The Obama administration and Republicans in Congress have given tepid support to, and in some cases flat out opposed, many of the ideas groups pushing for change have advocated to reform policing in the wake of a series of killings of unarmed black men by officers over the last year.
Those proposals — ranging from more money for body-worn police cameras to linking additional federal money to a requirement for increased racial sensitivity training — have faced funding hurdles, legislative delays and lukewarm endorsement from the White House.
The response frustrates groups who say deep-seated and systemic issues of racial bias in law enforcement require more aggressive solutions.
“You’re not going to kumbaya your way out of this," said Michele Jawando, vice president for Legal Progress at the Center for American Progress.
The Department of Justice announced a $20 million pilot program last week that would pay about half the cost of body-worn cameras for up to 50,000 officers, just a fraction of the estimated 460,000 local police officers in the United States.
Leaders in cities such as Louisville, Kentucky and states like South Carolina who are supportive of the cameras say the cost of the equipment and storing the footage remains a huge barrier to their adoption. Civil rights advocates too, emphasize that there are questions about privacy and the effectiveness of the body cameras, since some of these controversial incidents were caught on citizen-shot video and that did not lead to convictions of officers in every case.
The White House has reservations about the effectiveness of body-worn cameras.
“There is not a strong body of evidence to this point about what impact body-worn cameras actually have,” White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said during a press briefing last week.
The administration has also been cautious about other changes.
Liberal-leaning groups have urged the administration to stop giving federal funds to local and state police departments until they require greater training for officers and take other steps that might reduce tensions between the police and minority communities. Such training needs to be quickly implemented, police reform advocates say, because it offers a way to combat racism that is not overt or intentional, but is instead unconscious.
“Even if you are talking about an African-American officer interrogating an 18-year-old on the street, that bias is coming into play. Young African-American men are perceived as five years older than they actually are, research shows,” Jawando said.
The administration has not adopted this idea, nor a proposal to require all federal law enforcement officials to undergo implicit racial bias training.
A task force on policing that Obama set up last year said the president needed a more comprehensive “National Crime and Justice Task Force” to offer additional ideas on improving relations between police and minorities.
The president has so far not created such an entity.
“President Barack Obama is right when he reminds us that policing, like education, is a function of state and local government. And it's true that his options are limited.,” wrote Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in a recent CNN op-ed piece. “And yet the federal government has proven to be quite adept at influencing education policy in states and cities. How? By conditioning federal funds on compliance with federal standards.”
She added, "the Department of Justice provides more than $1 billion annually in grants to police departments across the country, those funds are provided free from obligations that awardees adopt federal standards on training, data collection or other measures with an explicit anti-racial bias focus. That must change.”
Administration officials emphasize the president has already taken a number of steps to address policing challenges illustrated by incidents in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, North Charleston, South Carolina and most recently Baltimore. He has an agenda designed to combat poverty in cities like Baltimore, from expanding access to preschool and community college to his specific “My Brother’s Keeper” program designed to help young black males achieve success.
“In addressing the issues in Baltimore or Ferguson or New York, the point I made was that if we’re just looking at policing, we’re looking at it too narrowly. If we ask the police to simply contain and control problems that we ourselves have been unwilling to invest and solve, that’s not fair to the communities, it’s not fair to the police,” the president said in a speech in New York City on Monday, as he announced an expansion of the My Brother's Keeper program.
And the administration, led by the Justice Department, has taken a series of steps to both change policing and create dialogue between officers and minority communities.
Over the last year, then-Attorney General Eric Holder convened a series of meetings between neighborhood leaders and officers in cities like Atlanta. The Justice Department issued a scathing, detailed report on policies by the police department in Ferguson that “exacerbate existing racial bias” and has called for changes in other departments.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch, in her first week as Holder's replacement, dispatched top aides to investigate the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore.
A bi-partisan coalition that includes Obama but also Republicans like Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are now pushing for a comprehensive criminal justice reform bill that advocates say could reduce tensions between police and the black community by reducing the amount of time officers spend targeting minor drug crimes.
But the legislation so far has stalled in Congress, and there is resistance to some of its core ideas from influential Republicans.
“When we consider changing the sentences we impose for drug laws, we must be mindful of the great successes we have had in restoring law and order to America’s cities since the 1980s drug epidemic destroyed lives, families, and entire neighborhoods," GOP presidential candidate and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio wrote in an essay published by the Brennan Center. "I personally believe that legalizing drugs would be a great mistake and that any reductions in sentences for drug crimes should be made with great care.”
In the meantime, groups pushing for law enforcement reform say they hope lawmakers take more aggressive steps.
“...While we can’t federalize the police," said Chelsea Parsons, vice president for guns and crime policy at the Center for American Progress, "the federal government does have a significant role in the operations of local law enforcement agencies.”