To most everyone, the idea that one human being could own another is as incomprehensible as it is abhorrent. We have indeed made so much progress in the past century and a half, yet we still have so far to go to achieve racial equality in this country.
It is encouraging that the demonstrations driven by police excessive use of force and biased treatment of African Americans and persons of color have been overwhelmingly supported by people throughout the United States. It is widely recognized that reforms are so very long overdue and mandatory for police behavior against non-white citizens. Despite overwhelming support for change, there is a wide variety of opinions about what needs to be done to address racial bias and ensure equality for everyone. Even though it has been the abusive treatment of Black individuals by some police officers that has brought racial inequality to the forefront, there must be a broader and deeper transformation beyond police reforms to correct discrimination and unequal treatment. We cannot institute some police reforms, pat ourselves on the back, and call it a day. While police reforms are essential, we must seize this opportunity to address the broader issues. This must encompass changes in the entire criminal justice system and the roots of racial bias; unequal treatment throughout aspects of society and governance must be attacked. This is going to require a level of community engagement like never before to take the steps necessary to address policing issues, as well as issues throughout the criminal justice system and the intractable socioeconomic disparities that plague our cities. It is also going to require a major commitment of resources to reverse the great disparities that have resulted from centuries of ill treatment. Without the wider systemic issues being addressed, policing changes will never be fully effective and racial equality will not be achieved.
Building on the Momentum
We have a great deal of momentum to make change and must seize this opportunity. The good news is that most, if not all, of the tools we need to bring about dramatic change are available. We have knowledge of programs that can bring about major changes and we have experts that are willing and able to help lead the transformation. The challenge will be to reach an agreement on the steps needed and have the community commit to use these tools and persevere through the entire process. Charting the way and maintaining the commitment must have the unequivocal dedication of professional local government managers and city department directors. Moreover, managers absolutely must rise to the occasion to help to lead the effort. Experts in police reform, criminal justice system changes, education and job training, social services, community engagement, as well as the entire human services spectrum, must all come together to join in this vital undertaking. This article provides a suggested conceptual approach for local government leaders. It will, hopefully, provide a framework for local government leaders to develop effective efforts to make meaningful and critically important changes.
We must recognize that there are neither unlimited resources nor boundless will to address these vital issues. Cities and counties need to continue to maintain the critical services they provide, so the investment to address these issues must be strategic and targeted. The recommended framework focuses on the most essential elements to address the disparities and inequalities in our communities arising from racial bias. It is based on the conceptual premise that if people are given the needed support, skills, and opportunity in a setting free from bias to the greatest extent possible, they will be able to obtain an improved standard of living and socioeconomic status.
Some may say, “But what about the substandard living conditions that so many economically disadvantaged non-white citizens live in today?” Indeed, we need to continue to fund and operate the programs we have in place to help to ameliorate these conditions. Improving the living conditions of Black and other non-white populations is valuable, but the goal must be to raise their wealth and provide them opportunities to obtain the same economic status of any community member. Even if we could dramatically increase the investment in these programs to change physical conditions, it will not change the basic socioeconomic disparities that the residents face. In addition, efforts to address neighborhood deterioration often result in gentrification, further exacerbating the problems for residents. Just as communities need to continue to invest in improving physical living conditions, they also need to continue to invest in economic development, particularly job creation, which will help to give all members of the community opportunity for good employment options.
In order to address racial bias and socioeconomic disparities, the effort must be based on a framework that targets necessary investment in the people who need the assistance. In addition, systemic racial bias must be addressed on a community-wide basis to effectuate meaningful change. This framework consists of the following elements:
• An extensive community engagement program addressing racial bias.
• A program of criminal justice system reform.
• Police department operational changes.
• Education and job training.
• Social services support.
Within each of these targets, there should be a laser focus on specific programs that will deliver specific positive outcomes. Communities should seek programs that have an evidence base proving their efficacy and communities should ensure they evaluate and monitor the local success of such interventions.
