The Interim Report of the Task Force for 21st Century Policing is the crunchy, fluffy wish list of big city cops and consultants who helped bring us the current police and prison state, assembled by the corporate-funded nonprofit sector which launched President Obama's career. With only 600 -odd days left in this administration it's a gesture of contempt toward the communities most affected by the machinery of our police and prison state.
“Liberals and conservatives together have called the world's largest prison system into existence...”
Modest revisions made to this article on Thursday, March 5, the day after its original publication.
The report from Barack Obama's “Task Force for 21st Century Policing” the official White House response to widespread public disgust at the unpunished police murder of Michael Brown is out. And it contains --- wait for it – a lot less than meets the eye. The task force is composed of 3 police chiefs, 2 African Americans and a Latino, a head of one of the 50 state agencies responsible for training and certifying cops and their shops, four of corporate America's and the administration's favorite nonprofit organizations, and a couple academics, one a former Clinton and Obama Assistant Attorney General and the other a Yale Law School “social psychologist.”
The gist of it is that everything will be OK if we can just ”build trust” between cops and communities by adopting better rules of police conduct, hiring more black and brown cops, making them parts of the communities through “nonenforcement strategies” like coaching basketball leagues, moving slowly toward “independent investigations” of excessive force complaints, and encouraging police to act a bit less like occupying armies. Tracey Meares, the task force's social psychologist, calls this approach “proceduralism.” It's been the credo of the liberal wing of America's police establishment for some time.
Proceduralism assumes the problem is a relatively few bad corrupt, brutal and/or racist apples among cops, who are inadequately trained, ineptly supervised, and somehow led to act like occupying armies by the absence of proper guidelines and leadership.
The truth however, is that we live in a class society, where a tiny fraction controls all the wealth, and through private media monopolies, literally owns and controls the public conversation. Bipartisan policies embraced by liberals and conservatives alike are lowering wages, shrinking or eliminating the pubic sector and the commons, expanding poverty, making millions to drop out of the workforce, and maintaining permanent states of war abroad and fear of "terrorism" at home. Liberals and conservatives together have called the world's largest prison system into existence to contain, to cow, to discipline and make to instructive examples of big chunks of the largely black and brown population for whom America will not provide education, housing, health care or jobs.
By marking and stigmatizing the class of people it interacts with as “undeserving losers” the police and prison state performs the vitally important function of justifying the vast inequities of life in neoliberal America. It's everyday functioning sustains the culture of cops, prosecutors, legislators and millions of ordinary, mostly white people who imagine that brutal police, aggressive prosecutors, hang-em high judges and such constitute a thin blue line protecting polite law-abiding society from chaos. The crucial role prisons have in legitimizing injustice and inequality is at the center of the demand many are raising to abolish the institution of prison altogether.
“...The recommendations are tired, old and fluffy. ...”
The task force report consists of six crunchy sounding "pillars" --- "building trust and legitimacy", "policy and oversight", "technology and social media", "community policing and crime reduction", "training and education" and "officer wellness and safety," each of which gets its own section full of pithy recommendations and action items, all apparently crowd-sourced from its half dozen "listening sessions" conducted before carefully selected audiences of "stakeholders" in DC, Cincinnati and Phoenix.
The recommendations and action items are tired, old and fluffy. More diversity in police hiring. Residency requirements and having some cops live in the communities conducting "nonenforcement strategies" like coaching basketball leagues. Community meetings with cops, but held in neutral public locations. Body cameras. Don't act like an occupying army. Collect demographic and other data on detentions, stops and the use of force. Better training and more benefits for injured cops and their families. Community policing, as if the speedo wearing cop on a bicycle were not a radio call away from the SWAT team in an amphibious tank. Move toward independent investigations of the use of force. There's nothing about compensation for the wrongly accused and punished. There's nothing about reparations for the entire communities devastated by the 40 years war on drugs, overpolicing and mass incarceration.
After 70 pages of this shopworn cant interspersed with notes, the report gives us 25 more pages listing all the speakers at it's "listening sessions" and a few more notes. Doubtless this weekend the liberal talk shows will assure us that the president and attorney general are really, finally listening and make the report's recommendations sound like the dawn of some bright new day. That's their job. But on the real, Interim Report of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing is a crunchy, fluffy nothing.
What if this were another, better world? What if the president's task force were not a mouthpiece for liberal cops, DOJ consultants and their favorite nonprofits in the waning days of the administration? What would the recommendations of a task force focused not just on "21st century policing" but one focused on actually rolling back the police and prison states look like? They might include stuff like;
- Decriminalizing drug use, homelessness, sex work and mental illness, so as to take armed and violent cops out of many of the situations in which they brutalize and murder civilians;
- Removing all financial incentives police departments now have to make low-level drug arrests and ending the use of confiscated assets by police departments;
- Federal legislation to require police departments to report all cases of excessive force against civilians and funding for the Department of Justice to gather and maintain those statistics. Right now the only figures on police killings are assembled by private entities;
- Curbing police and prosecutorial misconduct by means including the establishment of special prosecutors to go after district attorneys and cops;
- Granting automatic reparations in the form of monetary settlements, medical, housing and tuition assistance to the families of the falsely convicted;
- Immediate banning of the imprisonment of juveniles with adults and the swift phasing out of juvenile prisons in favor of healing, educational and therapeutic institutions.
- Instituting meaningful education, self-improvement and skills programs for all those confined in prisons and jails, and decent health care for all those in the nation's prisons and jails;
- Stopping the racist profiling and roundups of immigrants and the legislation that requires it.
- Abolition of mandatory sentences for various offenses and requirement of racial and ethnic impact studies before passage of laws creating new felony offenses;
- Full transparency in the fines and punishments levied upon inmates in prisons and jails;
- Subsidizing visits and phone contact between the incarcerated and their families on the outside, as family ties are one of the main determinants of successful integration of ex prisoners into society, such as it is.
Real change that rolls back the prison and police states won't come from residency requirements, or cops on bicycles or more training, or meetings with police in neutral territory or any of the other task force recommendations.
If the Obama White House ever wanted, ever intended, ever dreamed of changing this stuff, of rolling back the police and prison state they wouldn't have waited till their last 600 and some days in office and when they don't control either house of Congress. The report is a gesture of contempt. President Obama, the CBC and the rest of the black political class are prepared to praise each other and for us to praise them. But they are not prepared to take political risks for the class of people victimized by the police and prison state which liberals as well as conservatives helped create. They and their media stooges will hail the task force's empty recommendations as a great step forward, just as they heap empty praise on outgoing and incoming Attorneys General Eric Holder and Loretta Lynch as champions of the poor and oppressed, though neither has ever sued a corporation or defended a poor person in court against imprisonment, eviction or dispossession.
21st century policing, according to Obama's post-Ferguson task force, will look a lot like the 20th century. For some time we can expect to see more Eric Garners, more Trayvon Martins, more prison hunger strikes and more Fergusons. Get ready for it.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor of Black Agenda Report and an information technologist living and working in Marietta GA. He's also a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. Contact him at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.