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Obama Police Commission Sidesteps Most Controversial Reforms

In a new report, Obama’s task force on police reform did not embrace proposed policies like requiring police officers to wear body cameras.
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The Obama administration has rejected some of the most controversial proposals to reform law enforcement practices in the wake of police killings of unarmed black men in Missouri and New York City, opting instead for more modest ideas.

In a report released Monday, Obama’s task force on police reform did not embrace proposed policies like requiring police officers to wear body cameras or linking federal funding for local police departments to requirements all of their officers undergo racial bias training.

The 11-person task force, chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and Laurie Robinson, a professor of criminology at George Mason University, instead recommended less sweeping changes.

Its “overarching recommendation” was for Obama to create a so-called National Crime and Justice Task Force to suggest more ideas. The report also urged, as civil rights leaders have long demanded, that police departments collect more precise data about the race and other demographic characteristics of people who are stopped and arrested.

The most controversial idea in the report may be a call for independent prosecutors to investigate whenever an officer kills a civilian while on duty.

Civil rights groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have been calling for more aggressive policing changes, such as reducing the use of military-style weapons by local police departments and ending “broken windows” policing approaches. The report did not explicitly embrace either idea.

Even as police departments and civil rights groups around the country have embraced body cameras, the report cast their adoption as “complex,” noting there are concerns about privacy and cost. The report also said police departments should create advisory groups that include citizens to look at how new technology that might affect policing.

“There are a lot of expenses associated with this technology,” Ramsey said in a conference call on Monday, referring to body cameras.

Obama appointed the task force, but he does not have to adopt its recommendations and in many cases can’t, as most policing in America is done at the local and state level. In comments on Monday, he praised some of the ideas in the report.

“A lot of our work is going to involve local police chiefs, local elected officials, states recognizing that the moment is now for us to make these changes. We have a great opportunity, coming out of some great conflict and tragedy, to really transform how we think about community law enforcement relations so that everybody feels safer and our law enforcement officers feel, rather than being embattled, feel fully supported,” he said, right before starting a meeting with the task force on Monday.

He added, “We need to seize that opportunity. And so this is something that I'm going to stay very focused on in the months to come.”

Kanya Bennett, legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been pushing strongly for police changes, said, the ideas in the report “will significantly improve the relationship between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

“For us to see meaningful change, local authorities must first implement data collection systems to improve transparency, use of force policies that emphasize de-escalation, eradicate all forms of biased policing, and improve community engagement and oversight to provide accountability,” Bennett added in a statement.

Even before Obama’s team completed its work, some major police changes have already happened in America over the last year. In eight of the 10 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S., including New York and Los Angeles, there are plans to outfit at least some police with body cameras. The LAPD plans eventually to have every officer who interacts with the public wear a camera. The National Conference of State Legislatures says that 30 states are considering some kind of police camera provision. Other states are considering reforms like changing how officer killings of civilians are investigated.

But Obama, after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, had he wanted to bring federal attention to the relationship between the police and African-Americans, who had been angered by the police deaths and argued they illustrated deep discriminatory practices by police. The administration has taken some more direct steps to change policing, such as launching an investigation of the force in Ferguson.

The president created the task force in December, tapping a combination of police officials like Ramsey and civil rights activists. It held a series of hearings around the country, which illustrated some deep divides over policing, as some officers and police chiefs suggested the police overall had been portrayed negatively simply because of a few incidents.

The report leans toward ideas both the civil rights community and police can accept. It is heavy on calling for more data and non-specific policy ideas, such urging the creation of “some form of civilian oversight of law enforcement” in most communities.