Community Engagement Program
An extensive and robust community engagement approach is vital to address explicit and implicit racial bias. This must be a joint effort of public and private city leaders and professionals to engage the entire community in order to educate the community about racial bias and win over the hearts and minds of residents. This will require difficult conversations that must take place. Communities will need to take advantage of all means of communicating with citizens, including social media, and diversity trainers and community involvement professionals can design engagement strategies to help guide the efforts. This will not be a quick process and communities need to be willing to see it through to make the meaningful difference that is essential to address racial bias. Certainly not everyone’s views will be changed. However, if the overwhelming majority of residents better understand racial bias and are committed to accepting, respecting, and celebrating one another’s differences, the dynamic will be very different than it is today in many places.
In addition to the communitywide program, cities and counties need to undertake a program of cultural competency training and eliminate racial bias throughout their staff. A program targeting all those in the criminal justice system will need to be instituted.
Program of Criminal Justice System Reform
In 2015, the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing issued a highly valuable report.1 Presently, there is a Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice meeting, with publication of recommendations due late in 2020. In both reports, the primary focus is only on the police, the gateway into the criminal justice (CJ) system. Once an individual enters the “system” through an arrest or referral for arrest, the prosecution, the courts, and corrections (including probation and parole) can all have a negative effect on the individual charged. There are scholarly articles suggesting that disparate treatment of minorities within the prosecutorial decision-making process and sentencing by the courts exists and, in some cases, exceeds disparity with policing. Reform cannot simply be focused on the police without addressing the entire system, as racial and economic disparity is systemic throughout the criminal justice system.
For instance, attempts at bail reform may have unintended consequences and some have suggested these changes are more the result of political posturing than a well thought-out systematic approach. They serve to illustrate the need to have a thoughtful process that engages subject matter experts throughout the entire CJ system to create purposeful and effective reform that removes disparity without unintended consequences.
Some necessary changes in the CJ System that are specific to police would include:
• The voluntary reporting of all police uses of force to a national FBI database has floundered, with a minority of the 18,000 agencies in the United States agreeing to participate. Mandating submission would remedy that, but may require state-by-state legislation.
• Traditionally, the courts have ruled on acceptable police practices, use of invasive technologies, etc. This results in a hodge-podge of policies and equipment in use by agencies until such time that litigation passes through the entire level of the courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the United Kingdom, a national board has certified acceptable technologies allowable by police throughout that country. In the United States, a board that included academics, medical experts, legal experts, and police experts could establish standards for the use of both hardware and policies in key areas, such as use of force, surveillance equipment, etc.
• Where present, unions impact not only collective bargaining, but aspects of police operations, including the administrative functions of discipline and performance accountability. Nationally prominent police chiefs like Chief Chuck Ramsey (retired) have lamented that they have had a significant number of officers fired for cause who were returned to the streets by arbitrators who themselves have no accountability for police misconduct. The role of police unions to protect the pay, hours, and working conditions for police officers must not inhibit the ability of administrators to properly lead their agencies. This is particularly true for ensuring that police department management is able to take action to remove those officers that use excessive force or exhibit racially biased behavior. This requires resolution on a state-by-state basis and will necessitate engaging legislatures.
• A national marketing campaign to increase the attraction of non-traditional candidates for police officers and to other components of the criminal justice system would help to accelerate needed reforms. Other professions, such as nursing, have benefitted from corporate-sponsored public marketing, and the introduction of applicants drawn to careers with a strong service ethos would strengthen reforms.
• Many experts believe that risk assessment tools used in the criminal justice system are biased against Blacks and other non-white citizens, resulting in more stringent bail and sentencing requirements. The court systems need to review and revise their tools to eliminate racial bias.
• Local drug laws and other ordinances need to be reviewed to identify legislation that disproportionately affects non-white citizens. The strict laws dealing with crack cocaine have often been cited for their heavy consequences for the non-white community.
