The 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