On MSNBC Weekends with Alex Witt, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson and MSNBC host Melissa Harris Perry discuss the state of race relations in the wake of the Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department, the shooting of two police officers in Ferguson, and the racial slurs used by SAE fraternity members at the University of Oklahoma.
When a 1975 New York Times cover story charged the NYPD with widespread graft and thuggery, we got Al Pacino as Serpico, one lone idealist who exposes the department and lives — just barely — to tell the tale. When the RAMPART report in the ’90s likened the LAPD to a gang with badges, we got Training Day, where rookie Ethan Hawke manages to take out the corrupted veteran Denzel. It’s nice to think that one good cop is all it takes to crack the bad eggs, and Hollywood keeps that hope alive.
But his week’s report from the Department of Justice on the Ferguson Police Department is so visceral, so appallingly detailed, that it’s hard to imagine blockbuster crowds cheering on a gritty but feel-good adaptation starring Michael B. Jordan as the rookie cop who mops up racism in St. Louis County.
Sadly, you can’t montage away the type of top-down cultural sludge on display here.
Still, it’s tempting to imagine a satisfying, if drawn-out, resolution to this noxious tale. The Ferguson police department has spent months under the hot microscope of international scrutiny, their words and actions poked and prodded by everyone from protestors to CNN to the attorney general of the United States. You could imagine the force changing despite itself, worn down not by the moral weight of arguments hurled from behind protest lines, but by the simple fatigue of constant exposure. The bad cops will get embittered and leave, the reformer cops will stay, and we’ll start to see some nice photo-negative Riggs and Murtaugh moments: the crusty old white cop and the hip young black cop bonding over beers and fighting crime shoulder-to-shoulder in post-racial Ferguson.
This requires the prolonged application of heat, and protestors get tired, too. In theory, this is where the Justice Department comes in. But cities like Pittsburgh and New Orleans have had their police departments put under consent decree, only to see them slip back into the same predatory practices once the feds left town.
Locally applied pressure doesn’t always stick, either. Both Darren Wilson and and Timothy Loehmann, the Cleveland cop who shot and killed Tamir Rice, had been fired from police departments in neighboring towns for charges of corruption, brutality and discrimination, but within a year both were back in uniform in another town just down the road.
As much as we’d like to believe it, the past indicates rehabilitation is out of reach for a department like Ferguson’s, whether you’re reaching for it with a carrot or with a stick.
There is one plot line that could work here. The entire Ferguson Police department has to be disbanded and rebuilt from the ground up. This isn’t unprecedented; several departments in the St. Louis area have been disbanded in the past three years for charges less egregious than those in the DOJ report. The cost of finding and hiring new, more qualified officers is certainly no more expensive to taxpayers than settlements and charges paid for by the same angry citizens who brought them.
This will not be accomplished easily or quickly, because that’s how reform works in a country where every state, county, city and town can can make up its own rules for policing and civilian fines. In some cities, collective bargaining agreements make it easy to fire dirty cops. In others, it’s nearly impossible. In some cities, the chief of police is an elected position, putting reform within reach of the ballot box. In others, chiefs are appointed — and protected — by the mayor. In other words, reform in America is often a piecemeal slog, with thousands of individual sets of dusty statutes and arcane policies to sift through and rework. Even if someone managed to muster the political will to crack open the books in the thousands of other Fergusons out there, the ones Holder will never step foot in, it would be years, even decades before true change was felt.
Doesn’t make for a sexy Hollywood ending, but it’s the one that will finally bring justice to the people of Ferguson.
This article originally appeared online at NPR Code Switch.
On Al Jazeera English, Hiram College professor Jason Johnson discussed the release of the Department of Justice investigation into racial discrimination by the Ferguson Police Department.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgW7c8HkDQI]
Imagine the president of the United States calls you and asks that you reform more than 17,000 independent government agencies throughout the country, with no oversight, no federal authority and not much of a budget.
And, by the way, you have to do it in 90 days.
That’s essentially what happened when President Barack Obama created the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing by executive order Dec. 18, 2014. Now the hard work of that committee has been released in a report (pdf), and along with its recommendations, it’s a painful civics lesson on how hard it will be for real police reform in America to ever take hold.
The report was laid out by Ron Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and George Mason University professor Laurie Robinson, all of whom traveled the nation hearing from different communities and collecting data for the final report. The commission’s concerns about American policing after last year’s protests in Ferguson, Mo., and a spate of high-profile, recorded police shootings were sincere. And for the most part, their recommendations (pdf) were common sense. Among them were these:
Law-enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment that undermine civilian trust.
Law-enforcement agencies and municipalities should refrain from practices requiring officers to issue a predetermined number of tickets, citations, arrests, or summonses, or to initiate investigative contacts with citizens for reasons not directly related to improving public safety, such as generating revenue.
Who would disagree that cops shouldn’t abuse protesters or set up speed traps to double-tax members of the communities they’re protecting?
Other, almost futuristic-sounding, out-of-the-box suggestions, like employing “nonlethal weapons” and better technology, won’t raise eyebrows for most reasonable people, either. The problem is—which Robinson acknowledged during a Monday press briefing about the report—how do you get 17,000 independent police departments across the country to listen to Washington, D.C.?
Unlike many nations in Europe, or even South America, there is no federal police organization to oversee all cops in the United States. So while we know the issues of brutality, discrimination and unequal prosecution are nationwide problems, there is no national agency to implement reform.
Think of it as the Department of Education, which still can’t get Common Core standards adopted in half the country. When the Obama administration suggested tying federal school funding to the adoption of some universal education standards, parents, politicians and even some celebrities pitched a fit. And now, adoption of Common Core is a third rail in politics, even as states still wrestle with opting into or out of the program.
If telling schools across America that every kid should be able to do algebra by 10th grade caused such a ruckus, imagine how hard police reforms would be. Police unions wield significant influence, and unlike public schools, most police departments don’t receive federal funds.
So where does that leave those seeking real police reform?
It’s time to face some harsh facts about our country that date to high school civics class. America has so many towns, municipalities and burgs, combined with its system of separation of powers, that even state governors can hardly implement reform without taking over a city or a county. If the goal is to get the federal government to implement reform, organizers may have to eventually advocate for federal-government takeover of local municipalities. And that isn’t always the best solution—just ask Washington, D.C., which has always been subject to congressional oversight, despite having its own elected city government.
But if organizers are not prepared to go that far, they may have to accept the reality that federal reforms probably won’t happen. Unless the task force has some teeth, the only other way to achieve police reform is by slogging through the trenches of every city and town, going block by block and campaigning against outdated statute after outdated statute.
If the political will to change America’s police culture really exists, there is a solution to be found somewhere between a well-meaning but essentially impotent federal task force and the interminable battle in a million local city halls: the states. Every state is getting some level of federal allowance from D.C. If Obama and his administration are serious about police reform, they should attach the task force’s recommendations to federal aid to states in general.
If congressional Republicans can attach anti-immigration riders to Department of Homeland Security funding, why can’t a reform-minded administration link highway funding to cleaning up local police forces?
Obama asked for tough reform suggestions for combating police violence in 90 days, and he got them. It’s perfectly reasonable that in the 689 days he’s got left in office, he find some way to implement them.
This article originally appeared online in TheRoot.com.