Commentary: President Needs to Go Further on Demilitarizing the Police

police-blueThe President on Monday took several important steps to both demilitarize the police and also create a greater degree of transparency, to hopefully rebuild the trust between police and communities.

President Obama said it will take a concerted, “all-hands-on-deck” effort to change the odds for these communities:  “If we as a society don’t do more to expand opportunity to everybody who’s willing to work for it, then we’ll end up seeing conflicts between law enforcement and residents.

“If we as a society aren’t willing to deal honestly with issue of race, then we can’t just expect police departments to solve these problems. If communities are being isolated and segregated, without opportunity and without investment and without jobs — if we politicians are simply ramping up long sentences for nonviolent drug crimes that end up devastating communities, we can’t then ask the police to be the ones to solve the problem when there are no able-bodied men in the community, or kids are growing up without intact households,” the President said.

The first step that the President is taking is to prohibit and limit the kinds of military equipment that law enforcement agencies can procure from the federal government. This means that things like armored vehicles, bayonets, grenade launchers and large caliber weapons and ammunition would be prohibited.

Local police departments will also face limits on other federal enforcement equipment, including explosives, riot equipment, and wheeled armored or tactical vehicles. “And if a department wants to acquire any controlled equipment, they must apply and provide detailed, clear, and persuasive explanation that justifies the request,” the White House said in a release.

However, as Radley Balko’s book, Rise of the Warrior Cop, makes clear, the acquisition of former military equipment is but a small step in the militarization of police. His book tracked the rise of SWAT and other tactical teams along with the use of dynamic entries, no knock warrants, and other aggressive tactics often served on people for relatively minor crimes – and occasionally mistakenly on innocent people.

While the Davis Police told the Vanguard that they have shifted their tactics, until we change our approach on a national level, the militarization of police will remain a problem. The President’s initiative only deals with the symbolic nature.

Moreover, such tactics have increased under the Obama administration and the Justice Department has more often than not defended the use of overwhelming force, even in situations that did not warrant it. Not only has the President only paid lip service to this issue, no one from the national media has called him out on it.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has fallen well short of promises of greater overall transparency in government processes. Nowhere has that been more alarming that the push for the Obama administration to continue, and in fact increase, wiretapping on civilians.

Now the President has launched what he is calling “the Police Data Initiative with police chiefs and technology officers from 16 jurisdictions across the country to work alongside community organizations and police associations to leverage open data that will identify problems early, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate uses of force.”

While this sounds good on paper, we have already seen how the push for police body cameras is running into barriers in the form of public records laws and police officer “bills of rights” issues that have prevented recordings from becoming the transparent tools that were hoped for.

There is some promise in the Police Data Initiative, but the devil will be in the tools. The President hopes that, by bringing leaders of diverse communities together “with top technologists, researchers, data scientists and design experts,” the initiative will help “accelerate progress around data transparency and analysis, toward the goal of increased trust and impact.”

Through this effort, local police departments and other participants are responding first to Task Force recommendations within two streams of work:

  • Using open data to increase transparency, build community trust, and support innovation
  • Better use of technology, such as early warning systems, to identify problems, increase internal accountability, and decrease inappropriate uses of force

In all, 21 police departments have “committed to release a combined total of 101 data sets that have not been released to the public. The types of data include uses of force, police pedestrian and vehicle stops, officer involved shootings and more, helping the communities gain visibility into key information on police/citizen encounters. “

Data is critical. By getting and analyzing data, we can identify which communities are engaging in biased policing practices, racial profiling, or otherwise targeting people of color.

Most of the participating communities are in the east, but there are five in the west: Richmond, Oakland, Los Angeles and Los Angeles County in California, as well as Seattle, Washington.

The second part of that initiative is internal accountability.

