Policing has always been one of our country’s most complex and challenging professions. People call the police when they cannot solve problems themselves. And when other systems, institutions and parts of our social fabric fail, the police inherit the problems that others want to ignore. The police are called in to repair, or at least lessen, the damage.
Right now, members of our communities are wondering whether our police really do help lessen the damage. The need for police accountability has never been more apparent, more visceral, than now. Last week, people in this country and around the world watched in horror as they saw George Floyd, an African-American man, die at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The horrific death of Mr. Floyd graphically demonstrated what people in communities of color across the country have complained about for decades: the blatant use of excessive and deadly force by the police.
The demand for accountability is not new. Too many of our communities have grieved too many times. We have been here before. Yet nothing seems to change.
As former police chiefs and experts who have spent careers working to reform and transform policing, we have too often lived these moments — where the weight of community grief at treatment by the police has boiled over into unrest and uprisings. For us, a diverse group of people of color and career police professionals, this just hurts.
In these times, people of all races, stations and walks of life can feel hopeless. Some wonder whether anything will change. Others call for change and reform but wonder what can actually transform the dynamics between the police and our communities.
The problem is not that we lack a playbook for fixing the police. We have one. The problem is that we have not successfully followed the one we have.
Amid public outcry and violent unrest in 2014 and 2015, President Barack Obama convened what would come to be called the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The 11-member task force included civil rights attorneys, community activists, academics and police professionals who came together to develop specific recommendations and concrete steps for improving law enforcement and the relationship between the police and the community.
The task force’s final report in May 2015 outlined specific improvements that can make policing more just, safe, effective and constitutional — and work better for everyone. The report addressed six “pillars.” The very first pillar was building trust and legitimacy — in recognition that they are not just prerequisites for police reform but for policing itself.
The group recommended that police departments have clear, specific policies on when officers can and cannot use force. With the courts for the last 30 years telling officers that they may only use force whenever reasonable under the circumstances, officers are left to their own judgment. Individual police agencies and cities must step in to provide clear, precise guidance and real-world training on when force is appropriate. In helping to fashion reforms in places like Sacramento, we outlined a policy that expressly prohibits any physical maneuver that runs a reasonable risk of cutting off blood or oxygen to the brain. Following that policy would have prevented Mr. Floyd’s death.
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