Task Force Calls For Independent Probes Of Police-Involved Shootings

Mar 2, 2015
Originally published on March 2, 2015 6:38 pm

Law enforcement agencies should measure community trust the same way they monitor crime rates. That's among the recommendations of a task force established after police-involved killings of unarmed black people in Ferguson, Mo., in Cleveland and on Staten Island, N.Y.

The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing also emphasized the need for better training and equipment, including tactical first-aid kits and bulletproof vests. But it stopped short of insisting police wear body cameras to record their interactions on the beat, given concerns about people's privacy and who will retain those images.

In another recommendation that's resonating with community groups, the task force also encouraged police to focus on de-escalating situations, rather than ratcheting up tension and drawing weapons before pursuing other, less lethal options.

"The events in Ferguson and New York exposed a deep-rooted frustration in many communities of color about the need for fair and just law enforcement," President Obama said in brief remarks Monday at the White House. "We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled ... feel fully supported."

The White House created the task force by executive order in December 2014. Since then, the 11-member panel has held seven "listening sessions" across the country and heard testimony from 120 witnesses.

The wrinkle is, law enforcement largely happens at the local level, with some 18,000 police agencies across the country. And the federal government doesn't have a lot of power to compel local police chiefs and states to act. But Obama said he'd push the Justice Department and its Community Oriented Policing Services office to start making changes soon based on the report. Ron Davis, who leads the COPS office, is already familiar with the task force's work, since he served as its executive director.

"The report was never meant to be a panacea," one member of the panel tells NPR. "It's not a solution to all problems."

The 120-page report also touched on other controversial topics. Among them: recommending that after an officer-involved shooting, independent prosecutors and investigators look into the death, rather than district attorneys and police colleagues who may work alongside the officer.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, co-chairman of the task force, said that recommendation was not intended to be an "indictment of various agencies; it's just reacting to the perception that's out there and certainly trying to get around the appearance of impropriety or lack of transparency in these investigations."

"It takes time, it takes relationship building, and it doesn't happen overnight," said Laurie O. Robinson, a George Mason University professor who served as co-chairwoman of the task force.

Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, says the ACLU has pushed for most of the elements in the task force report for years. "We strongly believe they will significantly improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve, particularly communities of color," Bennett said.

"Most of the recommendations," she added, "are essential and should be nonnegotiable."

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At the White House today, President Obama stressed the need to build trust between police and communities. A federal task force he created wants to see more transparency when police shoot civilians and better police training. NPR's Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The deaths of two black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, exposed deep frustration about whether police are fair. Now, President Obama says, is the time to seize the moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We have a great opportunity coming out of some great conflict and tragedy to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer.

JOHNSON: After three months of work and seven hearings across the country, the president's task force is out with dozens of recommendations. One of them - making sure outside law enforcement agencies and independent prosecutors investigate when police shoot and kill people. That idea is unpopular among some police and district attorneys, but Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, who helped lead the task force, explains why it matters.

CHARLES RAMSEY: Trying to take away this notion that somehow police and prosecutors are so closely connected that they can't have independent evaluation and objective evaluations of these cases, that's not an indictment of various agencies. It's just reacting to the perception.

JOHNSON: And the task force says perception is important, so important that the panel wants law enforcement to measure public trust the same way they keep track of crime statistics. The panel also said police-worn body cameras can be useful, but it wants to balance that technology against privacy considerations. Again, Charles Ramsey.

RAMSEY: Any technology that we apply in policing - one, we understand the usefulness of it, but also make sure that we're operating within a constitutional framework and that we're not using technology that's going to infringe upon privacy rights.

JOHNSON: The challenge for the federal government and the task force is that policing is local. There are nearly 18,000 state and local police agencies. And the federal government generally can't compel them to act, but it can provide incentives through federal grant money. That's an idea co-chair Laurie Robinson wants the Justice Department to adopt. Robinson, a former Justice official, says she's seen firsthand the way police can mend relations with minority communities.

LAURIE ROBINSON: It takes time. It takes relationship building. And it doesn't happen overnight.

JOHNSON: Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.