By Zak Cheney Rice
Jul 9, 2016
Martin Luther King Jr. said it best in 1966: "[The] law cannot make a man love me, but it can restrain him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important also."
Two years later, he was shot and killed in Memphis. But his dream that the United States legal system might eventually overcome its racial biases and serve its non-white citizens equally lives on.
For months now, politicians have invoked King's legacy to implore black citizens to stay peaceful in the face of routine violence. The irony of this plea seems lost on its askers, but it does fall in line with a question that's haunted Black Lives Matter protesters for the past 10 months, namely, "What's going to happen next?"
In other words: How, besides protesting, can we actually make sure no more black people are killed, beaten or tortured by the police? And how can we promote justice and equity in law enforcement more generally?
There's a strong case that the problem with policing isn't actually the police, but us — the police are merely enforcing our democratic will. Yet the real-life benefits of this umbrella term we've dubbed "police reform" — decriminalization, commitment to reducing prison populations and community oversight, to name a few — can still be impactful, if not quite a cure-all.
To that end, the Center for Popular Democracy and Policy Link, two nonprofit advocacy organizations, have partnered with various protesters and street-level organizers to find some concrete solutions to this problem. The result is a 15-point report, titled Building From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing, which Mic has synthesized below to identify the concrete steps citizens and local governments can take to affect change.
"[This report] is the result of dozens of interviews ... and work we've done on the ground," Marbre Stahly-Butts, a policy advocate with CPD and co-author of the toolkit, told reporters in a press call earlier this month. "Its goal was really to reflect the aspirations of these on-the-ground organizations."
Each point can be molded to shape your municipality's particular needs, and most are doable through a focused and sustained bit of pressure on local elected officials.
Here are 15 things your city can do right now to better promote justice in policing.
1. Stop criminalizing everything.
You may have gotten the impression that everything is a crime these days. That's because it probably is.
The state of California, for instance, has created 1,000 new crimes in the past 25 years, while Michigan currently has 3,102 crimes on the books. New York City alone has 10,000 crimes, rules and codes the police can enforce. In many cities these crimes include innocuous activities like being in a park after hours, drinking alcohol in public, panhandling, spitting and sleeping on the subway. Some cities have even criminalized the wearing of saggy pants (true story).
This is absurd. None of these should warrant criminal punishment. The report estimates that police officers spend 90% of their time dealing with minor infractions like these and just 10% on violent crimes, resulting in a system where people of color are disproportionately summoned to court for low-level offenses — 80% of these summonses are for blacks and Latinos, to be specific.
The solution? The reports says to push police departments and district attorneys to de-prioritize enforcing and prosecuting low-level offenses. Change city charters to limit the health, park, tax and administrative offenses that police are responsible for enforcing. Reclassify misdemeanors as civil infractions, whenever possible.
Last but not least, put measures in place to reduce the collateral consequences of these offenses. Employment, immigration, parenting and public housing status should not be affected.
2. Stop using poor people to fatten city budgets.
Most courts can issue an arrest warrant if you don't show up for your court date for a summons or ticketed violation. The result is people spending time in jail for not paying parking tickets.
To make matters worse, the practice is incentivized. Court fees and added fines for not appearing in court or paying the original ticket often supplement city budgets, not to mention these warrants make it really hard to get a job in order to pay the fines you weren't able to pay in the first place because you had no job, and hence no money. See the pattern?
Here's what you can do, according to the report: Pressure lawmakers to eliminate "failure to appear" charges in municipal court. Implement reminder phone calls and free transportation for indigent people with fines where needed. Offer alternatives to monetary payment — community service is an option. Implement a system where fines are dictated by people's specific income level. And cap the amount of money a city budget can pull from these fines and fees.
3. Kick ICE out of your city.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement agencies rely heavily on local police. As it stands, ICE can ask your police department to hold someone suspected of immigration violations for up to 48 hours before they pick them up. Not only does that incentivize racial profiling, it also makes people with potential immigration issues really not want to come to the police, even if they need help or could be really helpful in a case.
