WASHINGTON — Police officials offered an unapologetic defense of law enforcement in America Tuesday, telling a White House panel that flagging public trust is largely due to powerful social forces — extreme poverty, untreated mental illness and lack of resources — beyond their control that often fuel tense encounters with the public.
The presidential task force, chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Justice Department official Laurie Robinson, was formed in the wake of persistent unrest linked to violent police tactics. Its members are scheduled to present recommendations for improving law enforcement and community relationships to President Obama by March 2.
On the first day of testimony before the panel, representatives of the nation’s largest police union and chiefs group said the proliferation of zero-tolerance laws has sapped officer discretion that could be used to promote mutual respect in communities.
Richard Beary, president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and Chuck Canterbury, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, acknowledged a racially charged wariness that has come to define tense standoffs in Ferguson, Mo., New York, Albuquerque and other communities across the country.
“The FOP wants to be part of changing the culture of policing,” Canterbury told the panel, referring to the union’s officer members. “But we as a society and a nation also have a responsibility to make changes. We must first reject the notion that law enforcement culture is intrinsically racist. It is wrong to think a man a criminal because of the color of his skin … it is equally wrong to think a man a racist because of the color of his uniform.”
In Ferguson, the community has erupted repeatedly after the fatal shooting in August of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white officer who was not charged in the death. Sustained protests followed in New York in December when a grand jury elected not to charge a white officer in the so-called chokehold death of Eric Garner, a black man.
Beary said the “heroic acts and great work being done on a daily basis by the law enforcement profession has been overshadowed” by the high-profile incidents.
“What isn’t talked about is that, for the most part, law enforcement officers have great relationships with their communities,” Beary said. “What many don’t realize is that the majority of contact law enforcement has with citizens is non-violent and non-controversial. The recent incidents that have been the center of focus are not the norm.”
The police officials were among more than a dozen witnesses called to testify at the day-long hearing hosted by the task force. Other witnesses, a mix of criminologists, civil rights advocates and faith leaders appealed for law enforcement to shed overly adversarial roles that have escalated tensions.
One of the witnesses, University of Nebraska-Omaha criminologist Samuel Walker, called on police agencies to implement policies that prohibit such simple behaviors as offensive language, which he described as precursors to combative encounters or contributors to negative public impressions of police.
“Fatal shootings involving police are still very rare,” Walker said. “Things like the use of language is where police meet the public every day.
“Routine day in and day out policing is what should be your focus,” he said.