The tragic deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice, and now the two senseless deaths of NYPD officers Liu Wenjin and Raphael Ramos, have prompted nationwide discussions about violence and police legitimacy. Anger is abundant, but what can constructively be done to make things better? As lawyers, we believe local policing can and must be reformed to create more fairness, trust and confidence in communities through increased transparency and accountability. Not only can the proposed reforms help begin the long journey to repairing eroded police legitimacy and tense community relations, but they can also help improve cooperation with police and create a safer society for all.
Any discussion of police reform, however, must begin with identifying key stakeholders. Police reforms unilaterally imposed by outsiders won’t work. Changing policing requires buy-in and hard work from a variety of local stakeholders – mayors and city councilmembers, police commissioners, local community leaders and groups, police unions, minority officers’ groups, prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys. President Obama’s newly appointed Task Force on 21st Century Policing is a good example of a diverse coalition of stakeholders in improved policing, and should be replicated at the local level.
Improving Police Training and Diversity
Improving local police legitimacy requires training to reduce perceptions of race bias and improve perceived fairness in police interactions. While a significant body of research shows that police, like the public generally, more often associate African Americans with crime and violence than Whites, it is often driven by implicit bias and unconscious stereotypes rather than overt racial malice. But stereotypes can shape split-second police decisions to stop and frisk, arrest, or use force. Research shows that better and more regular training can help reduce implicit bias. Procedural justice training, which aims to improve delivery of police services by giving police better skills to improve fairness, transparency, listening and communication, has also proven to increase police legitimacy. Programs to increase diversity across all police ranks so departments better reflect the make-up of the communities they serve, also creates more trust and confidence in police and can reduce officer bias.
Improving Independent Police Oversight and Accountability
Improving local police legitimacy requires better external police oversight and accountability. First, police departments across the US should mandate police body-worn cameras, as the Los Angeles Police Department will soon implement. But to actually be effective and legitimate, individual offices cannot have discretion to turn body-worn cameras on and off, and cameras must remain on throughout a shift. Research from Rialto, California and the United Kingdom shows that use of police body-worn cameras can reduce police use of force and civil rights complaints against police, and can help increase successful criminal prosecutions of domestic violence.
Second, local police departments require robust, independent external oversight bodies with powers to initiate investigations into systemic policing practices and subpoena witnesses. Too often oversight of local police is left to a department’s Internal Affairs Division, which is often overworked and fails to give the appearance of impartiality. Local police departments should follow New York City’s lead in appointing an inspector general similar to those in federal law enforcement agencies.
Third, local police departments must bring in independent special prosecutors when police killings occur, rather than leaving investigative decisions to local prosecutors and grand juries. The killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and refusals of grand juries to indict them highlight the deference local prosecutors and grand juries tend to show to local police departments, and make the process appear less legitimate.
Finally, local police departments must enact zero tolerance policies for police corruption. For too long, failure to punish and prosecute police corruption has eroded
trust and confidence in local police. Local police departments should follow the lead of the New Orleans Police Department, which has implemented reforms designed to increase police legitimacy by finding and firing corrupt officers.
Reforming Police Criminal Procedures
Improving local police legitimacy also requires mandating key changes to police criminal procedure. First, local police departments must require videotaping of all police interviews and line-ups. Research shows that not only does this reduce police misconduct and unintentional errors, but it also reduces wrongful convictions and makes stronger cases. Second, police must administer double-blind line-ups, meaning that neither the administrating officer nor the witness knows who the suspect is, or if they are even present in the line-ups. This ensures greater accuracy and avoids the witness being steered toward any particular suspect.
Ending Police Performance “Target” Culture
A significant contributor to eroded police legitimacy lies in the perception, often supported by relevant data, that many police practices like stop and frisk, arrests for low-level drug offenses, and broken windows are applied in a racially disproportionate way. Many officers argue that large numbers of stop, frisk and low-level arrests are driven by pressure from police superiors for promotion and disciplinary purposes. This internal pressure on police was cited by the judge in Floyd v. City of New York case, who observed that it was a driving force behind the unconstitutional NYPD racial profiling practices. Thus, rather than relying on high-volume stop, frisk and arrests, police performance should be more significantly based on measures of external police legitimacy amongst local communities. The New Orleans Police Department, for example, has incorporated community assessments of interactions with police into assessments of officer performance.
Expanding external assessments of police department legitimacy to include metrics of community engagements and problem solving, including children mentored and community meetings attended, must be factored into the analysis. And internal measures of police legitimacy, meaning how fair police officers believe their departments to be, should also be factored into assessments of a police department’s legitimacy.
Ending Racially Disproportionate Approaches to Violence Reduction
Finally, long-term improvement of police legitimacy requires police departments to move away from reliance on stop and frisk and “broken windows” zero tolerance policing, which are not only ineffective in removing contraband from the streets and reducing violent crime, but also are a source of significant erosion of trust and confidence in police in ethnic minority communities.
Local police departments must move toward less divisive and less racially disproportionate violence reduction models. Community policing, for example, which involves officers spending time working proactively with local communities, has shown positive results in a number of cities, including Chicago and Richmond, California. Police-community partnerships led by the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSF) have demonstrated successes in reducing violence and drug markets in cities including Cincinnati, Kansas City, Philadelphia and High Point, North Carolina. So successful are these projects that in September 2014, NNSF was awarded a $4.75 million grant by the Department of Justice to launch the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, focused on improving trust between minority communities and the criminal justice system through racial reconciliation, procedural justice and implicit bias trainings. Local police should also consider piloting public health approaches to reducing violence, an approach strongly supported by newly appointed US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy.
While we certainly don’t have all the answers, it’s time to start talking about and funding constructive ways to reform policing to quell anger by improving legitimacy and community relations. Change will not come quickly, but proactive efforts to ensure greater fairness, accountability and transparency will improve trust and confidence in local police and create a safer society for us all.