The President’s Task Force on Policing Report Is Good, but It Underemphasizes Racial Bias

There’s a lot going down with policing these days. The flurry of action this week included an interim report from the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It bears both good and bad news. 

One weakness in the report is overarching and unavoidable: the federal government is limited in the actions it can take to address policing because policing is largely within the control of the states; much of what is recommended is ultimately up to the discretion of local law enforcement agencies. 

Because of that, the Task Force report reads like it is trying to persuade law enforcement agencies. And, because of that, racial bias in policing is de-emphasized. 

Worse, instead of recognizing the role of discriminatory policing in necessitating change, the report repeatedly characterizes the impetus for change as the perceptions and feelings of the public. This casts responsibility for the experience of discrimination on the victims of discrimination. It is not about their perceptions or feelings. It is about a reality imposed on them often quite intentionally by police departments.

Speaking of intent, though there is much evidence that racial bias in policing is actively encouraged by police departments, this report consistently refers to discriminatory policing as “unintentional.” 

It’s hard to see how we can reform racial discrimination in policing if we cannot recognize that what we are reforming is racial discrimination in policing.

But, about the recommendations.

The 64 recommendations and action items are largely good. Tasked with making recommendations to the President on how to foster “collaborative relationships between local law enforcement and the communities they protect” and “on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust”, the Task Force organized it’s the report into six categories: (1) Building Trust & Legitimacy; (2) Policy & Oversight; (3) Technology & Social Media; (4) Community Policing & Crime Reduction; (5) Training & Education; and (6) Officer Wellness & Safety.

There’s a lot in this report. Here are some main takeaways. 

At its heart, this report seeks to promote the community policing model of law enforcement. Under this model, the community is a partner in law enforcement—officers are required to develop amicable relationships with community members, leaders and youth; community members are given a voice in policing policy; and officers are assessed based on their engagement with the public. This model stands in opposition to “broken windows” policing, which floods the community with law enforcement activity targeted at minor offenses. Community policing is a far better model.

To my delight, the Task Force makes several recommendations seeking to curb the school to prison pipeline. Many mostly black and brown students in predominantly lower income schools face criminal consequences for ordinary conduct that would at worst lead to detention for their whiter, richer peers. The Task Force calls on “[e]ducation and criminal justice agencies at all levels of government” to “work together to reform policies and procedures that push children into the juvenile justice system.” Hurrah. 

The report also seeks to establish transparency in policing. There are recommendations to make police policies and trainings publicly available, to share pertinent information related to major incidents and to collect and make public data on police encounters. This would improve public perception of police departments and ensure unconstitutional or otherwise problematic policies are subject to public criticism—which would in turn speed the time it takes to correct unjust practices. 

There is some great stuff on training—recommending training on how to recognize and confront implicit bias, for instance; on accountability – recommending mandated external investigations of officer-involved shootings; and on de-militarization in general. 

I wish the Task Force had said more about racial bias, and I’m concerned the federal government doesn’t have much power to enforce these changes. But overall, the report gives me hope by offering many ways to move this country closer to bias-free policing.

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