(Photo: Mike Dunford / Flickr)
It was only a little over a year ago that Baltimore went up in flames.
In April 2015, thousands of protestors took to the streets after Freddie Gray — a 25-year-old African American man who hadn’t been accused of any crime — died in police custody. Six officers were implicated in his death, which was caused by severe injuries to his neck and spine.
Just this May, Edward Nero — the second officer to face trial over Gray’s death — was cleared of all charges.
The episode marks another chapter in a long story of mistrust between police officers and black people in the United States. Polling data has consistently shown that black Americans have significantly less confidence in the police than their white counterparts. The disparity is even more pronounced in urban communities.
In many places, the mistrust is well deserved.
For instance, in the few short years before the Baltimore uprising, the Baltimore Sun reported, over 100 people in the majority-black city had “won court judgments or settlements related to allegations of brutality and civil rights violations.”
The U.S. Department of Justice is now probing the Baltimore Police Department for systemic abuse and racial discrimination. Similar probes have discovered abuses from Ferguson to Cleveland and Albuquerque to Chicago. More recently, protests against police shootings led to the ouster of San Francisco’s police chief as well.
It’s going to take a long time to repair the damage, but smart reforms that minimize police violence and racial bias — and improve accountability and transparency — can help put us on a path to better policing and safer communities. Here are a few of them.
- Institute Community Policing
Community policing is built on finding ways to optimize positive contact between police officers and community members. It was a key plank of the president’s task force on policing.
In part, it means taking police officers out of their offices and patrol cars and placing them on foot patrols throughout the community. That enables them to build a presence and personable connections with local community members before a crime or shooting happens.
Camden, New Jersey is a great example of a police culture shifting from one of intimidation to one that intentionally builds community ties.
In 2012, Camden reached its peak murder rate. That year, the city dissolved its police department and created a new one governed by the county. And, most importantly, it took a new approach to policing neighborhoods haunted by crime. “We’re not going to do this by militarizing streets,” said police chief J. Scott Thomas.
After two years of instituting community policing reforms — including hiring more officers, eliminating squad car patrols, knocking on doors to ask residents their concerns, and hosting neighborhood events like push-up contests with youth — violent crime had decreased by over 20 percent, and shootings by over 40 percent.
In uprisings from Baltimore to Ferguson, a major point of contention was the highly militarized response by the police, who greeted nonviolent protesters with military-grade weapons and vehicles.
But shooting tear gas from the top of armored trucks doesn’t exactly suggest that the local police are there to serve and protect. Those tactics, noted President Obama, “can sometimes give people a feeling like there’s an occupying force as opposed to a force that’s part of the community that’s protecting them and serving them.”
Many of these weapons are surplus equipment granted to local departments by the federal government. In the wake of the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings, President Obama announced a limited ban on transferring some types of military equipment to local police departments. That ban should be expanded to include heavy-duty MRAV trucks and armored vehicles like Humvees, as well as M-16 rifles, drones, flash bangs, and other non-lethal explosives and teargas.
- Appoint Independent Prosecutors
One way that police officers can begin to be held more accountable for their actions is by ending the grand jury process for officers involved in shootings.
In most jurisdictions, prosecutors ask grand juries to consider whether charges should be brought against a defendant. But the process is completely secret, and the evidence presented is completely at the discretion of the prosecutor — who may be sympathetic to police. As one Slate writer explains, this amounts to “using grand jurors as pawns for political cover” to exonerate officers who may have shot unarmed suspects.
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that bans the use of grand juries to decide whether police officers should face criminal charges when they kill people in the line of duty. The high level of secrecy involved in grand jury proceedings, the state argued, often leads to non-indictments.
Instead, these cases should be tried by independent prosecutors who don’t have any connection to the local police force. That would send a strong message to the communities most impacted by disproportionate police violence that police officers will be held accountable for any wrongful death on their hands.
- Set Up Civilian Complaint Review Boards
Community oversight of police is crucial to establishing greater accountability, and this is especially true in communities of color.
In Newark, New Jersey, a scathing Department of Justice report found that local police often used excessive force and violated the constitutional rights of Newark residents. In response, Mayor Ras Baraka issued an executive order to create a civilian complaint review board with the power to investigate and subpoena police officers. Civilian oversight boards are a great way to empower members of the community to seek their own evidence in cases of police violence — and ultimately create a more transparent process.
- Provide Racial Bias Training
The fact of the matter is that black and Latino people face discrimination at all levels of the criminal justice system. Police officers should be required to explore how their implicit biases, unconscious prejudices, and stereotypes may cause them use violence against people of color disproportionately.
There’s no way that racial bias training alone can get rid of racial discrimination in policing, but the only way to work against implicit bias is to raise awareness about it. And police chiefs should lead the way on this by offering racial bias training to their officers.
Calls to implement these reforms have reverberated from grassroots activists all the way up to the presidential race. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, for example, have made policing and criminal justice reform top priorities. But trust can only be rebuilt community by community. Local departments need take the initiative in healing the broken relations between police and the communities they serve.