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President Obama’s Policing Task Force Convenes

Image: Kevin Johnson

Sacramento, Calif. Mayor Kevin Johnson addresses the President's Task Force on 21 Century Policing, Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015, at the Newseum in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) Cliff Owen / AP

The presidential panel formed in response to heightened tensions between the public and the law enforcement community held its first public meeting on Tuesday, drawing suggestions for legislative fixes, funding for body cameras, and reforms to increase public trust of police.

"All of us here know that there has been an erosion of trust and respect between law enforcement officers and the communities they protect, particularly in communities of color," testified Chuck Canterbury from National President of the Fraternal Order of Police.

"Similarly, the law enforcement officers are growing more distrustful of the citizens in many communities because of an increase in violence that targets law enforcement officers," added Canterbury, who represents more than 300,000 officers. He called on the panel to work together to bridge that gap, while urging congress to include police officers in the federal hate crimes law.

President Obama announced the task force as massive demonstrations sprouted in cities across the country, protesting two high-profile grand jury decisions not to indict police officers involved in the deaths of unarmed men. The group must submit a report to the president by March 2.

"It's an enormous task, but one that's very doable in my opinion," said Charles Ramsey, Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department and co-chair the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

The panel includes 11 community leaders, law enforcement officials, and scholars tasked with providing specific recommendations on how to foster effective partnerships between law enforcement and local communities to reduce crime and also build trust.

"I think there's a great opportunity for us right now to really take a hard look at the culture of policing," said task force member Susan Rahr. Rahr is the Executive Director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission and says that she has seen that a reset of expectations along with effective training can transition policing "from culture of warriors to a culture of guardians."

Tuesday's listening session included testimony from five panels of witnesses representing policing experts, law enforcement organizations, mayors, community representatives, and civil liberty leaders.

"Skin color doesn't matter. In policing it's the quality of the department," said Samuel Walker, one of the panelists and Emeritus Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "If you have a bad department," he adds, the performance of all officers "sinks to a low level."

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Ogletree told the task force he wanted to see community policing instead of militarized police. "Police officers should be not just officers, they also need to be social workers," he said, and play a role in the community to make a difference in people's life.

Co-Chair and George Mason University Professor Laurie Robinson told the panel she's been receiving suggestions since the task force was announced in December. "These are very sincere proposals that are offered in good faith and I have to say that that gives me optimism that Americans working together really are problem solvers," Robinson said.

Audience members were given an opportunity to participate and address the panel in person and online via email. The task force will hold a public teleconference next Wednesday, Jan. 21 at 5:00 pm.