Even in unexpected places, huge numbers of Americans are protesting — during a pandemic — to end police brutality. More than 80 percent of Americans agree that police departments need to continue to make changes to address the inequitable treatment of white and black people. We must translate this unusual unity into local action.
Effective and constitutional local policing requires active and vigilant civilian oversight. There are almost 18,000 police agencies in the United States, but only about 125 jurisdictions have civilian oversight agencies, according to the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. That number must increase radically so civilians are made full partners in balancing the relationship between police and community.
As a society, we are putting too much responsibility on police officers. This must change. In my experience, police leadership will support a reasonable narrowing of the scope of their work. We must carve out areas that can be better handled by other branches of government, nonprofits and civil society. The District, for example, has teams of violence interrupters who work with young people at risk of entering the criminal justice system before they get into potentially negative situations.
Many communities have already made changes in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. With court activity severely curtailed for the past few months, with no jury trials and few courtrooms open, D.C. police have had a greater opportunity to use their judgment on minor crimes. Many have decided that a ticket or warning or no contact at all is more appropriate than an arrest. Once the pandemic recedes, we must identify our new normal — one in which policing is important but also only one mitigant for problems in our communities.
Effective policing requires hiring police officers who understand the community because they grew up in it, attended school in it or live in it. Cities and towns need police forces that mirror the racial composition of the areas they are policing — as the D.C. police do. We all know from personal experience that we are more likely to ask for help from people with whom we share common values and who are part of our community. We see their humanity — and they see ours.
I am a co-signer of a recent statement released by the D.C. Police Complaints Board disagreeing “with the presence of federal police in Washington, D.C. monitoring people protesting the death of George Floyd.” We noted that federal police wore “no badges, no insignia and no body-worn cameras[,] lead[ing] the public to believe that these individuals are MPD officers when they cannot be identified.” These actions have the potential to poison the relationship between police and local residents, who sometimes are unable to tell the difference between local and federal police. The D.C. Office of Police Complaints can’t review complaints against outside police forces, leaving these officers almost unaccountable. In contrast, no complaint against a D.C. officer can be dismissed without the assent of a member of the Office of Police Complaints Board. Office of Police Complaints staff members also have a critical role in training officers.
Failing to meaningfully address civilian complaints, even for seemingly “minor” issues, such as using improper language or failing to identify, corrodes the relationship between police and the local community.
Other important issues, including the militarization of police forces and collective bargaining over disciplinary measures, have further unbalanced the relationship between police and their communities. New emergency legislation was recently passed by the D.C. Council to help correct these imbalances locally and is likely to be supplemented by federal legislation.
People, including many police officers, stand ready to help rebalance the relationship between police and communities. Let’s build on our unity in outrage over George Floyd’s death to build a better criminal justice system across our country — one with local civilian oversight of police as an indispensable element.