What would Eric Holder’s police tactics commission really accomplish?

In a free society, the relationship between police and citizens must remain the fundamental issue that demands vigilance, but one must wonder whether a nationwide commission is the answer


In the next five to ten years, all officers, but especially police leaders, will find it increasingly difficult to perform their duties given the pressures created by questions swirling around the role of law enforcement in a free society, emerging technologies, and what critics allege is the indiscriminate use of inappropriate or deadly force.

In early October, Attorney General Eric Holder endorsed the recommendation to revive the idea of a national law enforcement commission, similar to the one President Lyndon Johnson established in March 1965. Such suggestions are not new, and a number of organizations, such as Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Human Rights Watch, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition have supported similar efforts. 

Holder’s commission would purportedly help police departments “confront emerging threats, better address persistent challenges, and thoroughly examine the latest tools and technologies to enhance the safety and the effectiveness of law enforcement,”  to include encounters with the mentally ill and the role of police in homeland security. From a practical standpoint, the real issues are policing strategies, technology application and civil liberties, and the use of force.

Recruiting the Best
There are tens of thousands of police contacts that occur without incident. Those encounters, however, are not press-worthy, and there is a seemingly growing perception among the population that police use of force is excessive, and that police are being overly “militarized.” The profession ignores that perception its peril — it is our responsibility to educate the public about police work, and to listen to the public about their concerns

Credibility challenges begin with an imperfect officer recruitment process. To maintain public trust, departments must be able to assure the public that they hire only the best, most qualified officers. However, if the reports are to be believed, law enforcement agencies have allowed (or not caught) a number of bad actors to enter and remain in the profession despite the use of zero-tolerance standards for recruitment and retention. 

Background checks — which usually become a simplistic pass/fail system — are meant to screen out applicants and verify truthfulness. One can ask how many potentially superb officers have been “screened out” as a result of their truthfulness in admitting past behavior and how many problems have been allowed in because they have not yet faced the daily challenges of police work.

With shortages of qualified officers, some departments have altered their employment standards, which will likely draw criticism when some of these new-age officers behave as badly as those hired under allegedly more stringent standards.

New Technology and Public Trust
Technology also poses new political challenges. Charles Ramsey noted these complexities when he wrote

“Technology is sometimes a benefit, sometimes a curse. Of course, we should pursue effective and appropriate technological solutions to our problems. But we must also consciously decide where the limits lie and do so before we cross those lines. As police weigh conflicting obligations, we need to remind ourselves constantly that our first priority is the protection of constitutional rights.”

License plate readers that can gather information for more than just traffic enforcement, officer cameras, the use of and access to Facebook accounts, pairing Google Glass with face-scanning software (as they are reportedly going to do in Dubai), new methods of obtaining cell telephone information, and the use of analytics software for “predictive policing” that depend on large amounts of shared data are only a few of the issues raising privacy concerns. 

Some service providers have already moved to protect an individual’s online and electronic privacy, which in turn has caused some law enforcement experts to bemoan that such measures may damage law enforcement’s ability to protect the public.

New technologies also present police with unique enforcement issues. Cyber stalking is one example. Victims with money and connections — just ask the Kelley family — reportedly receive a better response than those without. 

Meanwhile, smaller law enforcement agencies may not always have the dedicated resources or specialized training to address similar issues that arise in less well-heeled or connected populations.

The Efficacy of a Commission
The use of force — and especially deadly force — must remain under close public scrutiny. In some quarters officer presence is seen as coercive, and the use of intermediate force — such as a TASER — is seen as torture. Other critics maintain that police use deadly force disproportionately against minorities and those at the bottom of the social order. In today’s culture, where the media can readily make a localized incident into a national cause célébré, use of deadly force will have political repercussions that go well beyond the local community.

A new commission will do little more than encourage and lengthen the debate. The Department of Justice would have to interpret a failure to adopt the recommendations as Constitutional violations and then force compliance through consent decrees or the withholding of federal grant funds — which may have been a contributor to the problems in the first place. The large number of local law enforcement departments with unique needs will make generalized recommendations appear non-responsive and specific recommendations unenforceable. 

Discussions of such heady questions and answers have often rested with social scientists and senior police officials, but enduring solutions will not be found in Washington or in the front office. Only individual officers who have typically been more concerned with tactics than strategy — and who are already performing their onerous duties in a highly-charged political atmosphere — can ensure the police profession remains effective and accountable.

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