The President's Police Reform Dream Journal

A task force on upgrading policing tactics calls for more guidelines, more training, more spending, but lacks introspection on the state of our laws.


It's okay. He took a diversity class.
Credit: Photographerlondon | Dreamstime.com

The protests and anger that followed in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri, Police Officer Darren Wilson's fatal shooting of Michael Brown was fed not just by the incident itself, but by the absurd militarized response to mostly peaceful opposition. For several days, visuals from the St. Louis suburb resembled something you'd see in Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela.

In response, President Barack Obama took to the media to promise studies and research. "I think it's probably useful for us to review how the funding has gone, how local law enforcement has used grant dollars to make sure that what they're purchasing is stuff that they actually need, because there is a big difference between our military and our local law enforcement and we don't want those lines blurred," Obama said last summer.

One study by the White House, an examination of all federal programs that provide equipment and funds to local law enforcement agencies, was completed and released last December. It called for more oversight and training over the distribution of military equipment to law enforcement agencies, but did not really call for the elimination or even the reduction of any programs. He has since put a working group together to make recommendations about what sort of military gear should be appropriate to hand over to police organizations.

In addition, he put together a Task Force on 21st Century Policing and gave them 90 days to have meetings (that they insist on calling "listening sessions") for various parties to weigh in on how police can better serve their citizenry. Then they were to put together a report full of recommendations and suggestions for action. The report (pdf) was just released on Monday.

The introduction notes that given such a quick turnaround demand, their report was "sharp and necessarily limited. It concentrated on defining the cross-cutting issues affecting police-community interactions, questioning the contemporary relevance and truth about long-held assumptions about the nature and methods of policing, and identifying the areas where research is needed to highlight examples of evidence-based policing practices compatible with present realities."

What does that word salad even mean? Well, the report's very first recommendation, before it even starts actually analyzing how police function in America, is for another task force, the National Crime and Justice Task Force "to review and evaluate all components of the criminal justice system for the purpose of making recommendations to the country on comprehensive criminal justice reform."

The initial recommendation serves as a good preview of what's to come—a 101-page wish list detailing what every person who participated in these listening sessions wants to see from modern day policing, provided that what they want to see is more, more, more.

The narrow focus and short time frame for the task force means that it cannot and does not engage in any meaningful way with the sheer number of laws on the books, the very reasons that police are forced to interact with the citizenry. While there is a huge number of analyses and recommendations connected to the relationship between the police and the community it serves, there is very little introspection about the role the police play as agents of the will of government. No, there will be no discussion of how high taxes and regulations (and bans) lead to black markets among the poor, and the nasty, frequent collision course that ends with things like Eric Garner's choking death over loose cigarettes. There is a singular reference that police should not have quotas for citations or arrests and that police should not participating in enforcement practices that serve to generate revenue, but that's about it.

Instead there are a lot of calls for training and new programs and procedures. More, more, more. There's so much of it here, and a lot of it feels like it's either redundant and already happening or obvious and being deliberately ignored by agencies. The appendix at the end of the report aggregates all of the recommendations and action items within. There are 152 of them. The vast majority of them recommend new policies, new rules, more studies, and in many cases, additional federal spending for them. They talk about new ways to train officers to de-escalate encounters before they become violent, and increasing diversity training both in hiring and for interactions with the public. They talk about training for dealing with mental illness and drug addiction during the line of duty. There are so many recommendations that appear to be basic matters of law enforcement. A few of them are diplomatically about training police officers not to be jerks ("Because offensive or harsh language can escalate a minor situation, law enforcement agencies should underscore the importance of language used and adopt policies directing officers to speak to individuals with respect"). One is almost literally about training officers to comply with the Fourth Amendment and to ask citizens to agree to searches in advance, subsequently documenting their agreement.

It's also obvious that a chunk of the task force's report has been "captured" by special interests to lobby for particular matters with very little relationship with improving the relationship between police and citizens. One recommendation is for the Department of Justice to partner with colleges to develop a postgraduate study program for police executives. The argument presented: "To advance American law enforcement, we must advance its leadership." What does that even mean? It's pure credentialism. It notes that this institute it's calling for would be staffed with "subject matter experts" (like the ones who contributed to this task force report?) to focus on "real world" problems. Given the pages upon pages of recommendations for new training programs in these very areas, what would a graduate program actually contribute? Then a few pages later, the task force recommends a loan repayment and forgiveness incentive program for police officers to attend college. These "recommendations" are actually a jobs program for college instructors focusing on law enforcement matters.

This is not to say the report is only full of bad ideas. It absolutely is not. It calls for annual reporting on a federal level of the number of citizens killed by police every year. Right now, participation in the FBI's count is voluntary. Many agencies do not participate, and our understanding of how many people are killed by police every year (justified or not) is woefully inadequate. It calls for a national database to keep track of police officers who have had their licenses or certification revoked from one state for misconduct to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to know if they've got a problem cop applying for a job with them. It calls for law enforcement agencies to update their public records guidelines. It calls for "decoupling" immigration enforcement, a federal issue, from local law enforcement officers' general  policing duties.  It is pro-body camera but wants to make sure financial concerns and citizen privacy issues are handled. (UPDATE: In response to a question from a commenter, the task force also calls for external and independent reviews for cases of police use of force that results in death.)

There are other areas where the task force thinks it has a good idea but doesn't really consider the unintended consequences. At one point it suggests that law enforcement agencies maybe look for ways to warn or cite citizens and not arrest them so much. This is a great idea on paper, but in practice, this is exactly how police end up in situations where they're pushed to hand out citations left and right to bring in revenue. At the same time this report is being released, the Department of Justice is eyeing Ferguson for exactly this practice. There's an entire page of recommendations on how law enforcement should interact with schools and students to develop discipline programs that don't result in them taking kids away in handcuffs all the time. It doesn't seem to occur to the task force that the best way to do this is to simply not have police involved with school discipline at all.

Above all those ideas, what this task force calls for is more guidelines, more programs, more analysis, more reports, and more from the police (while at the same time worrying about the health of officers and whether they're working too much). In a country where citizens are more and more questioning government regulations and the very petty laws that cause police to have such fraught relationships with its citizens, the president's task force worries that the problem is that aren't enough rules and guidelines to go around.

Read the report for yourself here (pdf).