At the end of the U.S. Department of Justice’s report into widespread police misconduct in Ferguson, Mo., are a series of recommended reforms so extensive that it’s as if the law enforcement agency would be best served by tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch.
That might just be the point.
The report listed a series of overhauls that would require retraining dozens of police officers while upending the agency’s policing strategies, all in an effort to repair the department’s relationship with communities of color in the aftermath of last summer’s shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That shooting led to weeks of often violent protests in the St. Louis suburb. And while Wilson was never charged and the federal report largely corroborated his version of events, it nevertheless faulted the mostly white local police for being systemically and violently prejudiced against the majority black town’s residents.
“Members of the community may not have been responding to a single isolated confrontation but also to a pervasive, coercive and deep lack of trust,” Attorney General Eric Holder said of the protesters on Wednesday. “Some of those protesters were right.” He said federal authorities will make sure the local police force takes “immediate, wholesale and structural corrective action.”
So what’s next?
Ferguson has examples it can look to as it rebuilds: Over the last decade, several U.S. police departments have been subjected to federal oversight. Cincinnati reformed its department after an unarmed black teenager was shot in 2001. Maricopa County‘s force in Arizona was sued by the Department of Justice in 2012 over charges of racially profiling Latinos. Seattle and New Orleans both came under federal scrutiny for excessive force and misconduct.
But the most relevant example might be found in East Haven, Conn.—a town and police force that is similar in size to Ferguson—where the DOJ found a pattern of illegal searches, traffic stops and use of force against Latinos by local cops. In October 2012, the Justice Department reached a settlement with the town to change the police agency’s treatment of Latino residents. Two years later, compliance expert Kathleen O’Toole, now the Seattle police chief, called the progress of the East Haven Police “remarkable.”
The kind of reforms that will likely take place in Ferguson may be similar to what occurred in East Haven. Police officers there each completed 60-100 hours of training on practices like bias-free policing and use of force. One lieutenant attended an executive education program at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
The training appears to have made a difference. In December 2011, the Justice Department found that traffic stops of Latino drivers by the East Haven police accounted for 19.9% of stops, which was more than the percentage of Latino drivers (15.5%). But during the year the police trained—from December 2012 to June 2013—the federal report found that only 8.9% of traffic stops were of Latinos. It cost roughly $2.5 million over four years to reform the department, according to the New Haven Register,
Kym Craven, the director of the Public Safety Strategies Group, a police consulting firm, says that reforms for agencies like Ferguson need to begin at the recruiting and hiring phase to ensure a department’s officers are reflective of its community. She says departments also need to have explicit policies and procedures in place that lay out what police chiefs expect from officers.
Ferguson may go through scenario-based training like what happened in East Haven to better react to situations where implicit racial biases may affect how an officer handles a situation. Those biases, Craven says, should also be talked about honestly and openly within the department and with the community.
But the biggest changes could likely come with a shift toward community policing, which has been routinely discussed as an alternative to the so-called “broken windows” strategy—which focuses on lower-level crimes on the assumption that it helps keep overall crime rates down.
The DOJ report’s first recommendation includes implementing a shift from “policing to raise revenue to policing in partnership with the entire Ferguson community,” while calling for more community partnerships between police and residents.
One city that appears to have found success with community policing is Atlanta. Two incidents eroded trust between the city’s residents and the police department over the years: a 2009 incident in which officers raided a gay bar while reportedly using derogatory slurs that triggered a federal lawsuit, and the death of a 92-year-old black woman by a drug strike force team in 2006.
“We lost the confidence in both our black community and the GLBT community,” says Atlanta Police George Turner, who took over the agency in 2010.
Turner soon shifted the department toward community-based policing that required police to get out of their cars, patrol their neighborhoods and engage with citizens. He outfitted cops with less-lethal weapons like TASERs, but sought the community’s involvement in the decision first. The city today has 4,600 surveillance cameras that feed into police headquarters, but the department asked for community input on where they should be placed. Turner has also set up special liaisons with the Hispanic and gay and lesbian communities.
“I think this is the most effective way,” Turner says. “You have to work every day with community leaders. People will give you an opportunity to investigate when crises happen, but you don’t get that unless you have a relationship with people and relationships are built on trust.”
The department has been widely praised by police experts, but it’s a cautionary tale nonetheless: The Atlanta Citizen Review Board actually saw complaints go up between 2012 and 2013, but numbers have remained stable since, according to statistics compiled by the Christian Science Monitor.
“Community policing was something that was started a long time ago, and it’s morphed into community relations,” Craven says. “But departments need to get back to the root of it, which is joint problem-solving between the police and the community. It’s more than having a BBQ or a picnic.”
The Justice Department also appears more willing to fully back community policing in ways it hasn’t in the past. Bob Stewart, president of Bobcat Training and Consulting, says that in the last two years, consent decrees—which are court-mandated orders that require police departments to follow federal guidelines—have increasingly recommended initiatives that deal with community trust and civilian oversight.
It’s likely that Ferguson will eventually be the subject of a consent decree, forcing the town’s police department to reform. But it’s possible that those reforms, taking place at a police department that drove a national conversation about race and use of force nationwide last summer, could be the focus of a new discussion, one about better ways of policing.
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