Shut it down. The report suggests that cities sever ties between ICE and local police departments. ICE should not be able to request these holds. Nor should they have easy access to the address and names of family members of people detained by local police, as they do now. And if ICE wants an exception to any of these rules, the report says they should have to obtain a warrant from an Article III judge. ICE should also have to pay for anyone detained on their behalf, as happens when it requests local law enforcement detain suspects for up to two days — cities and local police should not have to foot the bill, and neither should you.
4. Treat addicts and mentally ill people like they need help, not jail.
Jail is not a "one size fits all" prescription. Some issues — like acting erratically due to mental illness or possessing and using drugs due to addiction — are actually better served by medical attention, not incarceration.
The report suggests training law enforcement officials to address these issues at their discretion, with the aim of guiding addicts and people who live with mental illness into treatment programs instead of jail. Legislators should be involved only minimally, mostly to provide funding. Also train police to better identify and confront these problems using de-escalation tactics, and keep track of results through frequent data collection and analysis.
5. Make policy makers face their own racism.
This one is pretty simple. Law enforcement disproportionately impacts people of color. It funnels them into jails and prisons at staggering rates. Between 1980 and 2008, America's incarcerated population grew from 500,000 to 2.3 million. Sixty percent of incarcerated Americans are now black or Latino.
One of the primary causes is policy that — whether intentionally or unintentionally — targets blacks and Latinos through drug and search laws, for example. The report recommends that policy makers should have to evaluate the potential racial impact of any new laws they create, and involve community organizers and people who work with disadvantaged populations in every step of the process. Implement a common language for how to evaluate these topics — from patrol officers all the way up to the mayor's office. And of course, collect data on the results.
6. Actually ban racist policing.
Bias in policing can be intentional or unintentional, but citizens currently have almost no recourse if they submit allegations of such conduct. Data collection (which we'll go into more below) is an important tool for establishing evidence of bias.
But at the very least, cities, counties and states should provide avenues through which private citizens can take the police to court when they believe they've been profiled. The term "bias" itself should also span a wide array of categories — race, gender, immigration status, housing status, disability, HIV status and more. And allegations of bias should be incorporated in an officer's evaluation process, the report says.
7. Obey the Fourth Amendment.
ICYMI, that's the one prohibiting "unreasonable searches and seizures," which often lead tounnecessary (typically drug-related) arrests.
These arrests tend to be marked by severe racial disparities. In 2013, blacks and Latinos in Chicago were four times more likely to be searched during a stop than whites. To rectify this problem, the report says that police should have to alert people to their right to refuse a search — much as they are required to read arrestees their Miranda Rights.
Officers should have to present documentary proof of consent — whether in written, audio or video form. They should also guarantee that there will be no negative consequences if a person refuses a search. The report recommends training the police better on when a search is legal or not. Make officers articulate clearly why they want to conduct a search. Make them present documentary proof of search consent — and if they don't, the presumption should be that the search was unconstitutional.
Last but not least, there should be consequences for officers and departments who do not obtain objective proof of consent.
8. Involve the community in big decisions.
Communities should have significant say in how they are policed. Current civilian oversight commissions — maintained in more than 100 jurisdictions — often feel like they lack meaningful control in this respect.
Here's a thought, per the report: Every city should have an adequately funded community oversight board with significant investigatory and disciplinary powers. They should reflect their communities, especially the elements of their communities most affected by police abuse. The majority of these committees should be democratically elected. And if at all possible, they should avoid having former or current police officers to avoid a conflict of interest.
9. Collect data obsessively.
Data is the lifeblood of effective police reform. You can't solve a problem without knowing its scope, and the disparate impact of policing practices are imminently knowable if we decide we want to know them.
The report says that cities and departments should maintain a transparent and searchable database on every stop, frisk, summons, use of force, arrest and killing they conduct. The database should be regularly updated. It should be public, but implement measures to protect the privacy of those it involves as well. It also should include all relevant info for each interaction — race, gender, time, place, reason and any other consideration that could help detect bias.
And it should be available online.
10. Body cameras.
Body cameras have made their name as an almost knee-jerk reaction to every instance of police abuse over the past year. "Body cameras!" politicians demand, as though advocating for them suggested any kind of long term commitment to fighting misconduct.
