Imagine the president of the United States calls you and asks that you reform more than 17,000 independent government agencies throughout the country, with no oversight, no federal authority and not much of a budget.
And, by the way, you have to do it in 90 days.
That’s essentially what happened when President Barack Obama created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing by executive order Dec. 18, 2014. Now the hard work of that committee has been released in a report (pdf), and along with its recommendations, it’s a painful civics lesson on how hard it will be for real police reform in America to ever take hold.
The report was laid out by Ron Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and George Mason University professor Laurie Robinson, all of whom traveled the nation hearing from different communities and collecting data for the final report. The commission’s concerns about American policing after last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., and a spate of high-profile, recorded police shootings were sincere. And for the most part, their recommendations (pdf) were common sense. Among them were these:
Law-enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.
Law-enforcement agencies and municipalities should refrain from practices requiring officers to issue a predetermined number of tickets, citations, arrests, or summonses, or to initiate investigative contacts with citizens for reasons not directly related to improving public safety, such as generating revenue.
Who would disagree that cops shouldn’t abuse protesters or set up speed traps to double-tax members of the communities they’re protecting?
Other, almost futuristic-sounding, out-of-the-box suggestions, like employing “nonlethal weapons” and better technology, won’t raise eyebrows for most reasonable people, either. The problem is—which Robinson acknowledged during a Monday press briefing about the report—how do you get 17,000 independent police departments across the country to listen to Washington, D.C.?
Unlike many nations in Europe, or even South America, there is no federal police organization to oversee all cops in the United States. So while we know the issues of brutality, discrimination and unequal prosecution are nationwide problems, there is no national agency to implement reform.
Think of it as the Department of Education, which still can’t get Common Core standards adopted in half the country. When the Obama administration suggested tying federal school funding to the adoption of some universal education standards, parents, politicians and even some celebrities pitched a fit. And now, adoption of Common Core is a third rail in politics, even as states still wrestle with opting into or out of the program.
If telling schools across America that every kid should be able to do algebra by 10th grade caused such a ruckus, imagine how hard police reforms would be. Police unions wield significant influence, and unlike public schools, most police departments don’t receive federal funds.
So where does that leave those seeking real police reform?
It’s time to face some harsh facts about our country that date to high school civics class. America has so many towns, municipalities and burgs, combined with its system of separation of powers, that even state governors can hardly implement reform without taking over a city or a county. If the goal is to get the federal government to implement reform, organizers may have to eventually advocate for federal-government takeover of local municipalities. And that isn’t always the best solution—just ask Washington, D.C., which has always been subject to congressional oversight, despite having its own elected city government.
But if organizers are not prepared to go that far, they may have to accept the reality that federal reforms probably won’t happen. Unless the task force has some teeth, the only other way to achieve police reform is by slogging through the trenches of every city and town, going block by block and campaigning against outdated statute after outdated statute.
If the political will to change America’s police culture really exists, there is a solution to be found somewhere between a well-meaning but essentially impotent federal task force and the interminable battle in a million local city halls: the states. Every state is getting some level of federal allowance from D.C. If Obama and his administration are serious about police reform, they should attach the task force’s recommendations to federal aid to states in general.
If congressional Republicans can attach anti-immigration riders to Department of Homeland Security funding, why can’t a reform-minded administration link highway funding to cleaning up local police forces?
Obama asked for tough reform suggestions for combating police violence in 90 days, and he got them. It’s perfectly reasonable that in the 689 days he’s got left in office, he find some way to implement them.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.