National policing task force calls for trust and accountability

The national task force on 21st century policing co-chaired by Mason professor Laurie Robinson delivered its final report to President Obama Mar. 2.

The report highlights the importance of creating a trusting, respectful relationship between law enforcement and the communities they oversee. Designed to promote transparency and cooperation, its recommendations include greater civilian oversight of and collaboration with law enforcement agencies, in-depth reviews of departmental policies, and the elimination of practices like arrest quotas and profiling that have been shown to escalate tensions between police and civilians.

“We pointed to examples of steps that can be taken to really build a greater degree of community trust and where there has been success,” Robinson said. “It’s really about people, so a lot of this has to do with ensuring that police departments, for example, are very open and transparent about the way they do business.”

Established in December 2014 by an executive order from the President, the task force held 7 hearings over the course of 90 days that focused on topics like building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, and community policing and crime reduction. After completing the listening sessions and deliberating, the task force presented its interim report to Obama in a meeting at the White House.

Robinson lists the call for more civilian oversight to improve police accountability among the task force’s most important recommendations. However, in part due to a lack of sufficient research on the most effective means of police training and civilian oversight, she says that individual jurisdictions need to be responsible for deciding what methods would work best for them, such as whether civilian oversight should be in the form of a board or a commission.

While Robinson says that the overall response to the report from civil rights groups, police organizations and the president himself has been decidedly positive, there have been some disagreements over specific recommendations.

For instance, the report’s recommendation that investigations into shootings involving police officers should be conducted by an independent, external body and that the prosecution of those cases should not be handled by local district attorneys has generated some controversy. Many police departments already have internal affairs units that they say are adequate, and local attorneys who are elected instead of appointed argue that they are independent from law enforcement agencies and therefore do not face significant conflicts of interest in handling these cases, though other people say local prosecutors have close ties to police because they often have to work together.

“When you’re trying to build community trust, it’s important to have somebody who’s unbiased and appears to be unbiased from the outside,” Robinson said.

The task force’s report was released not long before the Justice Department concluded its investigation into the criminal justice system in Ferguson, Mo., which revealed rampant civil rights violations and practices that created an atmosphere of hostility between local law enforcement and community members. Robinson hesitates to compare this report with the one she worked on, however, since the Task Force on 21st Century Policing’s report was much broader in scope.

“It certainly illustrates some of the problems that can occur in a jurisdiction, essentially where they were clearly not paying attention to building community trust,” Robinson said of the Ferguson report. “I think there certainly are other Fergusons, so it’s not an outlier, but I would not say that it’s very common.”

Robinson cites Cincinnati as an example of a jurisdiction where relations between law enforcement and the civilian community have improved.

“About ten, fifteen years ago, they had a huge number of problems there,” Robinson said. “They haven’t solved every problem, but they have a much better relationship now.”

Because the approximately 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are not controlled by the federal government, it will be up to state, county and local governments to decide whether or not to implement the task force’s recommendations and to enforce any changes or new practices that are put into place. Robinson says she expects Obama to push agencies like the D.E.A. and F.B.I. to follow any recommendations that can be applied on a federal level.

The report suggests that Obama provide funding for further research, data collection and the creation of a National Crime and Justice Task Force that would evaluate all parts of the criminal justice system in order to make recommendations for comprehensive reform. It also calls for the president to promote programs that examine community-based initiatives that address issues like poverty, health, education and safety, since the “justice system alone cannot solve many of the underlying conditions that give rise to crime.”

“It’s not something that happens overnight,” Robinson said. “But there really are constructive steps that both communities and law enforcement can take together to really repair relationships and build a solid foundation moving forward.”

The full report has been made public and can be found on the Department of Justice’s COPS website.

Photo credit: Amy Rose