Oakland Tribune editorial: Reconsidering how our police should operate

Getting military vehicles and grenade launchers out of police stations is a first step in what should be an evolution in policing.

President Barack Obama has said the federal government no longer will release certain types of surplus military-style equipment to local police.

What once may have seemed like a good idea, giving cash-strapped police departments leftover military equipment, has only stoked tensions in certain communities.

Armored vehicles in response to uprisings in Ferguson became a symbol of over-reactive police forces that intimidate instead of working with communities. Police need tools, yes. But they need the right ones.

The Obama administration recently released what will serve as the White House’s blueprint for long-overdue reforms.

The blueprint is a response to Ferguson. The dozens of recommendations provide a rationale and wide-ranging framework for local police that often have little oversight and guidance beyond city limits. It provides some tools to think about policing — ones that are intended to build community.

Minimizing the use of “provocative” tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust was among the top priorities.

But absolutely as important was increased emphasis on community engagement, more data and transparency.

At the same time, police forces need more support from the communities they serve. Too often the rest of us look away from issues such as homelessness and the mentally ill on our streets, leaving officers to deal in person — and in danger — with societal issues that governments should be doing more to fix. It’s patently unfair to the officers who serve us.

The Obama administration’s policing recommendations include decoupling immigration enforcement from police enforcement and collecting demographic data on detentions. Some law enforcement agencies already do that.

But the plan also suggests simple and powerful moves like posting department policies online. That would answer questions such as: When do officers shoot?

Many recommendations will go by the wayside as police push back. Already the Fraternal Order of Police called the issue of militarization exaggerated and accused Obama of making it political. And there are divides along political lines.

But the rhetoric needs to stop, and the White House’s attempt to raise the bar is a strong starting point. What is the alternative, more of the same?

For too long, unions and top brass largely have been left alone to shape department practices. And while many are well-intentioned, the public’s concerns aren’t always paramount.

A simple case in point is data collection. Many departments don’t turn over data on officer-involved shootings, and the information at a national level is patchy at best. So basic information about who is getting shot by officers and how often isn’t as clear as it should be.

There needs to be an evolution in policing now.