Reducing Racial Disparities in Policing

There are frameworks for successful reform. We should use them.

July 27, 2016

It was a powerful moment this week when Mothers of the Movement stepped on stage at the Democratic National Convention. They shared the story of their children, young black Americans, who lost their lives due to gun violence, police shootings, or contacts with the criminal justice system. They were grieving, frustrated by the racial divisions that still exist in our country, and determined to make sure fewer black children die in the same way.  

“We’re going to keep building a future where police officers and communities of color work together in mutual respect to keep children like Jordan safe,” said Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis. “The majority of police officers are good people doing a good job.”

Jordan was not killed by a police officer. He was shot in Jacksonville, Fla., by a civilian who complained about loud music Jordan and his friends were playing. But other Mothers of the Movement cannot say the same about their kids. Neither can the parents of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, who were shot by police this summer.

In the wake of their deaths, and the murder of five police officers in Dallas and three in Baton Rouge, President Obama called for unity, understanding, and action:

If we’re to sustain the unity we need to get through these difficult times . . . then we will need to act on the truths we know. We know that the overwhelming majority of police officers do a . . . dangerous job professionally . . . but . . . we know that bias remains.

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan echoed the president’s call for unity, warning, “there will be temptation for anger to harden our divisions. Let’s not let that happen . . . Every member [of Congress] would like to see less violence . . . [and] every member . . . wants a world in which people feel safe regardless of the color of their skin.”

Politicians on the left and the right, as well as law enforcement and communities, all agree: we must strengthen relationships between police and communities so that both can have the respect and security they deserve.

Addressing bias, whether explicit or implicit, in policing is a key step toward strengthening those relationships. Toward that end, in October 2014, the Brennan Center and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation convened a roundtable of police, community leaders, public defenders, academics, and other criminal justice practitioners. It resulted in a report putting forth recommendations for reducing disparities in policing, jails, and at all stages of the criminal justice system.

One key recommendation from the report would require “implicit bias” training for all police ranks. Such training teaches officers and others how to recognize and counteract their own unconscious prejudices. Some police departments are leading the way on implementing implicit bias trainings. Durham, N.C. and Las Vegas, N.V., for example, have participated in the “Fair and Impartial Policing training program,” a program with different curricula for different ranks. As one participant at the roundtable remarked: “Implicit bias training provides a base understanding and base language . . . to discuss racial disparities. It is amazing what has developed in my jurisdiction once we developed a base language to speak about this.” Las Vegas implemented bias training as part of a comprehensive set of reforms, including de-escalation training and expanded transparency. The number of officer-involved shootings has dropped significantly.  

The report also makes an important recommendation to create inclusive task forces with a clear mandate to develop and enact policy reforms to reduce racial disparities. These task forces would bring together police, prosecutors, public defenders, community leaders, and advocates for broad buy-in that allows reforms to succeed. Broad participation of traditional adversaries expands the reach of reforms and enhances their legitimacy for communities, law enforcement, and the broader public. This in turn makes them more likely to last and succeed.

The report contains numerous other recommendations, including setting concrete and measurable goals to reform specific practices within specified time frames, collecting better data, and rewarding police who engage with communities and target serious crime, rather than those who make the most arrests.

These are difficult and tense times for law enforcement and communities of color. Any steps forward will take hard work and an open dialogue. But it is possible to reduce bias, and the tragedies that can result from it. There are frameworks for successful reform. We should use them, and heed the president’s call to turn from despair to action. We can start with implementing the report’s recommendations.