Lessons from Ferguson, Missouri – The Need for Sensible Law Enforcement Reform
The August 9, 2014 police shooting of an unarmed African-American teenager named Michael Brown sparked protests and community unrest in Ferguson, Missouri—and raised national questions about police profiling, practices, and training—and the use of military-style weapons and material by local police departments. The wrong-headed decision to use tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse peaceful demonstrators, most of whom were people of color, resonated deeply across the country, with tragic roots that include the 1965 Bloody Sunday march in Selma, Alabama.
There has been considerable focus on the circumstances of the shooting, which became the subject of a local grand jury investigation, a federal criminal civil rights investigation, and an investigation to determine whether Ferguson police officials have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law.
Update: White House Review: Federal Support for Local Law Enforcement Equipment Acquisition
Just after this report went to print, President Obama announced a series of reforms in response to the police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown and similar shootings across the country. Among the reforms are initial investments in body-worn cameras and community policing, the creation of a task force to study best practices in 21st century community policing, and greater standardization for how police can acquire military equipment. All are important down payments on the systemic reforms needed to address this national crisis.
However, it will take a much greater investment in community policing and an outright ban on profiling to drive the significant changes necessary to reform law enforcement. It will also take deep-seated changes to our court and prison systems to start correcting the biases in policing, sentencing, and incarceration that plague our justice system.
Going forward, Attorney General Holder has highlighted a 2012 collaboration between the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. The Las Vegas review resulted in 75 findings and concrete recommendations regarding officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force issues—the vast majority of which have now been adopted.
In addition, experts have pointed to lessons learned from the city of Cincinnati, Ohio—which faced similar community unrest in April 2001 when police shot Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American teenager. Following days of rioting, many members of the community came together to work with civic and police leaders to craft strategies to avoid such tragedies in the future. The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement, adopted in 2002, established specific community goals to advance police-community relations, including improved monitoring and accountability and a commitment to more diverse hiring practices. Since then, Cincinnati police have decreased their use of force, and improved their relationship with their communities they are charged to serve and protect. Cincinnati delegates have traveled to Ferguson in order to lend their perspective on how to solve this ongoing problem.
But beyond Ferguson, the tragic incident has underscored the need for systemic changes in the criminal justice system and expanded prohibitions against profiling. In addition, the White House and Congress have begun examinations of Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and DOJ programs that transfer excess military equipment and weapons to police departments for counterterrorism and drug interdiction purposes.
Effective counterterrorism is important to everyone, but policies that divide communities, inflame fear, and violate human rights undermine our nation’s core values and our security. Some counterterrorism measures have resulted in insufficient adherence to constitutional protections and violations of human rights. Moreover, debates on issues such as border security have often fanned public fear and contributed to an atmosphere that fostered distrust, racial profiling and even hate violence. Indeed, some government policies enacted in haste after 9/11 have had discriminatory effects and singled out entire groups as targets of suspicion.
In light of the tragedies in Ferguson, more than 100 groups renewed their call for DOJ to expand existing federal prohibitions against racial profiling by updating the June 2003 Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies, to provide an effective enforcement mechanism, eliminate unnecessary loopholes and include religion, national origin, and sexual orientation, as well as coverage for state and local police officials.
Without doubt, the tragic events in Ferguson provide a teachable moment for our nation—and an urgent opportunity to discuss and address widespread racial disparities in society and in the criminal justice system. Despite the tremendous progress our nation has made in so many areas—including the election of the first African-American president—it is essential to acknowledge and confront implicit and explicit bias and systemic structures that maintain vestiges of segregation, dehumanization, and stereotyping in our society.
- The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) should continue to aggressively investigate whether the shooting of Michael Brown constituted a federal criminal civil rights violation—as well as whether Ferguson Police and other St. Louis County departments have engaged in a pattern or practice of violations of the U.S. Constitution or federal law. DOJ should enhance its pattern and practice investigations where there are civil rights violations against the community.
- DOJ should prioritize implementation of its recently released Guidance for Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Regarding the Use of Race, Ethnicity, Gender, National Origin, Religion, Sexual Orientation, or Gender Identity. Where the revised policy falls short in the areas of national security, border integrity, and failure to apply to state and local enforcement, the administration should continue to work end profiling by all law enforcement.
- DOJ should require all state and local law enforcement agencies that receive federal funds to collect data on the use of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin in their law enforcement activities and engage in compliance reviews of select state and local law enforcement agencies to determine whether they are complying with their obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to be free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in all of their law enforcement activities.
- DOJ, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should immediately re-evaluate programs that transfer military-style equipment and weapons to police departments “for counterterrorism and drug interdiction purposes.” To the extent these programs remain in effect, the government must ensure that equipment transfers are accompanied by effective training, accountability, and oversight to ensure proper use of the equipment.
- To the broadest extent possible, Congress, DOJ, and the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) should work to create programs and initiatives to address systemic structures that maintain vestiges of segregation, dehumanization, and stereotyping in our society, and develop and fund programs and initiatives to address widespread racial disparities in society and in the criminal justice system.
- The administration should establish a commission to review 21st century policing practices that would look at best practices within law enforcement agencies around the country and successful community policing models; set national standards on not only discriminatory profiling, but also on critical related issues such as preventing the use of excessive force, implementing body and vehicle camera policies; recommend practices for achieving diversity in law enforcement agencies; issue guidelines on effective police training that particularly focuses on implicit and explicit racial bias; and create a national database to track and monitor such issues and also to ensure that investigations of state or local law enforcement agencies are fair and transparent (i.e. no law enforcement agency should be solely responsible for investigating itself). The commission should include in its composition leaders/experts from civil rights advocacy groups who work with the most impacted communities.
- There should be incentives for state and local law enforcement agencies to use federal funding streams to implement best practices in policing, i.e. training for officers on implicit and explicit racial bias, implementing body and dash camera policies and substituting “broken windows” policing practices with community-based policing models.