Mason professor heads Obama task force on 21st century policing

A national task force led by GMU Professor Laurie Robinson has been investigating the relationship between U.S. law enforcement and the communities they oversee.

The task force was established in Dec. 18 by an executive order from President Obama in the wake of a rash of deadly encounters between police and citizens in cities like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City and Cleveland, Ohio. Run through the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Police Services (COPS), the task force has been holding a series of hearings in order to identify the police practices most effective at cultivating trust between law enforcement officials and community members.

Robinson co-chairs the task force with Philadelphia Police Commissioner Chuck Ramsey. It has 11 members, including Robinson and Ramsey, who will deliver a report with their recommendations to the president on Mar. 2.

During the hearings held so far, the task force has heard testimony from academics and researchers, law enforcement, criminal justice and city officials, community leaders and activists, and members of civil rights and liberties organizations. There will be a total of seven listening sessions on topics like building trust and legitimacy, technology and social media, and community policing and crime reduction. The final one, which focuses on officer wellness and safety, is scheduled for Feb. 23.

The task force is also accepting public comments via email or regular mail, and more information about the witnesses and the task force’s duties has been made available on the COPS website.

The task force’s investigation comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of law enforcement practices and the U.S. justice system. The deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Brown and Tamir Rice have drawn particularly widespread attention, contributing to ongoing discussions about race and police tactics that have reached George Mason’s campuses. However, the task force’s mission is to examine general trends in police practices rather than to investigate specific instances.

“[There needs to be] an emphasis on ensuring what we call procedural justice,” Robinson said, “which is an emphasis on treating people fairly even where you’re ensuring enforcement of law, so that people in the community have the sense that they are being treated fairly and respectfully. This is a fundamental underpinning of how government in general, not just police departments, need to deal with the people they serve.”

She emphasizes that the task force’s limited time table and broad focus means that its findings will be far from definitive and that deeper, more extensive research will still be needed.

“These problems didn’t occur overnight, and they’re not likely to be solved overnight,” she said. “It’s not going to be a quick fix in any way, but [our report] can help recommend and point to some of the good practices that are underway in some communities around the country.”

Robinson’s extensive experience in criminal justice and policy made her an ideal candidate to lead the task force. She served as assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs during both the Clinton and Obama administrations before joining Mason as a criminology, law and society professor in 2012. According to her GMU profile, she has worked on issues ranging from violence against women and drug treatment courts to law enforcement technology and science, and she has dealt with a variety of groups related to criminal justice, including law enforcement, the court system, and civil liberties and victim advocacy groups.

“Attorney General Eric Holder, for whom I worked for a number of years, and folks in the White House, I suspect, thought that I would be good in helping with outreach to a number of different organizations,” Robinson said.

Camera work: Raquel Nicole DeSouza

Editing credit: Avery Powell