Police Department Operation Changes
Reforming police operations is a complex process. At a macro level, police operations reform needs to include:
Revamping selection processes to screen out individuals with any tendencies of racial bias, and to screen in candidates with the most important qualities for an enhanced policing model; empathy, compassion, communication skills, problem-solving skills, personal integrity, and a strong grounding in ethics. Recruitment and selection efforts need to support the creation of a greater diversity in new police officers. Part of the selection process must include thorough background investigations. Some agencies with high vacancy rates or some small agencies that can ill afford any vacancies have not been as thorough as necessary, resulting in some “rogue” officers who have been fired from one agency only to be hired by another. This perpetuates the public image that bad police officers are not held accountable. Recruitment efforts must start well before attempting to fill police officer vacancies. Some agencies begin community outreach efforts as early as middle school, with programs that engage youth throughout their school years and even into college. This is especially important to effectively recruit non-white candidates who may view policing in a negative light.
Revamping the initial training program. Police academy curriculum is not standardized nationally; it is a function of each state’s training and standards boards. Entry-level training should include a blend of academics and scenario-based training, including topics usually excluded today such as the history of policing and its adverse impacts on various groups; fair and equitable policing; de-escalation techniques; differentiating between mere “law enforcement” and the broader context of policing; and repetitive training on the proper use of force, with avoidance of practicing improper use of force.
Revamping the field training officer (FTO) experience for newly minted officers. FTOs must be the ultimate role models for new officers, carefully selected for their exemplary work; problem FTOs need to be removed from the program as soon as indications warrant. The “master police coach” program developed by Field Training Associates provides an excellent model and allows supervisors and administrators to readily track the progress of new recruits.
Policy development should follow evidence-based policing examples and also meet the standards of the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). Policies should strengthen and support the overall mission of the agency and its officers, and not be viewed merely as opportunities to catch employees doing something wrong. Ultimately, even in a very structured environment, police officers should be mission driven more than rules driven.
Evidence-based policies need to be developed and implemented in high-risk, high-liability areas, including uses of force, disparate police actions, the appropriate use of discretion, and other areas of police conduct. These would include:
• A well-used “standard” for decades in policing was the “21-foot rule”—when officers were confronted with someone armed with an edged weapon, it was considered an appropriate use of deadly force to stop the threat presented. Best practices today require police officers to exhaust all efforts of de-escalation first, and even seeking cover, prior to the use of deadly force.
• The application of pressure on a person’s throat or neck is widely prohibited in policy and rarely trained as a technique. Only now are some states passing prohibitive legislation. Such legislation should allow exceptions for some extraordinary circumstances that would allow a police officer to use prohibited tactics when they personally believe they are about to perish.
• Progressive police agencies have prohibited shooting at a moving vehicle for many years; however, there are still many agencies that permit this, and officers may use deadly force if they believe the driver is using the vehicle as a weapon. This distinction becomes blurry when officers potentially and purposefully place themselves in the vehicle’s pathway as a legal and policy justification for the use of deadly force.
City administration and police agencies must reassess the kinds of services and calls to which police can and will respond. Much has rightly been said about the many challenges of police responding to the high number of mental health events. Collaborative responses with mental health professionals that meet the evidence-based models can serve as a foundation to build upon for all “non-traditional” police responses. It should be noted that the police have inherited a myriad of service requests due to the 24/7 nature of their availability, but based on our experience, officers are frequently poorly trained and poorly equipped to address the underlying needs they confront.
• The principles of community-oriented/problem-solving policing philosophies strongly contributed to the significant crime rate reductions throughout the 2000s; agencies should restore these tenets and create a strong “guardian” culture for police officers.