The White House notes, “While many police departments have systems in place, often called ‘early warning systems,’ to identify officers who may be having challenges in their interactions with the public and link them with training and other assistance, there has been little to no research to determine which indicators are most closely linked to bad outcomes. “

Twelve police departments have committed to sharing data on police/citizen encounters with data scientists for in-depth data analysis. These include: Austin, TX; Camden, NJ; Charlotte, NC; Dallas, TX; Indianapolis, IN; Knoxville, TN; LA City; LA County; Louisville, KY; New Orleans, LA; Philadelphia, PA; and Richmond, CA.

The University of Chicago will “provide a team of five data science fellows from the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Data Science for Social Good program to work with 3-4 police departments over a 14 week engagement, starting in late May, to begin to prototype data analysis tools that will help police departments identify the behaviors most indicative of later problems. “

The White House notes, “The Oakland Police Department, which has deployed body worn cameras for over four years, has partnered with a team of researchers at Stanford University to build automated tools to comb through the audio to surface police/citizen encounters that either went particularly poorly or went particularly well.”

“This will allow the Oakland PD to quickly identify problems and also to lift up real world examples of the great police work that happens every day. The Stanford team is also researching ways that body worn camera data can be used to track and inform the effectiveness of training in the field, using the camera data to see whether the classroom experience translated effectively to encounters on the street,” they write.

The Department of Justice and the Police Data Initiative stakeholders will work with universities and other research partners to “identify opportunities to coordinate body worn camera research to help avoid unintended overlap, maximize the coverage of research topics and increase cross-learning,” they continue. “Additionally, the Police Data Initiative will work with cutting-edge leaders in advanced video analysis to identify opportunities to help police departments maximize the value of the thousands of hours of video body worn cameras will produce.”

But we also know that the Oakland Police Department has a very poor record of disciplining officers who have committed violations. And so, while data is a good start, there is a lot this project is not doing.

What this project does not do is important. It does not break down the barriers to true transparency that have been erected through a series of “officers’ bills of rights.” It does not require police body camera data to be made available to the public. It does not put in place independent systems of oversight. And it does not ensure that disciplinary practices are created and made more transparent.

In short, the militarization piece falls short by focusing only on equipment rather than tactics. The police data initiative provides us with a means to assess the data but not a means to make sure that departments deal appropriately with problematic incidents and problem officers.

It is a good start in some ways, but without real follow through they appear to be adding a lot of new data without any enforcement teeth.

And even if the President deemed the local police departments behind his jurisdiction, he could change how the Justice Department enforces laws and change the way they defend officers.

A May report from the New York Times noted that “[a]t the Supreme Court, where the limits of police power are established, Mr. Holder’s Justice Department has supported police officers every time an excessive-force case has made its way to arguments. Even as it has opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local law enforcement practices, the Justice Department has staked out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns.”

And yet, the President did nothing to address this issue. Perhaps this will be part of the recommendations from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing that will be implemented down the line. But for now we remain skeptical that any real change will come from this.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. sisterhood

    “Even as it has opened more than 20 civil rights investigations into local law enforcement practices, the Justice Department has staked out positions that make it harder for people to sue the police and that give officers more discretion about when to fire their guns.”

    Re:going further, California should lengthen the statute of limitations for bringing suit for police misconduct. It is only two years.

    1. zaqzaq

      Why extend the statute of limitations beyond two year which is long enough for figure it out and get started.  As a tax payer I want local government and the police to reduce risk and cash outlays to individuals in settlement of lawsuits through sound policy.  I also want any lawsuits to be initiated quickly so that available city resources can be applied to roads instead of these lawsuits against police.  Now thug mom and thug step dad are suing the city of Ferguson for a wrongful death.  What a joke except it is not funny.  Looks like t-shirt sales are down for the family.

        1. zaqzaq

          Hopefully the city counter sues thug step dad for starting a riot for yelling “burn it down” repeatedly after the grand jury decision.  Just loved the way the Brown family attorneys responded to that one.  He should be charged, tried and put in jail.

        2. David Greenwald

          Remember also a civil suit is judged on the preponderance of the evidence whereas a civil rights prosecution would be based on proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Absent video and with conflicting eyewitness accounts, I agree with the Justice Department that they would not have been able to reach a criminal burden.

