Last week was book-ended by the refusal of grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, NY to approve indictments against white policemen accused of killing unarmed black men. Protests and heated discussions about bias in our criminal justice system broke out across the country, while #Ferguson, #EricGarner trended on Twitter.
Declaring that relations between police and minority communities were broken, President Obama unveiled his plan to fix them. Having previously initiated a civil rights investigation in Ferguson, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Justice Department would also investigate the choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Holder is expected to announce long-anticipated changes to the Department’s racial profiling guidelines today.
All this attention and activity makes it feel like we are at an inflection point. But although longstanding policy choices have brought us to this juncture, single-issue fixes dominate the discourse. These simply aren’t enough to mend the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the citizens they serve.
Disputes about the circumstances under which Michael Brown was shot by Ferguson police have led to renewed calls for police to wear cameras that record their encounters with citizens. Early studies show that cop-cams can reduce both police misconduct and false accusations of abuse. President Obama has proposed $75 million in matching funds to encourage their use.
But as we saw last week, cameras are not a silver bullet for preventing violence or clarifying whether police acted properly. A Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the policeman who was vividly captured on video apparently choking Eric Garner. (To protect privacy, police must also have strict policies to minimize the retention of footage and access to it, sensible concrete recommendations for which can be found in this ACLU policy paper).
We will never know exactly why the Garner grand jury refused to indict in the face of what seemed to many clear evidence. Some argue that district attorneys who rely on police to make cases can’t be trusted to bring cases against them and advocate for special prosecutors. Of course, reliance on special prosecutors has its own problems (remember Ken Starr) and its far from clear whether the lack of indictment can always be laid at the door of a prosecutor or whether jurors simply tend to give police officers the benefit of the doubt too often.
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Meanwhile, the Ferguson police’s heavy-handed response to protests over Eric Brown’s death – riding in armored vehicles, armed to the teeth – drew attention to a growing trend: the militarization of local police. Obama responded to complaints by pledging to harmonize standards across programs that provide equipment to police forces and increase oversight. As I’ve argued before, the issue is not just military equipment, but a counterinsurgency mindset that “views residents as potential threats rather than potential partners.” The White House review on federal support for the acquisition of equipment by police failed to grapple with the core problem of whether providing military equipment to police effects their culture and undermines cooperative relations with the communities they are meant to serve.
All of these issues deserve attention, but the problem that led to a divide between law enforcement and the general population is much bigger. Much of it can be traced to measures under the rubric of the war on drugs, launched by President Reagan in 1982. Draconian sentences for the possession of small amounts of drugs, the disparity between the punishment for possession of crack and cocaine, the overuse of stop and frisk, the popularity of broken windows policing, with its emphasis on cracking down on minor offenses as a way to control serious crime, an unrelenting focus on arrest rates as way to measure police performance – the list is long. The war on terror only exacerbated these trends, putting more money and weapons in the hands of police and engendering greater deference to security forces.
With years of falling crime rates under our belt, Americans across the political spectrum are working to roll back these excesses. The fear – unspoken on the left and loudly trumpeted on the right – is that repressive policies actually caused the drop in crime.
Much of this debate is playing out in New York City. For the last decade, the NYPD has been the archetype of aggressive policing. New York’s police are perhaps best-known for their expansive use of stop and frisk: from 2002 to 2011, its use grew more than 600 percent; nearly 90 percent of those stopped were black or Latino. The same populations bore the brunt of a policy of routinely arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Both policies have been curtailed under the new administration that took office earlier this year. And 2009 reforms to the Rockefeller Drug Laws, eliminated mandatory minimums and allowed judges to remand drug offenders to treatment centers rather than jail.
Thus far, in New York crime has continued to drop.
Although policing is often a local matter, the President has recognized the national implications of police-community tensions. The administration can drive legislative reform and the public conversation on these issues. And it can use federal funding for leverage. It remains to be seen whether President Obama is willing to use the tools at his disposal and whether the new Congress will let him.