08 May IMPROVING PUBLIC SAFETY AND COMMUNITY-POLICE RELATIONS
Improving neighborhood safety and protecting businesses located in black communities is critically important to improving the quality of life for blacks. But strained relations between law enforcement and black communities has made this difficult.
In Baltimore, for example, homicides soared in the wake of criticism of the Baltimore police department due to the police custody death of Freddie Gray.
In 2017, there were more than 300 murders in the city. Many residents believe the higher homicide rate was due to a police decision to try to ease tensions by reducing patrols.[i]
There are more than 900,000 sworn police officers nationwide, many of whom put their lives on the line every day. In 2017, 128 officers lost their lives in the line of duty.[ii]
Despite this sacrifice, black community trust in police departments has diminished significantly following a series of black fatalities involving police officers. Some of these fatalities occurred while police were enforcing relatively minor infractions.
New Yorker Eric Garner, for example, died from a chokehold as police were trying to arrest him for illegally selling untaxed cigarettes.[iii] South Carolinian Walter Scott was shot to death after being pulled over by an officer for a broken tail light.[iv]
Black communities deserve a better deal in community safety.
Improving the relationship between police departments and black communities will require reducing the responsibilities of police departments – most of which are overstretched – so that they can focus on more serious crimes and avoid involving themselves in minor infractions.
It will also require more opportunities for police and communities to interact outside of ordinary law-enforcement activities, to build relations and foster greater trust.
Project 21 recommends…
- Getting police departments out of the regulation business.
Police should not be used to shut down children’s lemonade stands, enforce outdoor smoking bans, issue parking citations, police people’s sugary beverage consumption, issue citations to restaurants failing to publish calorie counts, arrest waiters offering straws without being asked (as proposed in California) or issue minor traffic citations. These activities not only distract police departments from more important duties but increase the chances that minor infractions can escalate into major altercations.
- Disarming federal agencies that do not have a direct role in law enforcement and reprogramming those funds to local police departments to improve community relations.
More than 80 federal agencies currently employ armed agents. Some of these, such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Secret Service are sensible, but others are not. The Department of Education, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Housing and Urban Development, IRS, Tennessee Valley Authority, Department of Agriculture and even the Railroad Retirement Board have armed agents. In 2011, at 6 a.m., Department of Education agents broke down the door of Kenneth Wright – a black resident of Stockton, California – whose estranged wife was under investigation for federal financial aid fraud. One neighbor reported: “They all had guns. They dragged him out in his boxer shorts, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him.”[v] In December 2017, agents with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, IRS and FBI raided Cleveland City Hall after business hours to seize documents related to two construction firms.[vi] With no evidence that either Mr. Wright or the Cleveland City Hall were dangerous, it is unclear why officials didn’t simply knock on their doors during regular hours.
- Taking aggressive steps to stop SWATting – prank reports of imminent danger, often claiming a home invasion or hostages – that are designed to trick dispatchers into deploying SWAT teams.
A 2017 SWATting incident resulted in the death of Andrew Finch of Wichita, Kansas. The man responsible for the call to police lived almost 1,400 miles away, in Los Angeles, California.[vii] Penalties for making false reports should be significantly increased, especially for those resulting in serious injury; more resources should be made available for technologies that detect SWATting and greater special training should be provided to dispatchers and responding officers on SWATting. SWATting not only endangers the public but threatens to seriously damage to police and community relations.
- Increasing the use of body cameras to increase transparency and build trust in police.
- Lifting restrictions on civilian gun ownership and giving police departments responsibilities responsibility for gun safety training as a means of building bonds between communities and police departments.
- Encouraging churches to promote stronger police-community relations by sponsoring events such as “First Responder Sundays,” with police/fire/rescue-themed sermons and where officers are encouraged to wear their uniforms.
- Providing special training for law enforcement in identifying and responding to people with autism, Alzheimer’s disease and other developmental and mental disabilities.
Because those with disabilities can respond in unpredictable ways, they are at increased risk of being injured in encounters with law enforcement. For example, a North Miami police officer shot at a 23-year-old black autistic man he believed was attempting to fire a gun in 2016. The man was not brandishing a gun, but was instead holding a toy truck. The policeman missed the man but hit his therapist. The incident sparked widespread protest of police treatment of black citizens.[viii]
- Establishing a Presidential Medal for Exemplary Law Enforcement – with nominations coming from communities and vetted by the White House – to recognize police officers for exceptional acts of kindness, compassion and service who have strengthened the bonds between their departments and the communities they serve.
[i] Lauren Frayer, “Baltimore Residents Blame Record-High Murder Rate on Lower Police Presence,” National Public Radio, Washington, D.C., December 31, 2017, available at https://www.collegedata.com/cs/content/content_payarticle_tmpl.jhtml?articleId=10064.
[ii] “128 Law Enforcement Officer Fatalities Nationwide in 2017, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, Washington, D.C., December 28, 2017, available at http://www.nleomf.org/newsroom/news-releases/2017-officer-fatalities-report-release.html.
[iii] Joseph Goldstein and Nathan Scweber, “Man’s Death After Chokehold Raises Old Issue for the Police,” New York Times, New York, New York, July 18, 2014, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/19/nyregion/staten-island-man-dies-after-he-is-put-in-chokehold-during-arrest.html?mtrref=undefined&gwh=8BFFDEB6482C69113F9F59B53AF0ACB5&gwt=pay&assetType=nyt_now.
[iv] Matthew Vann and Erik Ortiz, “Walter Scott Shooting: Michael Slager, Ex-Officer, Sentence to 20 Years in Prison,” NBC News, New York, New York, December 9, 2017, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/walter-scott-shooting/walter-scott-shooting-michael-slager-ex-officer-sentenced-20-years-n825006.
[v] Brian W. Walsh, “Beware the U.S. Education Department SWAT Team,” The Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., January 14, 2011, available at https://www.heritage.org/crime-and-justice/commentary/beware-the-us-education-department-swat-team.
[vi] Peter Krouse, “City Evaluating Employee’s Status Following Federal Raid,” Cleveland Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, December 10, 2017, available at http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2017/12/city_evaluating_employees_stat_1.html.
[vii] Eliott C. McLaughlin, “Suspect Faces Felony Charge of Fatally ‘Swatting’ Man 1,400 Miles Away,” CNN, Atlanta, Georgia, January 4, 2018, available at https://www.cnn.com/2018/01/03/us/kansas-police-shooting-swatting/index.html.
[viii] Charles Rabin, “Cop Shoots Caretaker of Autistic Man Playing in the Street with Toy Truck,” Miami Herald, Miami, Florida, July 20, 2016, available at http://www.miamiherald.com/news/local/crime/article90905442.html.