        3. Miwok

          Based on recent etymology, “thug” is being touted as a racist term, right? Recent and future arrestees, might be more accurate?

          Why extend the statute of limitations beyond two year which is long enough for figure it out and get started.

          Many would argue divorces need to be the same?

        4. zaqzaq


          My understanding is that the standard applied at the grand jury hearing was probable cause which is a lower standard than the preponderance or more likely than not used for civil cases.  The reasonable doubt standard is used for criminal jury trials.  The officer will also most likely have some type of qualified immunity if he acted reasonably based on the circumstances much like in Maryland.  I  suspect a judge would decide that issue prior to any jury trial.

        5. zaqzaq


          So now “thug” is racist term?  Does it apply to all races or only select ones?  But “crazy cracker” isn’t?  Just remembering that witness in the Zimmerman trial attributing that term to Martin.

  2. Tia Will

    Based on the incremental nature of the change that I have seen in medicine over the past 30 years, I have more hope than you seem to about the capacity for gradual improvement in this area. What gives me the most hope is the willingness of some police departments to engage in what I see as the most necessary component of change, the willingness to gather and assess the data in a systematic manner rather than burying it. Here is a great opportunity for collaboration between police and academics to achieve a better model of policing just as we have moved from an expert opinion based to an evidence based model in medicine.

    Only when police departments are willing to collect, share and analyze what is actually occurring in their own communities will they be able to assess the impacts of their current methods, compare them with the models in effect in other communities and shift the culture of policing by teaching best practices to incoming officers and by taking corrective actions for those who fail to commit to better practices as they are taught in continuing education. Unfortunately, all of this takes time to effect real change. There is a fine balance that has to be achieved between understanding the concerns of those that see the “old ways” as having been highly successful, so “why change ?” and those who see a better way forward based on research and data.

  3. zaqzaq

    How much is it going to cost the city of Davis to collect this type of data?  What is the cost of data storage for their current car cameras and what is the projected cost for body cameras?  How much data storage capacity is required for the car cameras.  What is the needed capacity for body cameras and what is the cost?  Where does the money come from?  These are some of the questions that need to be answered before laws mandating body cameras are passed.  I like the idea of body cameras as law enforcement tools and suspect that the car cameras in patrol vehicles have been a success.  I am not sure why all of a sudden we need new policies on the use of these tools by law enforcement since the car camera system has audio captured from receivers on the officers body.  What is the difference between audio captured on car cameras and body cameras?


    1. Tia Will


      I think that these are all good questions. And I think that a systemic review of what the technologies that you have named would cost in comparison to the costs of the military type equipment in its entirety ( acquisition, maintenance, training, and civil suit loss when its use goes wrong) might be a good comparison in deciding how best to move forward.

      Transparency and consideration of all factors will be the key. Now that we have citizen capability to record public actions of the police in real time, the police will inevitably be pushed to provide their real time view of what has occurred and both citizens and police will be more likely to behave in a more appropriate manner with the awareness that their every move may be being recorded.  I see this as a positive since I do not believe that law enforcement need be synonymous with the use of excessive physical force to achieve that end.

    2. David Greenwald

      “How much is it going to cost the city of Davis to collect this type of data? ”

      Two things. One, there are no mandates by the federal government to collect the data beyond the 21 communities that have participated. Second, the city of Davis already collects this type of data. In 2013, Darren Pytel shared with the Human Relations Commission their data on traffic stops. Based on that data, the police agreed to ultimately create the ACR mediation program.

      1. Miwok

        I have already mentioned the problem with independent and unbiased staff to support this enterprise, and the fact lawyers and cops need to be out of the loop when they download cameras and audio. Some precocious investigators I knew in the DAs office years ago were released for tampering with evidence. An Ex-Wife ratted him out, but for years he did it, until she got mad at him for not paying child support.

        No one knew what he did, because the technology was too new to many of them. My experience on the High Tech Crimes Task Force was mainly to teach them how to find things for prosecutions.

