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“It’s Time To Focus On The Other Fergusons In America”: Lessons Emerging Should Guide A Nationwide Overhaul To Police Reform

A six-month Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation validated what we heard from many Ferguson residents after the August shooting death of Michael Brown drew the nation’s attention to their city: that their police department has, for several years, exhibited a disturbing pattern of discriminatory policingand, frankly, grift of its citizens.

Further action by the DOJ may reform (or even overhaul) the Ferguson police department entirely. The shooting of two police officers from neighboring departments early Thursday morning in front of the Ferguson police headquarters will likely add pressure for resolution sooner than later. But, while attention to the ongoing tension in Ferguson is merited, there is a danger in Ferguson remaining virtually alone in the national spotlight. The problem of police brutality is hardly endemic to that one city. What about the rest of the 18,000 other departments across the country that may have similarly sick cultures and procedures?

Other Fergusons loom on the horizon, and we shouldn’t wait until an officer shoots another person and a city erupts to fix them. The lessons emerging from Ferguson can and should guide a nationwide overhaul to police reform. Now, while the whole country is focused on this issue, we should seize this moment to develop solutions that are as comprehensive as the problems are vast. Police misconduct and brutality are ingrained in departments thanks to bad practices, limited transparency and a lack of accountability. How does a federal government charged with protecting citizens from policing like this provide a fix that sticks?

It isn’t as if they haven’t tried in the past. In the wake of the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King in March of 1991, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed in 1994. One of the things it mandated was that the DOJ keep records and report on use of force by law enforcement. The law also empowered the DOJ to sue any police agencies they found to exhibit a “pattern and practice” of excessive force and civil rights violations, and enter with them into “consent decrees,” arrangements that give the DOJ oversight over a police agency for a designated period of time. The goal of these arrangements is to reform a police department’s policies and practices by monitoring performance and making recommendations.

In the two decades since the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act was passed, the DOJ has entered into more than 20 consent decrees with local police departments. They have a record of effectiveness, the most notable example being in Los Angeles where the King incident occurred. A study by the Harvard Kennedy School, found that the DOJ’s consent decree with the LAPD improved the department in most ways imaginable. Public satisfaction with the police improved, the frequency of the use of serious force fell, the quality of police stops improved with stops resulting in a higher rate of arrests and charges filedall while crime rates fell.

The successful use of consent decrees by the DOJ supports the idea that comprehensive federal oversight of the nation’s police can improve outcomes. But what we’ve ended up instead with is a piecemeal, reactionary system for police accountability that can barely keep up with, let alone disrupt, the warrior cop culture that has poisoned so many departments with its misconduct and brutality.

The mandate that the DOJ record and report on use of force, for example, is hollow without the cooperation of the country’s 18,000 police departments. It isn’t enforced today, and thus we have no comprehensive count of how many people are killed each year by the policethe most fundamental information needed for reform. In addition, the DOJ currently investigates police misconduct primarily by complaint. And its consent decrees, while shown effective when enforced, are temporary and only apply to individual police departments with track records of misconduct. They are not the permanent, preventative, and national measures that are needed.

A consent decree is likely on its way in Ferguson, and it promises to be an effective step towards reform. But what happens after the DOJ removes its watchful eye from that town, perhaps to address other Fergusons that face similar treatment by their police departments?

The prevalence of police brutality has long demanded federal intervention. The White House task force prescribed in its first report last week good, common-sense measures for better policing, including independent investigations in fatal police shootings and more comprehensive data collection. But that doesn’t get close to a permanent solution.

The Civil Rights Division of the DOJ has demonstrated its effectiveness in addressing police misconduct through the enforcement of the aforementioned 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, as well as the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Special Litigation Section currently does that work, but that unit is also responsible for protecting disability rights, the rights of the incarcerated, reproductive and religious rights.

The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division would be strengthened by the creation of a section charged solely with tracking, investigating andwhere a civil rights violation is foundprosecuting use of force. Such a unit would prioritize those duties and present a national solution to what is undoubtedly a nationwide problem. The department is already empowered by existing law to create such a unit that could take broader action. Perhaps the only thing standing in the way is the political will to impose a penalty if local police departments do not cooperate.

More than 20 years passed between the assault on King and Brown’s death. In that time, untold numbers of unarmed Americans have been killed by police. Their deaths did not become national news stories or spur federal investigations. We owe it to them to make fair and safe policing a matter of national interest and urgency. If we don’t, the list will grow and we’ll be here again.

 

By: Donovan X. Ramsey, The New Republic, March 13, 2015

March 15, 2015 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Justice Department, Law Enforcement, Police Brutality | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Documenting Police Killings”: Wide Discrepancies In Rate Of Police Killings Among Major Metropolitan Police Departments

One of the sources of confusion arising during recent controversies over police killings in Missouri and in New York has been the lack of good and consistent data on similar incidents. Congress just passed legislation to revive a lapsed 2000-2006 data collection law, but as veteran journalist Blake Fleetwood notes in a web-exclusive piece for Ten Miles Square today, the earlier law wasn’t enforced. As a result we know less than we should about police killings and such closely related issues as the risk to police of being themselves killed by lethal force in the line of duty. But by piecing together available data, Fleetwood does reach some tentative conclusions well worth testing with fresh data.

A Washington Monthly analysis of police homicides found wide discrepancies in the rate of police killings among major metropolitan police departments, when measured against population figures.

Contrary to popular belief, New York City—-with a police homicide rate of 1 in 123,529 citizens—-ranks near the top (best, least people killed) of large cities in the U.S. The NYPD killed 68 people from 2007 – 2012 out of a population of 8.4 million.

In Miami-Dade County, in a population of 2.5 million, (less than a third of the people living in NYC) police killed 68 citizens during that same five-year period. This means that citizens of Miami are 3.5 times more likely to killed by their local policeman than their counterparts in New York City.

An amalgamated review of police shooting data from the FBI, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and figures from 105 major police departments (obtained by the Wall Street Journal) —- when overlaid with population figures —- revealed that the Los Angeles Police Department killed 111 citizens during this period in a population of 3.8 million, which works out to one police homicide per 21,229 persons. This indicates that the average citizen’s chance of being killed by a policeman is nearly six times greater in Los Angeles than in New York City.

Fleetwood esttimates that the total number of police killings from 2007-2012 probably exceeded three thousand. Probably half or more of those killed did not have firearms. Moreover, while no one wants to expose police officers to undue risk, some facts remain that contradict the impression that it’s open season on the police:

In five years, 2008 to 2012, only one policeman was killed by a firearm in the line of duty in New York City. Police officers are many times more likely to commit suicide than to be killed by a criminal. Eight NYC policemen took their own lives in 2012, alone.

Comparatively, a fisherman is 10 times more likely to be killed on the job than a police officer, according to national figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A logging worker is eight times more likely than a police officer to die on the job, and a garbage man is three times more likely to die while working.

Most policemen killed on the job die in auto accidents, according to FBI statistics.

What can be done to reduce the number of police killings without making the lives of officers more dangerous? Fleetwood points to better training of a sort that used to be available not that long ago:

Twenty years ago Bill Clinton funded the Police Corps, whose mission was to train elite policemen with physical and mental conditioning very much like the training of the Seals and Green Berets. The recruits spent a year role-playing through every possible situation. The Police Corps produced 1,000 of the best trained and most professional policeman in the country.

But it was expensive, and, according to Joe Klein, it was killed by George W. Bush.

If the United States had better trained, more professional police, we certainly would not have so many police homicides, which are tearing apart the social fabric of our country.

 

By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, December 17, 2014

December 18, 2014 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Police Officers, Police Shootings | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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