYC report also found that the NYPD fails to drive out cops who present red flags for abuse.
Within policing, too-frequent charges of "resisting arrest" by cops is a red flag for excessive force. The logic is that an abusive officer will be more likely to cover up excessive force with the excuse that a suspect resisted arrest. But WNYC found that just five percent of officers who’ve made arrests since 2009 accounted for 40 percent of the charges of resisting arrest. They even discovered one active officer to have made more than 50 charges. Does the community just need a better "relationship" with this cop who curiously finds himself in these sorts of situations time and time again?
Coincidentally, just last week, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton asked New York lawmakers to raise resisting arrest from a misdemeanor to a felony. That is an alarming claim, given how and why Eric Garner was choked to death on Staten Island by a police officer in July. Like the subsequent deaths of John Crawford III in an Ohio Wal-Mart, Tamir Rice near a Cleveland community center, each incident was avoidable and not one of their killers has been brought to justice. Another one that qualifies is the November shooting death of Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell; we learned Tuesday that the officer involved was indicted Tuesday on several counts, including second-degree manslaughter.
There’s a suite of reforms, from recruiting to data collection, that need to be made throughout the nation’s police departments, and strengthening discipline measures must be central to any proposal that seeks justice for victims of police brutality and to prevent future tragedies.
First, police departments must do a better job of actively ferreting out bad cops. Using early warning systems that trigger an intervention process when an officer has an excessive number of use of force complaints against him, or has filed a certain number of resisting arrest charges, is a start. Departments also need central databases that collect information on police conduct from various sources, so that an officer’s complete record can be compiled and viewed. Police departments must also make it a priority to maintain their integrity by investigating citizen complaints swiftly, impartially and with transparency. Independent, civilian-led complaint review boards are essential in doing that work.
Finally, the decisions of civilian review boards should not just serve as recommendations for discipline, but should be a determining factor in it. That is, in effect, the only way to hold police officers directly accountable to the communities they serve.
"Community policing" sounds good. As proposed, it will probably be more politically expedient than substantive change in policy, but we cannot fix our deadly system of policing without addressing officer discipline. There must be measures in place to make cops think twice about pulling the trigger. It’s a matter of accountability, but also of life and death.