As the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing works to deliver recommendations to President Obama by early March, top administration officials are speaking more openly about the nation’s simmering racial tensions and making more expansive declarations about coming changes.
For the past five months, the Obama administration has carefully navigated the emotional and politically charged dialogue on policing in minority communities that was thrust upon a reluctant nation last year following several high-profile police killings of unarmed black men. But with the task force’s deadline fast approaching, top officials — including the president — have been insistent: Reform will happen.
“We’re going to take some of these recommendations and we’re going to put federal muscle behind them to see if we can make sure that communities all across the country are implementing them,” Obama said Thursday during an interview with YouTube personality GloZell Green.
The White House’s vow to bring about expanded community policing in cities across the country comes as the nation continues to examine issues of race and justice. And top administration officials — who came under some criticism from the left for not speaking out more forcefully following last year’s police killings of black men — seem determined to seize the moment.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has been touring the country in a series of meetings with community leaders and police officers in various cities. The country’s outgoing top law enforcement official declared during a stop in Philadelphia this month that criminal justice reform will be a “legacy item” for the Obama administration.
Vice President Biden also talked about race and policing Thursday, when he addressed the U.S. Conference of Mayors in the District.
Earlier that day, the administration’s top liaison to the White House task force declared his goals for the policy proposals that will be delivered to Obama.
“We have a perfect storm, for lack of a better phrase, to make the kind of changes that we have to make,” said Ron Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services. “We have an opportunity to redefine policing in a democratic society.”
Obama has stressed that the timing is right to channel emotion over the Ferguson, Mo., and New York City grand jury rulings into productive changes.
“I think there’s a maturity of the conversation right now that can lead us to actually getting some concrete results,” Obama said last month after holding meetings at the White House with police and civil rights groups. “And in the two years I have remaining as president, I’m going to make sure that we follow through — not to solve every problem, not to tear down every barrier of mistrust that may exist, but to make things better.”
Obama, who had never before directly invoked the themes of race and criminal justice in a State of the Union address, used his annual speech before Congress this year to talk about the current unrest.
“We may have different takes on the events of Ferguson and New York. But surely we can understand a father who fears his son can’t walk home without being harassed. Surely we can understand the wife who won’t rest until the police officer she married walks through the front door at the end of his shift,” Obama said, adding that political leaders from both sides of the aisle should join with “community leaders and law enforcement to reform America’s criminal justice system so that it protects and serves us all.”
The promise of large-scale revisions may help soothe discontent with the Justice Department’s lack of direct intervention in the racially charged cases that have captured the nation’s attention in recent years.
The Washington Post reported in October that a Justice probe into the shooting death of Michael Brown was not likely to yield federal civil rights charges against Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Similar investigations into the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman and the 2009 shooting of Oscar Grant by transit police in Oakland, Calif., remain open but also are not expected to result in federal charges.
Although law enforcement and criminal justice observers have expressed some skepticism that the White House task force will carry the weight to bring about real change in policing — a profession with a heavy political lobbying arm — administration surrogates have been insistent that the effort will produce tangible deliverables.
“There are 18,000 police departments in the United States and probably half a million police officers. I don’t think you’re going to get 100 percent of any group that large to think the same way,” said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who is co-chairman of the task force. “But can we put in place the right policies, the right training, so that people see themselves differently, so that they interact differently? Yes.”
The killings of Brown, Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and John Crawford near Cincinnati, among others, have laid bare the sharp divisions in how white and black Americans view policing and justice.
“It’s not the ’60s, where my city was in flames. . . . It’s not the ’70s, where cops were the target . . . but we’ve got a problem between cops and minority communities,” Biden said during his speech to the mayors, later adding: “We don’t see each other anymore, cops don’t see the community anymore, not all. And the community doesn’t see cops anymore.”
An NBC/Marist poll taken in December — after grand juries in Missouri and New York decided against indicting the officers who killed Brown and Garner — found that 47 percent of Americans believe that law enforcement applies different standards to blacks and whites.
Eighty-two percent of African Americans polled said they believe law enforcement is applied differently based on race, compared with just half of whites polled.
“There is a growing gulf of mistrust between police and the communities they serve, particularly communities of color,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said during an interview at the U.S. Conference of Mayors. “These events and many others have shaken the public perception of policing in America and the criminal justice system.”
The deaths of unarmed black men during encounters with police sparked protests that spread to dozens of American cities, putting many of the nation’s law enforcement officers on edge. Then tensions spiked after the murders of two New York City police officers in late December. Many police chiefs and union leaders say that the protests have made their jobs more dangerous and questioned the need for large-scale police reform.
Several police groups, meanwhile, have noted that the task force does not contain a single rank-and-file officer.
James O. Pasco, national executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said during an interview in late December that he was concerned with the approach and tone the task force might take. He said any report that points out what’s wrong with today’s policing will inherently miss what’s right with it — and perpetuate the vitriol and violence directed at police officers.
“They can’t treat this inquiry into policing in America as one big, nationwide civil rights investigation directed at police departments across the country,” Pasco said. “There is an awful lot of officers who do the right thing every day, and there are a lot of people who live in safer neighborhoods because of them.”
Local and police officials in several cities have pointed to a drop off in funding for community policing programs that in the 1990s put more officers on foot and bike patrols in high-crime neighborhoods as one cause for the breakdown in trust.
“The federal government since 1999 has cut community police funding by 87 percent. That’s almost 10,000 fewer local cops in your streets,” Biden noted as he addressed a Capitol Hilton ballroom full of local elected officials.
And several leaders of major cities have noted that many of the most likely policing revision proposals — from body cameras to new diversity programs to retraining of officers — will bring with them hefty price tags.
“It absolutely has to be about resources and the kind of resources we have access to,” Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter said last week. “Many police departments across the United States of America were devastated by the recession. . . . Resources are clearly an issue.”
Kimberly Kindy contributed to this report