Today is post-Ferguson day at the White House, and it’s fair to ask what, if anything, Barack Obama can accomplish on the combination of thorny issues the events there have raised.
The answer is that there are things that he can do. But not by talking.
Here’s what he’s doing today:
President Obama is holding a day of meetings Monday focused on the growing mistrust between law enforcement and minority groups in the wake of last week’s grand jury decision to not indict a police officer for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager Ferguson, Missouri in August.
Obama has been reluctant to criticize the grand jury’s decision not to indict former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, saying “we need to accept that this decision was the grand jury’s to make.” But he has also said that that the unrest was evidence of the “deep distrust [that] exists between law enforcement and communities of color.”
Monday’s meetings will focus on the broader issues that might be feeding that mistrust to include the sale of mothballed military equipment to local law enforcement agencies. The president will also speak with elected officials, young civil rights leaders and religious leaders.
The first of these meetings — with members of his cabinet to discuss the administration’s review of the 1033 program, through which surplus military equipment is transferred to local police departments — might look like the one most directly related to policy change. But at the moment, it looks like the federal government is going to keep distributing warfighting equipment to police all over the country. As Evan McMorris-Santoro reports, while there was a brief impulse in Congress to restrain the insanity of giving small-town cops MRAPs and assault rifles, pushback from police organizations essentially killed the momentum.
That isn’t to say change would be impossible — the administration might still reform some of the bureaucratic processes, particularly the rigor with which requests from police departments are assessed (if your biggest crime last year was a robbery at the 7-11, you probably don’t need an armored personnel carrier). But don’t expect any legislation overhauling the program.
Then there are the meetings Obama will have with young civil rights leaders and with local officials and community representatives. These kinds of meetings are often about making people feel like their concerns are being heard at the highest level. But let’s say those young civil rights leaders told Obama something he didn’t already know about how black people today are treated by police, or think about their relationship to the authorities. What could he do about it?
As Obama knows all too well, on matters of race his bully pulpit has become a trap. Whenever he expresses even the mildest concern about the particular challenges black people in America face, or acknowledges the continuing effects of racism, he’s faced with a venomous backlash. So his remarks on Ferguson and other topics like it have become depressingly anodyne, seeking not to offend anyone and noting everyone’s concerns in turn.
What about policy? As big as the problems Ferguson highlighted are, there is, in fact, a way to initiate progress on them. The Justice Department is in the midst of a civil rights investigation of the Ferguson police department’s practices. These kinds of investigations tend to be strenuously resisted by local governments, but there are times when they’re the only way change can be accomplished. This is an area where the Obama administration has made some progress:
Under [Attorney General Eric] Holder, the Justice Department has been particularly aggressive in such investigations, opening 20 of them in the last five budget years, twice as many as under his Republican predecessors during a comparable period, according to Justice Department statistics. During the same period, it prosecuted more than 300 officers for misconduct. It has entered into formal agreements, called consent decrees, with nine departments, including New Orleans and Albuquerque.
Those consent decrees can have a dramatic effect in producing reform, even if they take time (the Los Angeles police department was released from its consent decree last year; it took 12 years for the reforms to take hold). It’s true that 20 investigations is a tiny number compared to all the departments around the country that ought to have their practices scrutinized. But often, an intervention from the Justice Department is the only thing that can produce change.
What that shows is that the issues highlighted by Ferguson are in so many ways about power, and can only be solved with power. The black majority in Ferguson is shut out of political power; if they can manage to change that, they can change how their city and police operate. The Justice Department can create change in police departments because it has the power to force it. Talking is valuable, but in the end, another “national conversation” isn’t going to solve these problems. Only the exercise of governmental power will.