By Linn Washington Jr.
The report released in early March by a panel President Obama appointed to examine serious shortcomings in police practices across America, including the shooting of unarmed people, mostly non-white, listed problems and proposed solutions that are hauntingly similar to those found in a report on police abuses released 47 years ago by another presidential panel.
The March 1968 report of the presidential panel popularly known as the Kerner Commission noted with dismay that many minorities nationwide regarded police as “an occupying force” – a presence that generated fear not feelings of security.
The March 2015 report from President Obama’s panel made a similar finding, noting that perceptions of police as an “occupying force coming in from the outside to rule and control the community” had sabotaged the ability of law enforcement to build trust in many communities.
Reactions to police brutality, particularly fatal encounters, triggered protests and riots that sparked both President Barack Obama and President Lyndon Johnson almost two generations earlier to appoint these two panels.
Sadly, the recommendations from President Obama’s panel could sink under the weight of the same forces that sank full implementation of the Kerner Commission proposals: systemic recalcitrance from all sectors of American society to reforms devised to remediate festering race-based inequities.
The Obama panel recommended “civilian oversight of law enforcement,” calling this step essential to “strengthen trust with the community.” The Kerner Commission report had similarly called for the establishment of “fair mechanisms to redress grievances” against police.
However, for decades, police unions, backed by “law-and-order” politicians, in city councils, state legislatures, and Congress, have vigorously opposed independent oversight by civilians and even oversight from governmental entities.
Such opposition mounted by America’s national police union – the Fraternal Order of Police – early last year killed Obama’s nomination of a civil rights lawyer to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The national FOP in that case made it clear it resented any Justice Department monitoring of state and local police practices. Despite patterns of police misconduct that had led to what was at best only infrequent Justice Department monitoring, U.S. Senators – Republicans and Democrats – backed the national police union’s opposition to Obama’s nominee.
The Kerner Commission, which had examined race-based inequities beyond police brutality, called for a massive influx of resources to tackle poverty and discrimination.
That proposal from President Johnson’s panel, formally titled The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders because it was a wave of riots and uprisings in cities across the country in the 1960s that led to its creation, prompted immediate opposition from conservatives. Resources being poured into the war in Vietnam further doomed that proposal.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., during the year before his April 1968 assassination, stridently criticized conservatives for failing to forthrightly attack poverty and he blasted President Johnson for channeling increasing resources to the Vietnam War, which then shortchanged Johnson’s programs to address poverty. King had blasted police brutality twice during his seminal “I Have A Dream” speech in 1963.
One proposal from Obama’s panel, formally known as the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, called for initiatives “that address the core issues of poverty, education, health and safety.” This panel pointed out the persistently ignored reality that the “justice system alone cannot solve many of the underlying conditions that give rise to crime.” Clouding chances of federal funding increases to fight poverty is the fact that conservatives controlling Capitol Hill have consistently blocked Obama’s modest anti-poverty proposals.
One core yet consistently downplayed dynamic driving inaction on police abuses is the refusal of too many Americans to acknowledge the reality that police brutality exists and that it disproportionately impacts minorities.
A survey conducted by the 2015 Obama panel found that 72 percent of whites felt police treated blacks and whites equally while 62 percent of blacks felt they received unequal (and unjust) treatment from police.
The 1968 Kerner report declared that abrasive relations between police and minority groups “have been a major source of grievance, tension, and ultimately disorder.”
The Kerner report found that police abuses were a key factor leading to most of the 24 riots it studied in 23 cities. A quarter of a century later, not much had changed. America’s most destructive riot, the 1992 eruption in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white policemen charged in the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King caused 53 deaths and over $1-billion in property damage. Another 22 years later, the riots in Ferguson, Missouri last summer, erupted in the wake of the fatal shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a white policeman.
The refusal of either state or federal authorities to file any charges against the officer who fatally gunned down Brown underscored what the 1968 Kerner Commission stated was a “widespread belief” among blacks that a “double standard of justice” existed in America.
Another factor in the persistence of police abuses is the failure of authorities to practice what they preach.
The Obama panel called for the adoption and enforcement of policies “prohibiting profiling and discrimination” – a suggestion long ignored by Obama panel co-chair Charles Ramsey, the Police Commissioner in Philadelphia. Yet, Ramsey’s department has been stopping and frisking mostly young black men, and resisting changes to that tactic, for his entire tenure in Philadelphia.
A report issued by the Pennsylvania ACLU just days before release of the Obama panel’s interim report, faulted Philadelphia police for targeting blacks in that city’s controversial Stop-&-Frisk campaign, which is the prime anti-crime initiative of Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, an African-American like Ramsey.
Philadelphia police under Ramsey’s command targeted blacks for 72 percent of stops and 80 percent of frisks of pedestrians during one six month period in 2014, according to that ACLU report monitoring the PPD’s poor compliance with a 2011 federal court consent decree meant to end racist profiling.
In over 95 percent of all frisks in Philadelphia during the 2014 review period, the ACLU report stated, police recovered neither weapons nor drugs. That low recovery of contraband meant that tens of thousands of law-abiding minorities endured police searches based solely on their skin color.
A recent US Justice Department report found police in Ferguson unfairly targeted blacks for enforcement in part to produce court fines to fuel the city budget of Ferguson. “The harms of Ferguson’s police and court practices are borne disproportionately by African Americans and there is evidence that this is due in part to intentional discrimination on the basis of race,” the USJD report stated.
Obama’s panel, like the Kerner Commission before it, has provided some palpable proposals for moving away from repressive and racist policing. However, the question remains: Does America have the will or even the desire to attack racism and lawlessness within law enforcement?by