How Recommendations Of An Obama Task Force Have, And Haven’t, Changed U.S. Policing

Brendan Smialowski, AFP via Getty Images

Laurie Robinson, left, professor of criminology at George Mason University, and Charles Ramsey, right, Philadelphia police commissioner, listen while President Obama discusses law enforcement recommendations from his Task Force on 21st Century Policing in March 2015.

The police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others — and the wave of protests that followed — have sparked a national conversation about how to prevent police killings and improve relationships between law enforcement and the communities they police.

Six years ago, police shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparking a similar conversation. As a result, President Obama convened a panel of experts, activists, authors and academics to rethink policing in America.

Its two leaders were Charles Ramsey, the former chief of police in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and Laurie Robinson, a former U.S. assistant attorney general who is now a professor at George Mason University.

The group’s report, published in 2015, made 59 recommendations, ranging from the immediately implementable (codifying use-of-force policies, collecting data on police shootings) to bigger-picture cultural changes (diversifying police forces, shifting away from what the report describes as a “warrior” mindset to that of a “guardian”).

It was a major moment in American policing. By one count, about 40% of the nation’s largest police departments changed training and use-of-force policies in the first two years after the release of the report. Many police departments still tout their adoption of the report’s recommendations, including those in Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

And yet, the country has arrived at this familiar moment, following another wave of highly publicized police killings of Black people. According to a database maintained by The Washington Post, the number of people shot and killed by police each year has held remarkably steady each year since 2014, at about 1,000 annually.

Asked to evaluate the results of their work, Ramsey and Robinson tell NPR’s Ari Shapiro that they believe the report did have an impact, but that changing the culture of policing in America was always going to be difficult.

“Nothing’s going to be 100%, and that’s just a fact,” Ramsey says in an interview on All Things Considered. “You do the best you can in order to provide recommendations, but we’re human beings like everyone else.”

One complicating factor the authors cited is the decentralization of law enforcement in the United States, where there are more than 18,000 state and local police forces. Ramsey also says the change in presidential administration had an effect, due to “a different attitude” about policing in the Trump White House.

“There’s no question in my mind. Could it have been a larger impact? I think over time it would have been,” Ramsey says.

Some activists, skeptical of the effectiveness of moderate reforms to police departments, have called to defund departments or abolish them altogether. Ramsey and Robinson stopped short of supporting abolition, but agreed that armed police may not be appropriate in every emergency situation.

“I would not probably use the word ‘defunding,’ but I think it opens a good conversation about what we want the criminal law and arrest to be used for,” Robinson said.

Looking ahead, both Ramsey and Robinson are optimistic that their report could remain a useful playbook for police departments in America, which they believe are more receptive to change today than they were five years ago.

“When you look at the diversity of the people that are protesting, when you look at what’s taking place in corporate America, sports franchises — everyone seems to be paying attention to this issue,” Ramsey says. “And that’s what drives change.”

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Could you each name one thing that you wish you could add to the report?

Ramsey: Recruitment and hiring practices definitely are an area that needs to be addressed.

Robinson: The people coming into the academy right now are the ones who will really shape policing for the 21st century. So it’s really critical that if we want to change from “warrior” mindset to a “guardian” mindset in policing … we really have to hire for that approach.

Atlanta advertises its status as a model city for implementing your recommendations. And yet it was police in that department who shot and killed Rayshard Brooks. There was a history of complaints against the officer [Garrett Rolfe] who’s now been charged with murder. The police chief has stepped down. At least in this case, it seems like implementing the recommendations wasn’t enough to present the serious issue.

Ramsey: Atlanta is a fairly large police department. You’ve got a lot of things going on there. And you’re going to have some officers that don’t always exercise the best judgment.

But other officers have called out sick as a protest against the charges against Rolfe. That does suggest that it’s more than one or a few people.

Ramsey: I think that’s a mistake for officers to do that. They swore an oath to protect the citizens of Atlanta, in good times and bad. And this is a tough time, but this is a time for them to actually be out there doing their job and doing it well.

But I think it’s difficult to take that incident and then say that somehow that’s a much larger problem. I think that police right now across the country are pretty demoralized because of what’s been going on and what’s being said. I think we need to have balance and be careful so that it doesn’t appear that we’re demonizing all police for the actions of a few.

At the same time, we need to recognize that we do have people in our profession that should not be police officers, and we have to do everything we can to get rid of them.

For the last few weeks, the conversation has shifted from police reform toward defunding the police. Do you think that’s a useful conversation?

Robinson: I would not probably use the word defunding, but I think it opens a good conversation about what we want the criminal law and arrest to be used for.

Ramsey: When I speak to people about [defunding], they’re talking more in terms of reallocating some resources from the police to the appropriate social service agency, for an example, whether that be substance abuse counselors or mental health workers. … If police are relieved of that responsibility and they transfer those resources elsewhere, I personally don’t have a problem with it.

However, I don’t think police can pull completely back from responding to some of those calls because some of those calls are going to be somewhat dangerous and people are going to need support.

Are you convinced that the system is reformable?

Ramsey: I do. I really do. We still have crime and violence occurring in our neighborhoods every single day, and we have to deal with that. This isn’t just about violence on the part of police. If there were no shootings by police officers for the entire year, you’d still have 14,000 to 15,000 murders committed in this country. People aren’t asking for no police. They’re asking for good constitutional policing.

Do you see departments right now as being more or less receptive to change?

Robinson: I do see more receptivity, particularly from police leaders around the country who are looking for ways to build bridges with communities, looking for ways to make change really institutionalized in their departments. I think that there is a real opportunity to move forward in progressive and good ways.

Ramsey: I think we’ve seen a shift not only in police departments, but in the rest of society. When you look at the diversity of the people that are protesting, when you look at what’s taking place in corporate America, sports franchises, I mean, everyone seems to be paying attention to this issue, and that’s what drives change. That’s the beauty of what we’re seeing right now. I just hope it doesn’t lose momentum.

But I think that police departments, certainly elected leaders, are really receptive to change right now. So I think there’s a tremendous window of opportunity.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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