  4. zaqzaq

    The Baltimore Sun had a recent article describing the recent spike in homicides in Baltimore.  How come we see no coverage of this development in the national media.  How much of it was black on black?  You never hear anything about this issue and how to solve it.

        1. Frankly

          i believe there are more effective ways to fight crime that engage the neighborhoods rather than antagonize them.

          Spell it out then. Let’s hear those ideas.  I suggest you first run them through a utopia filter.

        2. Davis Progressive

          you’re rather limited in vision when you don’t want to see things.  the example that the president used for his remarks was camden, new jersey.  san diego has traditionally had a good community policing program.

      1. zaqzaq

        So how does a slowdown by the police lead to more homicides unless an aggressive stop and frisk program removed guns from circulation that would have otherwise been used to kill?

  5. Tia Will


    It is not that “you never hear anything about this issue”. It appears that you are not listening to those who do talk about the issue. A quick Google search will show you that black on black violence is a common topic, just not in sources to which you appear to adhere. Discussion of “black on black crime exists in a large number of venues from main stream press, to academia,  to the popular culture.

    Jay Z also addressed the ongoing issue of black-on-black violence in the community and begged for peace.”

    I cannot help but wonder since we clearly “hear about it” or otherwise you would not know about the concept, if what you are really conveying is that the conversation is not limited to what you would like to hear about it ( as gathered from your previous posts on this topics). Namely a narrow narrative about absent fathers, welfare mothers and defiant youth.

    Unfortunately this avoids some inconvenient truths about how these  economically depressed communities came into existence in the first place and how our society’s inequitable response to the issues of crime and punishment have trapped large numbers of people in these communities through economic manipulation ( including the effects of prolonged incarceration ) over many years. It also avoids the fact that most crime is within local communities and within racial groups rather than across these lines. While it is true that there is more “black on black” violence than white on black, it is equally true that there is more white on white than black on white violence, there is more American Native on American Native than American Native on white violence on reservations, more Hispanic than non Hispanic on Hispanic violence. These are all true statements and have absolutely nothing to do with the issue of police use of excessive force.

      1. Tia Will


        JayZ. What a paragon of virtue”

        I couldn’t agree more. But, irrelevant to my point about the discussion being ubiquitous in our culture.

        1. Miwok

          Hi, Tia;

          Your point is that it should be discussed, but the perpetrators and victims are not doing it. When you are in it, you can’t see it clearly.

          If the guys discussing it would go to where they point their fingers, and figures, they would come away with a different perspective. They think their numbers state it all, so how do they get supposedly accurate figures? They don’t.

    1. zaqzaq


      The only time I hear about black on black murders is when I change the channel form MSNBC or CNN to Fox.  Are you sure there is more white on white violence than black on white?

  6. Clem Kadiddlehopper

    Here’s the problem with cops wearing cams. Any information gathered by public servants during the course of their duty is subject to disclosure. Given that some information is exempt from public requests, (personal information about victims, pending cases, anything considered private etc., personal information will, and needs to be redacted. If available, this will generate a never ending stream of public information requests to municipalities demanding this newly created video. The video will need to be edited for redaction prior to release. This will place addition burdens on public legal resources. Prepare for costs, taxes, and laws to protect public workers to skyrocket,nothing is free!

    1. David Greenwald

      Actually as we have covered as recently as this past weekend, disclosures are exempt under the public records act. That’s part of the problem.

  7. PhilColeman

    Associated costs. Yes, no doubt, the increased use of audio/visual documentation of law enforcement carries with it issues of cost–and policy and law revisions.

    Let’s take cost first. Take any number you can calculate for the full introduction of body cams and preservation of audio/visual data. Increase it by 10-20 percent if you want. Most of this is a one-time cost, note that.

    Take that number and put it up against current litigation costs. Attorney fees for both sides of the dispute, court costs and calendar clogging, more court rooms and more judges and support staff. Add to that all the soft-dollar and hard dollar costs for internal and outsourced investigations we have now. Look at the size of Internal Affairs Units in larger police departments, then foresee transferring several back to field duty due to lack of work. What we have now is MUCH more expensive and a poor deployment of precious public resources. And these are on-going costs since forever. What will your accountant say is the better deal?


