Presidential task force backs independent prosecutors, more training to build trust in police
WASHINGTON — Brittany Packnett, the St. Louis area educator and activist on President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, says the work of implementing the panel’s recommendations begins now that she’s back home.
Among the task force's dozens of recommendations:
- Use independent prosecutors to investigate police use of deadly force.
- Train police to combat implicit bias.
- Increase diversity so that police forces more closely reflect the communities they serve.
- Create more nonconfrontational contact between communities and police.
“We have to be sitting down with law enforcement agencies and (asking) ‘how are you going to implement this?’ Because this is our expectation,” Packnett said Monday after the task force released its report.
Packnett says the report and its recommendations are aimed at the 18,000 local law enforcement agencies across the United States. But, she adds, “This doesn’t actually work without communities holding law enforcement accountable, holding all kinds of government officials and municipalities accountable.”
She also says community members must step up to help bring about the changes they desire “and continuously engaging in the process, not just when something terrible happens, but consistently throughout the course of a day, a week, and a year.”
Packnett sees the report as being “the foundation that will give us some leverage, kind of with presidential backing, to go and do this work.”
Asked to identify what recommendations she considers most significant, Packnett points to those that are aimed at “building trust and legitimacy.” The report says that “law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force coming in from outside to rule and control a community.”
One specific recommendations that stems from events in Ferguson addresses militarization of police departments. “If you are found by the federal government to have abused provocative and militarized tactics and weaponry in peaceful communities, then you should no longer be able to access that kind of equipment,” Packnett said.
Another recommendation calls for appointment of independent prosecutors to investigate police use of deadly force. The idea stems in part from recent grand jury decisions not to bring charges against police officers after the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City. Independent prosecutors will help build “mutual trust between (the) community and law enforcement,” the report says. Packnett strongly supports this recommendation.
Packnett, who is executive director of Teach for America in St. Louis, also strongly backs an action item in the report that calls on law enforcement to “create opportunities in schools and communities for positive, nonconfrontational interactions with police.”
“If we are going to raise a generation of strong leaders and learners, then they have to feel safe in school," she says. To do that, "we have to make sure that police are being incredibly and culturally responsive and sensitive to the needs of young people inside of schools.”
The task force divided its report into the same general topics it used for discussion at its public listening sessions:
- Building trust and legitimacy
- Policy and oversight
- Technology and social media
- Community policing and crime reduction
- Training and education
- Officer wellness and safety
Among other recommendations, the task force calls for training to combat implicit bias. Even individuals who consider themselves free of prejudice hold stereotypes that affect their thinking and interaction with others, experts say.
The task force calls on the Department of Justice to help develop policies on police use of new technologies. But it stops short of recommending that police wear body cameras. Technology is not a panacea, task force members said. Police should use technology that will enhance law enforcement without violating the civil rights of citizens, including privacy rights, they said.
In all, the report includes nearly 60 recommendations and dozens of action. Some address civilian oversight and the need for greater diversity so that police forces would more closely reflect the composition of their communities.
The report also says police should quickly de-escalate tense situations, such as mass demonstrations. Police should consider using uniforms that don’t look like military gear and should remove riot gear as quickly as is practicable, the report says.
Long Standing Problems
The report makes two overarching recommendations to address broader societal issues that go beyond individual encounters between police officers and citizens.
First, it calls on the president to “support and provide funding for the creation of a 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.” Several witnesses told the task force that police are the face of the criminal justice system but are not solely responsible for the laws and incarceration policies that some consider unfair.
Second, the report says the president "should promote programs that take a comprehensive and inclusive look at community based initiatives that address the core issues of poverty, education, health and safety.” The "justice system alone cannot solve many of the underlying conditions that give rise to crime," the report says, and solutions will only be found through partnerships across sectors and at every level of government.
Within the Department of Justice, the Community Oriented Policing Office (COPS) already works closely with police departments across the country. COPS director Ron Davis served as the executive director of the task force.
The task force called on the COPS Office to take action on several items, including:
- Create a national policing practices and accountability division within the COPS office.
- Establish national benchmarks and best practices for federal, state, local and tribal police departments.
- Recommend additional benchmarks and best practices for state training and standards boards.
- Prioritize grant funding to departments meeting benchmarks.
- Support departments through an expansion of the COPS office's collaborative reform initiative.
The St. Louis County Police Department is currently participating in the collaborative reform process and has conducted training sessions on implicit bias with other area departments.
The President’s FY 2016 Budget seeks $304-million for the COPS office -- a 46-percent increase over the current year funding.