Body cameras are far from the solution. But they can be important and helpful, especially when the local community supports their use, guided by clear regulations. There should be clear rules for when these cameras must be activated, the report says. If there's a case where they should have been used but have not been, there should be a presumption of police misconduct. Body cameras should be earmarked by states or localities, not as part of local police budgets.
Clear measures should be established to allow citizens to access this footage, in addition to protecting and validating their own right to film police.
11. Don't let friends of the police prosecute the police.
Cases against police officers should be tried by independent prosecutors, not the district attorneys who work with them all the time.
Each state should establish a fully authorized and independent Office of Police Investigations, with the authority to prosecute police officers in criminal court. The report says should also be equipped with sufficient and independent resources. In the absence of such an office, independent prosecutors should be assigned to all cases where police conduct leads to the death of a civilian. In cases involving state police departments, attorneys general should assign an independent prosecutor.
12. Oversight, oversight, oversight.
So you've caught the police doing something wrong. Now what do you do? Even if you successfully prosecute an officer or department for wrongdoing, there isn't much infrastructure in place to promote any follow-through — i.e., measures that can implement broader, long-term change.
That's why external oversight committees — ones that oversee the implementation of reforms and proactively identify issues in police operations and practices — are important. These should be independent, and instituted at the city or county level, the report suggests. They should regularly analyze data and identify disparities. They should have full investigatory powers into the police: access to relevant documents, subpoena power, ability to compel testimony. The budget should be consistent and sufficient. And the police should be required to acknowledge and respond to their recommendations.
13. No more military equipment.
One thing we learned from Ferguson, Missouri, last year is that our police are disturbingly well-armed. Through a federal program called 1033, local police departments in all 50 states have been requesting (and receiving) military-grade weapons and equipment from none other than the Pentagon since the early 1990s.
More than 100 colleges and universities and over 20 school districts have access to this equipment as well. Its cumulative worth today stands at $727 million.
Municipal solutions to this problem aren't easily forthcoming, the report says. It's really up to the federal government to decide whether to make it available or not. President Barack Obama did recently issue an executive order prohibiting police departments from obtaining specific equipment — namely tracked armored vehicles, grenade launchers, large caliber weapons and ammunition and bayonets (yes, bayonets). But few states have restrictions regulating how the equipment already obtained should be used.
14. Establish a "use of force" standard.
Consider this: Maybe it's so hard to legally determine whether a police officer used excessive force in a given situation because there's no national standard for what constitutes excessive force.
How can we solve the problem if we can't agree on what the problem looks like? This standard needs to be better defined and enforced. The report says that all departments should issue a statement affirming that their officers should use minimum force to subdue people. They should develop clear and transparent standards for reporting, investigating and disciplining officer who do not comply. They should develop policies that let other officers intervene when fellow officers are using excessive force. And their training should be adjusted to emphasize de-escalation.
15. Train the police to be members of the community, not just armed patrolmen.
Police are trained to handle some rough situations: people with guns, people with knives, car chases, foot pursuits. The Washington Post writes that new recruits usually spend about 60 hours learning how to handle a gun. It's all very tactical. But guess how much time they spend learning how to de-escalate tense situations, or properly handle the mentally ill? Eight hours apiece, according to the Police Executive Research Forum.
This is a problem. Police should be trained on how to develop better relationships with their communities. This training should incorporate culture, diversity, mental illness training, youth development, bias and racism.
The report recommends that recruits should be thoroughly and professionally trained on procedural bias and fairness, implicit bias, institutional bias, relationship-based and community interaction, crisis intervention, mediation, conflict resolution, appropriate engagement with youth based on science of adolescent brain development, de-escalation and minimizing use of force, coping with mental ill individuals, increasing language proficiency and cultural competency, appropriate engagement with LGBTQ, trans and gender-nonconforming people and documenting, preventing and addressing sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
Sounds hard? Welcome to being a police officer.
A final reminder: Unless cited otherwise, the facts, findings, statistics and conclusions presented in this article were adapted from Building From the Ground Up: A Toolkit for Promoting Justice in Policing, available here.