    Law enforcement policy and legislation revision. Privacy issues, hearing of “exceptions to the rule,” who keeps the data? All valid concerns, none of which are even close to being insurmountable. Law enforcement agencies have no equal in writing policies, procedures, general orders. Nobody outside the police profession has any realization of the mass of written regulations that guide and control law enforcement action. Creation and revision is all doable, it just takes the will to do it. Anybody who poses this issue is simply trying to deflect and deter the mandate that is a future certainty.

    Enforcement of this myriad of regulation is an issue, no doubt about that. But when every police action is on film  . . . Need I say more?

    I’ve noted previously that an expansion and modification of the long-practiced Pitchess Motion process can be a model for who gets this data and how much. So we have a powerful precedent right in our own back yard.

    And remember the most important thing, how police and citizens behave and our shared desire to modify that behavior positively. When all parties are aware that they are on “Candid Camera” every time there is a police/citizen contact, behaviors change. Everybody plays to the camera by presenting themselves in the best possible light, fearing future scrutiny. Should they be too drunk, too drugged, too angry, too prejudiced to realize this, too bad. The camera speaks the truth, deal with it.

    1. Miwok

      Plus already deployed dash cams, there could be a triple whammy as agencies start to ramp up this initiative. Will there be a standard package? It will take them years to just discuss it, by the time little $20 drones with a camera can follow the officer around and when he stops to talk with someone, it will circle the people and take all statements ?

      you still have to have impartial people store and process the video for courts and even the defense?

      What happens to dash cam footage now? Is it the same everywhere? If Davis PD does not have even dash cams, why not? There is still an unknown character caught on the LT Pike video leading the Police across the quad, wearing a suit, holding bullhorns for them, and having his own handheld camera, was that footage ever stored for posterity in the Police Archives?

        1. Miwok

          ONE? Do they share it between cars? Still testing it? Ten years, one camera?

          This is what I mean by being ready for the next step in law enforcement. If true, DP, they are not even past the last step… Even the big cities are not past the dash cam stage. The new PTZ cams are able to follow the action, and may be ready for them whether they are ready or not.

  8. Clem Kadiddlehopper


    Hmm. What if the police got to the scene of a crime after the victim (a black man) managed to turn the tables on the attacker (a white woman) and the only thing the camera saw was the victim (a black man) attacking the attacker (a white woman) in a panicked frenzy? Camera and the police says the victim (a black man) is the attacker, therefore the victim (a black man) gets arrested. Investigation? Why conduct one when the police (partly) caught a black man beating a white woman on camera?

    1. PhilColeman

      Your carefully constructed hypothetical scenario would have less than one-percent frequency of occurrence. We’ll do what we do now. Regardless of what a camera may show, due diligence would require formal written statements from all witnesses present.

      Oh, by the way, there would be more than one camera  This would be a call requiring two-officers to respond.

    1. Barack Palin

      How many white thugs were killed by the police?  Is this something that Jesse Jackson needs to look into.

      Warning to all those who are easily offended, I’m being sarcastic.

  9. Tia Will


    Your point is that it should be discussed, but the perpetrators and victims are not doing it.”

    No my point is that it is being, and has been discussed for many years by our news media and in the popular culture.  I was directing my comment specifically towards zaqzaq’s comment that ‘black on black violence” and presumably blacks taking responsibility for their own actions ( as if whites are any better at that ) is not discussed. This is simply not true. Bill Cosby addressed this issue a long time ago and got a lot of press both positive and negative for having done so. While it is true that it does not appear to be given much thoughtful consideration by those who are involved in the violence ( whether by blacks or whites as in the recent biker gang shoot out), it does not lack for press or cultural discussion which was what zaqzaq seemed to be implying.

    zaqzaq, please correct me if I misinterpreted your post.

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