Fancher: Law Enforcement Must Move Past Conversations To Action

POST BY Mark Fancher Racial Justice Staff Attorney

As the black body count continues to mount, there are incessant calls for a “conversation” about how to improve police/community relations. As a consequence, well-meaning representatives of the community and law-enforcement executives are convening in meeting rooms around the country.

At each of these meetings, the conversation is always the same. There is first an obligatory acknowledgment by all present that most police officers are good, and the problems are caused by a few rogues. There is a round of hand-wringing, and at last someone asks the obvious question: “What can we do about this?” What follows is a brainstorming session that yields proposals that have been made countless times in countless meetings - body cameras, dashboard cameras, community oversight, independent prosecutors, etc., etc. Law enforcement representatives listen intently as their faces wear thoughtful expressions. At last, the chair notes the time and thanks the participants for a “productive” exchange. There is general agreement that the group should meet again…to go through the same ritual…yet again...while outside in the streets, more black people are racially profiled and/or shot to death.

While we continue to be open to dialogue, mere meetings can’t and won’t solve this problem. The reforms proposed in meetings to date can fill a catalogue. The only remaining question is whether law enforcement will act.

When asked, some police administrators shift uncomfortably in their chairs and complain that a limited budget prevents the purchase of new technology; or, they will point to union contracts as an obstacle to implementation of new policies. Still other police chiefs express frustration because despite their best efforts to bring a new approach to policing, many of their officers greet reforms with smirking indifference, resistance and ridicule. Change is never easy, but even as to the relationship between police and communities of color there is low-hanging fruit.

One example is provided by the Michigan State Police (MSP).

Not long ago, the ACLU of Michigan became aware of the MSP “activity analysis program.” The stated purpose of the program is “to provide feedback for troopers on their performance in core areas of their job duties” and also to provide supervisors with a tool “to fairly evaluate performance as measured against their peers…” The focus of the activity analysis includes, among other things, evaluation of whether a trooper has met a “70% baseline” for traffic stops. In other words, there is a calculation of the collective average of traffic stops made by those based at the trooper’s post, and then a determination of whether the number of stops made by the evaluated trooper equals or exceeds 70 percent of that average.

In a letter to MSP’s director, the ACLU of Michigan expressed concern about “the risk that some troopers will become racially selective when making arbitrary stops.” The pressure of needing a performance record that warrants a positive evaluation can drive troopers with an insufficient number of traffic stops to attempt to pad their list by stopping drivers who should not be stopped. With respect to these improper stops, our letter explained: “…a trooper must decide whether the driver will complain, and whether he/she will be taken seriously if they do.” The most likely drivers to be targeted for improper stops are young people of color and others who appear to be poor or powerless.

Read the ACLU's letter to Michigan State Police.

MSP’s initial reaction was that supervisors’ review of troopers’ daily reports reveals any improprieties in traffic stop practices. When pressed however about whether the daily report documents allow for detection of racial trends in traffic stop practices there was an acknowledgment “…that while the electronic officer daily program (E-Daily) requires the race field to be entered on the E-Daily, it automatically defaults to ‘unknown’…” Consequently, MSP has no reliable records of the racial identities of drivers who are stopped, and it is not possible to reliably determine from those records whether troopers are engaged in systematic racial profiling.

The good news is MSP is making a change. “As a result of this review, beginning January 1, 2017, the MSP E-Daily will no longer default to ‘unknown.’”  Instead, troopers will be required to specifically identify the race of drivers who are stopped. This very small administrative change can make a very big difference in many different ways. There are many small changes like this that law enforcement agencies everywhere can make at little to no financial cost. Law enforcement doesn’t need more “conversations” about what to do, and in many cases they don’t necessarily need more money. What is needed is a sincere willingness by rank-and-file police officers and police administrators to do what they are already capable of doing to build a more open, honest, safe and productive relationship with the communities they serve.

Read the Michigan State Police Response to the ACLU.

While we continue to be open to dialogue, mere meetings can’t and won’t solve this problem. The reforms proposed in meetings to date can fill a catalogue. The only remaining question is whether law enforcement will act.

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