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Reducing Racial Disparities in Policing

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

  • Jon Frank
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.