• Police need to be more engaged with the community. This includes involving members of the community in the overall planning, policies, and procedures of their local police. Police leaders must overcome resistance within their agencies to involving residents in the determination of what kind of policing each neighborhood needs and wants.2
Education and Job Training
As fundamental as anything to achieving socioeconomic parity is access to quality education and job training. Educational attainment is a complex matter that has challenged experts for decades. Not only does it require excellent instruction, but it also requires an encouraging and nurturing environment, as well as student motivation. Communities need to continue to give priority to schools in their budgetary decisions and fund the teachers and facilities necessary for a good education. Additionally, communities should develop mentoring programs to assist in nurturing students and encouraging them to learn. This is directly linked to the last element of this network, family support services.
In addition to high-quality schools and a nurturing environment, youth need to learn life skills that will help them to be successful in a complicated world. This includes an understanding of the expectations in an employment setting, financial literacy, and critical thinking and skills for living in a complex world. A great model for this exists in the Achievable Dream Academy, based in Newport News, Virginia.3 Students are taught important life skills in a nurturing manner that enhances their feeling of self-worth and value.
While many students may wish to go on to college, many can achieve good, well-paying jobs without a college degree. Job training needs to be a centerpiece of this effort. While job training programs exist throughout the country, they frequently are not adequate to train people for the jobs that exist today. To prepare workers for both the jobs of today and the future will require a much greater investment. Communities cannot solely rely on the support provided by federal funding. Businesses need to step forward and help to provide apprentice programs to develop the trainee’s skill sets to continue to work in their industries.
We must invest early in training our youth to become successful in the modern economy and labor markets. Summer youth employment programs can help to provide skills to enable youth to be successful, and should include an instructional piece on basic work etiquette and responsibility. They can help to build self-esteem and a sense of hope for the future, and it is vital that the next generation sees a future where they can achieve successful lives.
Social Services Support
Whether it “takes a village to raise a child” or just a very supportive and nurturing family, it certainly takes more than what many children in disadvantaged households are getting today. Due to economic challenges, public health concerns, inadequate educational opportunities, substandard housing, and other limitations, many children across the country do not receive adequate support to grow into successful adults. While there are no easy answers to this situation, there are a number of efforts that can make a major difference and give the children a better chance to lead successful lives. These include parenting skill instruction, youth mentoring programs, and subsidized daycare. It has often been shown that having a caring, responsible adult in a child’s life is critically important for their development. Certainly programs that look after the physical wellbeing of families and children are important and need to be continued. However, unless we step up the support for the nurturing and development of our youth, we will not be successful in addressing the socioeconomic disparities of our future adults.
In addition, mental health and drug and alcohol treatment programs need to be improved. Many knowledgeable people believe the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients and lack of adequate funding has created a mental health crisis in this country. As mentioned previously, the police are too often put in positions to handle mentally ill people in distress, situations they are not fully trained to handle. There will need to be resources devoted to mental health well beyond what cities and counties will be able to invest. Communities need to push strongly for additional infrastructure and support at the state level to better provide for the mental health needs of residents. In addition, cities and counties need to push for more drug and alcohol treatment available for those that cannot presently afford this care. This will help the judicial system refer more offenders to alternative sentencing options instead of jail or prison time.
This article has presented a targeted strategic framework for addressing the systemic racial bias that exists in communities throughout this country, especially in the criminal justice system. We recognize that the investment that communities make needs to be aggressive, yet must be within their means and have the support of the elected leaders and general community. For some communities, this investment may be viewed as “reparations” for centuries of unfair, discriminatory treatment. For others, there may be simply an understanding that it is only right and just. However, a major push for change is imperative and must be considered as important as anything else that the community does. There must be reform in policing to address significant issues all clamoring for solutions. But there must also be a concerted community-wide effort to dramatically reduce racial prejudice. We must engage citizens in a dialogue that will, at times, be uncomfortable to some, but without which communities will not make the required progress. Finally, the socioeconomic disparities that have resulted from discrimination and continue to foster discrimination need to be addressed through a comprehensive program that will allow everyone to achieve an equal measure of success.
Endnotes and Resources
2 See Neighborhood Driven Policing Revisited, 2020, by Myers, Levin and Schafer