A task force on policing setup by President Barack Obama issued its report and a number of the recommendations appear to be geared toward reducing the warrior mindset adopted by officers in police departments throughout the United States.
Obama appointed a task force to review police practices in December after demonstrations against police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri, spread throughout the nation. It was his administration’s attempt to tamp down some of the outrage toward police and channel it into some kind of constructive change in government policies, despite the reality that police who killed unarmed black men were still escaping prosecution.
Charles Ramsey, former Philadelphia police commissioner and chief of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, and former assistant attorney general Laurie Robinson chaired the task force. The task force heard from law enforcement, community activists and young people when they were conducting the review.
The task force report [PDF] recommends that law enforcement take multiple noteworthy actions, which have led multiple media organizations to report that this is Obama’s push to demilitarize police departments.
Police are urged to develop procedures for responses to “mass demonstrations that prioritize de-escalation and a guardian mindset.” The federal government is urged to “create a mechanism” to investigate complaints and issue sanctions when equipment and tactics are “inappropriately” used during “mass demonstrations.”
Remarkably, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) and the US government just reached a $2.2. million settlement that includes reforms, which the US Park Police will follow when handling demonstrations.
The settlement stems from an incident on September 27, 2002, where nearly 400 protesters, tourists, bystanders, legal observers and passers-by” were arrested, according to PCJF. DC Metropolitan Police and the US Park Police “encircled Pershing Park, refused to let anyone leave, and then mass arrested everyone who happened to be present and trapped by law enforcement in the park. Many were held bound wrist to ankle in stress-and-duress positions on a police gym floor for upwards of 24 hours.” (Charles Ramsey, who chaired the task force, was in command.)
Police adopted policies to prohibit “the use of police lines to encircle protesters and demonstrations.” Officers must have “probable cause” for a protester to be arrested. At least three warnings to disperse must be given prior to “any lawful arrests.” They are not to engage in “group sweeps” anymore. Exits for protesters should be identified by police so that protesters can comply with dispersal orders if they do not want to be arrested. Warnings to disperse must be at least two minutes apart and “audible throughout the crowd.”
These policies are very similar to the policies for “mass demonstrations” recommended by the task force.
Professor Edward Maguire, who is in the Department of Justice, Law and Criminology at American University, submitted written testimony, “When officers line up in a military formation while wearing full protective gear, their visual appearance may have a dramatic influence on how the crowd perceives them and how the event ends.” His statement was incorporated into the task force report along with a recommendation to “remove riot gear as soon as practical.”
The federal government will no longer provide “armored vehicles that run on a tracked system instead of wheels, weaponized aircraft or vehicles, firearms or ammunition of .50-caliber or higher, grenade launchers, bayonets or camouflage uniforms,” according to the Chicago Tribune.” It will, however, permit the continued use of armored “Humvees, manned aircraft, drones, specialized firearms, explosives, battering rams and riot batons, helmets, and shields”—but with more controls.
The task force recommends that police “embrace a culture of transparency.” Department polices should be public and departments should “regularly post on the department’s website information about stops, summonses, arrests, reported crime, and other law enforcement data aggregated by demographics.”
In line with that, the Obama administration launched a police data initiative. Twenty-one police departments have agreed to be involved to release data on “uses of force, police pedestrian and vehicle stops, officer involved shootings and more.”
The task force recommends civilian oversight of law enforcement, whether through police boards or commissions, be adopted if such a mechanism does not exist in a community already.
Other positive recommendations include suggesting communities develop “community-based” or “school-based” programs to “mitigate punitive and authoritarian solutions to teen problems.” Police are encouraged to work to develop “school discipline policies” that prohibit “corporal punishment and electronic control devices.”
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Law enforcement is urged to “cease using the possession of condoms as the sole evidence of vice” when dealing with any lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person. It seems to be a measure clearly directed at the criminalization of people who police may claim appeared to be sex workers or “prostitutes.”
The further recommends that law enforcement engage the public and collaborate with a community prior to developing a policy for a new technology, something police departments and the federal government avoided when using Stingray technology for warrantless surveillance.
Those who have watched countless videos of officers being asked to identify themselves and provide their badge numbers will appreciate that task force recommended officers be required to provide their full name, rank and command “in writing” to any individuals they stop. They are encouraged to require officers to “state the reason for the stop and the reason for the search if one is conducted.” The report even recommends that officers “carry business cards” to provide to individuals during encounters so they could file complaints.
Now, there are a few parts of the report that should raise concern.
Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is lauded for his training of police and his planning in advance of the 2012 NATO Summit “at the height of the ‘Occupy’ movement.” What is omitted is how Chicago police transformed the city into a climate of repression that included a sting operation against activists the city deemed potentially dangerous. (The “NATO 3″ were arrested and faced state terrorism charges for allegedly plotting violent attacks with Molotov cocktails against police. But the only plots they had were the ones they were being induced by undercover police to commit.)
Aware of the massive surveillance state that exists today, it is bothersome that the Justice Department and Police Data Initiative will “identify opportunities to help police departments maximize the value of the thousands of hours of video body worn cameras will produce.” It is not defined what this “value” might be and seems like the kind of action that might lead to privacy violations. Police should not be making use of leftover footage, which they aren’t sure at the moment will help them.
What effect will any of these recommendations have on departments collecting and storing data through the use of Stingray surveillance, which is largely shielded from any public accountability?
Finally, the recommendations stem from a supposed commitment to “building trust” between citizens and police, which is supremely flawed.
Vincent Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, said it best when Obama first started to talk about “mistrust” between police and citizens:
Black men are not dying at the hands of (mostly) white cops – nor are those cops being excused from legal responsibility – because of mutual distrust between black and brown people and law enforcement agencies. To suggest so simply, and perhaps deliberately, mistakes the symptom for the disease.
Trust, or lack thereof, is based on lived experience, and it is the actions of law enforcement in communities of color that has eroded black and brown Americans’ trust. To present the situation as mutual distrust not only obscures the specific causes of that distrust – it intimates that everyone is equally responsible for the problem. The call for “conversation” as the solution then reinforces this idea that the legitimate problems with law enforcement vocalized by minority communities are really all just one big misunderstanding.
Our political leaders should not begin to offer solutions for a problem if they won’t even name it: systemic, institutional racism exists in police forces throughout our country.
These recommendations are just that—recommendations. Some of them are very good. The police data initiative could provide a lot of information that reveals the inner workings of police departments and makes it easier for citizens to push to end policies that make it easy for officers to torment their communities. However, cities like Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and others with police forces, which desperately need real oversight, are not participating in the police data initiative.
Maybe there will be some demilitarization. Maybe there will be a shift toward more community policing. But it is highly unlikely that the institutional racism underpinning the culture of policing, which promotes the warrior mindset, changes significantly with these reforms.
The recommendations are only as good as they are because a movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, has been pushing to shift the consciousness of people in this country for about nine months. More changes will come as the Black Lives Matter movement and other social movements continue to make it harder for police to defend officers who engage in brutality and terrorize communities.