Police and Military Lines Can’t Be Blurred

September 28, 2017

Photo by Steven Bevacqua (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Photo by Steven Bevacqua (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In response to the 2015 Ferguson protests, President Obama signed an executive order that banned the transfer of some military equipment -- high-powered rifles, grenade launchers, bayonets, some armored vehicles, and camouflage uniforms -- to police departments. In the wake of Charlottesville last month, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the reversal of Obama’s executive order. Once again, law enforcement has access to certain military equipment.

According to a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll, trust in law enforcement has declined while criticism of police militarization has increased. But, by ensuring that civilians can hold police officers accountable, trust can be improved. Cities and counties need to establish civilian review boards and community-oriented policing models to ensure public safety without targeting communities of color.

Biased Policing Marginalizes Communities of Color

Despite President Trump’s belief that solving public safety problems requires "getting tough," this policy solution does not make us safer. Instead, it marginalizes communities of color. Police militarization hinders partnership between communities and law enforcement because law enforcement is rarely held accountable for their implicit bias against communities of color. Former LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Downing wrote in an article that “the lines between municipal law enforcement and the U.S. military cannot be blurred.” He further explains that “the military mission is to confront and kill a defined enemy. The peace officer has no enemies.”

Unfortunately, many communities of color have been targeted by law enforcement agencies. For example, the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) unconstitutional Stop-and-Frisk policy primarily targeted African-American and Latinx communities. Similarly, Latinx communities in Arizona were targeted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was sued by the Justice Department and sanctioned by the courts for civil rights violations.

These are all Muslim issues, too. Forty percent of U.S.-born Muslims identify as African-American and the Latinx community is the fastest-growing group of American Muslims. Additionally, the NYPD illegally spied on Muslims simply because of their faith.

Community Oriented Policing

Fostering better relationships between communities and their police departments is crucial to successful policing and law enforcement. Community oriented policing promotes partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues. It involves forming partnerships with community organizations, prioritizing transparency, actively pursuing feedback and establishing programs that allow police to engage with residents outside of the law enforcement arena.

Some cities have seen improvements in community relations after putting community policing programs into effect. Philadelphia Police Department designed its Smart Policing Initiative, a program funded by the DOJ which uses more effective crime-fighting strategies by focusing on hotspots -- geographic regions as small as one block with a higher-than-average crime rate. The city was able to reduce violent crimes by 22 percent and violent felonies by 31 percent.

Civilian Review Boards Hold Police Accountable

Civilian review boards are also a way to improve community-police relations. Civilian review boards must have adequate authority in order for law enforcement to adopt their recommendations. For example, a proposal for a Ferguson civilian review board did not give explicit authority to the review board to receive and review citizen complaints against Ferguson police officers. Many community members and experts saw the proposal as “weak” and “insulting.”

Instead, civilian review boards should have the power to collect information, convene public meetings to allow community input, and recommend training and hiring policies. Further, civilian complaints regarding police misconduct should be addressed and investigated, and law enforcement officers should be held accountable, ultimately leading to increased trust with the local community. With the proper independence, authority, and funding, Washington, D.C. and Newark, NJ civilian review boards can become national models.

The Obama administration’s move was a step in the right direction toward improving relations and trust between communities and law enforcement. Instead of expanding access to military equipment, the Trump administration should take the Obama executive order further by imposing stricter requirements on certain supplies.

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