A day before Attorney General William P. Barr left office last month, he submitted the 332-page report from the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. To help restore confidence in police, the committee recommended that every state require police departments to have an independent agency investigate all fatal shootings and other serious use-of-force incidents and make improvements in how complaints from citizens are handled. Also noteworthy were proposals to allow officers to issue summonses for low-level offenses instead of making arrests, adjust felony thresholds for nonviolent offenses, provide mental health and substance abuse screening for jail inmates, and offer more help to crime victims.
Those worthy ideas were unfortunately accompanied by some proposals that should not even be considered, much less endorsed. Most egregious was the suggestion to rein in progressive district attorneys who choose not to prosecute certain minor crimes, such as possession of marijuana or sleeping on the street. That these officials have used their well-established discretion to concentrate on serious offenses in a way that reflects the public safety priorities of their communities should be commended, not condemned. The report also defends and advocates the preservation of the qualified immunity that has allowed police officers to escape responsibility for improper actions. It too often hews to the strict — and outmoded — notions of law-and-order traditionalists that have resulted in mass incarceration and police excesses.
That failing is not surprising given the exclusion from the commission of voices from communities of color most affected by overpolicing. The report’s complete silence on key issues of systemic racism and mistrust in law enforcement unfortunately has helped undermine its useful recommendations, with some critics suggesting the work simply be discarded. That’s shortsighted. Instead, the report — along with the thoughtful conclusions of the prior Task Force on 21st Century Policing commissioned by the Obama administration — should serve as starting points for the soon-to-be Biden administration as it tackles the critical questions facing U.S. criminal justice.