Thursday, March 12, 2015

Pres. Obama's Task Force: The Battle for the Public Trust begins...

By Charles Brooks

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza
The interim report recently released by President Obama’s task force on policing will shed some light on their view of the public trust - a view that is not shared by those who seek more than just a laundry list of recommendations to address police violence.  The report was released just days before the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report of their investigation into the Ferguson Police Department – a flashpoint of racial frustrations and deep seated tensions unleashed in the face of aggressive and excessive policing.  A rather scathing report that detailed the apparent racist activities engaged not just by the Ferguson police officers but the Ferguson municipal government. However, the explosiveness of DOJ’s Ferguson report on the Ferguson Police Department should not be allowed to overshadow the president’s task force interim report because as the president himself said: “This time will be different,” President Obama said, regarding the effectiveness of the task force compared to prior ones, “because the President of the United States is deeply vested in making it different.”

Since announcing the formation of the task force in December 2014, the president has taken the position that the public trust is the core issue to be addressed when it comes to dealing with policing in America. President Obama says 21st Century policing means building a culture of trust between the police and communities they serve while ensuring crime is reduced.   According to the presidential executive order establishing the task force: “…the task force was put together for the purposes of identifying the best means to provide an effective partnership between law enforcement and local communities that reduces crime and increase trust.” Consider what the interim report states about public trust: The philosophical foundation for the Task Force on 21st Century Policing: to build trust between citizens and their peace officers so that all components of a community are treating one another fairly and justly and are invested in maintaining public safety in an atmosphere of mutual respect…”. Ron Davis, who served as Executive Director of the Task Force had this to say about the task force: “The mission of the task force was to examine how to foster strong, collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect and to make recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”  You can see there is a clear and unmistakable trend here that President and his Task Force continues to highlight over and over – the public trust. 

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy
The interim report makes about 59 recommendations where the apparent theme is on repairing the torn trust that exists between the police and primarily black and brown communities across the country. The task force made recommendations for data collection, more training, residency requirements, and a diverse workforce.  There’s a recommendation to statistically track public trust such as how crime is tracked and reviewed now.  The task force also recommends a marketing campaign of sorts that highlights and celebrates the “beneficial outcomes of successful law enforcement agencies”.  Although the task force made recommendations against notorious practices such as quotas and racial profiling – there still remains a number of concerns and questions about the report.  Fundamentally the task force is rather limited since they only have an advisory role as the states are under no obligation to accept the reports’ recommendations.   

But how does the interim report address the issues that foster public distrust in the police - issues such as the wanton use of excessive force, increasingly militarized police departments as well as rare federal indictments and lack of special independent prosecutors? Aren’t these the issues that have shattered the public trust?  Although the apparent focus of the president and his task force is on the public trust – the report does not fully address these issues that breached the trust between the police and those black and brown communities subjected to routine police harassment and abuse. Although the report "recommends" the use of independent prosecutors there is no mention about the federal standard to bring civil rights charges. Consider what the interim report had to say about soldiers in police uniforms: “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control the community.” But later on in the report, the task force recommends: “Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.”  Now, how does this even begin to repair what the president calls the “public trust”?

But the president recognizes the dilemma on hand here – a federal task force making recommendations to be adopted on the state and local level – and seeks to take advantage of the moment created by the rebellious uprisings that emerged across the country since last year. This is what President Obama had to say: Most of the recommendations that have been made are directed at the 18,000 law enforcement jurisdictions that are out there.  Law enforcement is largely a local function as opposed to a federal function…” the President continues, “But a lot of our work is going to involve local police chiefs, local elected officials, states recognizing that the moment is now for us to make these changes.  We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported.  We need to seize that opportunity.” Yet the interim report makes no mention of incentives (tax breaks, block grants, etc.,) to make the report recommendations that much more attractive to the states.   

In addition, there’s a political landscape that has become increasingly more Republican and more hostile towards the President.  The president though is seeking to take advantage of the momentum created last year by the nationwide protests that triggered a number of Ferguson-related legislation proposed in state legislatures across the country.  But there are bills such as SB 1445 in Arizona - a controversial bill allowing the name of an officer involved in a deadly or violent incident to be withheld for 90 days.  Or SB 331 in Missouri – another controversial bill that would exempt any videos taken by police, including everything from body cameras to dashboard cameras, from public release. 

With respect to the “public trust” - since the rebellious uprisings sparked by the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown last summer, poll after poll clearly shows a racial divide where blacks have lower levels of confidence in the police, in their use of excessive force, but also against militarizing  the police as well.

Yet, the president has opted to take a politically safe and comfortable view of the public trust, and what is needed to repair that public trust – thus maintaining the status quo.  The fact of the matter is that holding such a view will certainly invite criticism from Black America regarding his lukewarm response to the police violence issue. But more importantly, the president’s view of the public trust will undoubtedly trigger more resistance, more protests, more acts of civil disobedience and rebellious uprisings. This will bring national and international attention to the president’s view of the “public trust” as the movement to truly transform the police culture of violence, harassment and abuse against primarily black and brown communities continues unabated.      

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