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What 21st Century Policing Means

President Obama meets with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to discuss their recommendations to help communities and law enforcement agencies across the country to strengthen trust and collaboration, while continuing to reduce crime.
President Obama speaks to the press after a meeting with members of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing

President Barack Obama speaks to the press after a meeting with members of the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, March 2, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Earlier today, President Obama met with the Task Force on 21st Century Policing to discuss their recommendations to help communities and law enforcement agencies across the country to strengthen trust and collaboration, while continuing to reduce crime.

The Task Force was announced in December, and has been co-chaired by Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey and former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson. Joining them on the Task Force is a diverse array of experts from the law enforcement community, academia, youth activists, as well as community and civil rights leaders. Their recommendations for helping to keep police officers and neighborhoods safe were released today, as called for by the Executive Order that established the Task Force.

Over the past few months, this Administration, with assistance from the Task Force, has helped to foster a national dialogue on 21st Century Policing. The President has hosted law enforcement, youth advocates, elected officials, and community leaders at the White House to hear from them directly, while Task Force members engaged with a variety of stakeholders and constituency groups, and Attorney General Eric Holder held roundtables with community leaders and law enforcement officials across the country. The Task Force also conducted public hearings in several locations across the country and received testimony from more than 100 witnesses.

As the Executive Director for the Task Force, I participated in many of these discussions. And while each community brings its own perspectives, a common theme we heard is that 21st Century Policing requires trust. Individuals are more likely to obey the law when they trust that those who enforce it will treat them equally with dignity and respect, regardless of what they look like, where they live, or whom they love. Individuals who trust law enforcement are also more likely to call for help when they need it, or to provide other critical information that helps to prevent and solve crimes.

When I served as Chief of Police for East Palo Alto, a city once dubbed the murder capital of the United States, we instituted a series of reforms that led to dramatically improved community relations. For example, we worked closely with the state department of corrections and local social service providers to launch a model reentry program, held regular neighborhood meetings, and established officer-led community fitness programs to regain use of the public parks and open spaces previously controlled by gangs. Over a six-year period, with the police and community working closely together, we achieved a 40 percent decrease in homicides and a 20 percent decrease in overall crime.

President Obama and Vice President Biden meet with rank-and-file law enforcement officials

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with rank-and-file law enforcement officials from across the country in the Oval Office, Feb. 24, 2015. They discussed how communities and law enforcement can work together to build trust to ensure public safety and strengthen neighborhoods. Participants include: left to right, Officer Allan Gerking, Puyallup Tribal Police Department, Wash.; Sergeant Charli Goodman, Salt Lake City Police Department, Utah; Corporal Dorrell Savoy, Charles County Sheriff’s Office, Md.; Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; Neil Eggleston, Counsel to the President; and Ronald Davis, Director, DOJ Office of Community Oriented Policing Services; Officer Matthew Thomas, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, Ind.; Officer Erik Oliver, Richmond Police Department, Calif.; and Officer Virginia Matias, Camden County Police Department, N.J. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting in the Oval Office with the President, Vice President, and six rank-and-file police officers from a diverse set of communities. The President wanted to hear about their first-hand experiences in building trust between law enforcement and communities. An officer from the Puyallup Tribal Police Department in Washington spoke about a gang-resistance camp he helped to establish that reaches out to youth before they get entangled with the justice system. Another officer from Camden County, New Jersey, described reading to kindergartners and building relationships with local business owners so that the only time individuals interact with a police officer isn’t after they make a mistake or bad decision.

Most of the recommendations contained in the Task Force’s report are directed at the approximately 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies spread throughout the country. These include measures to promote officer wellness and safety, including measures to equip officers with individual tactical first-aid kits and anti-ballistic vests, and create a “Blue Alert” warning system to enlist the public’s help in locating suspects who have killed a law enforcement officer in the line of duty. 

Other recommendations call for law enforcement agencies to put in place programs designed to promote positive interactions between police and communities; to adopt and use new technologies to enhance public trust and public safety; to provide opportunities for additional training on a range of topics, including leadership, for police at all levels; and to have in place policies that prioritize de-escalation and avoid provocative tactics.

During today’s meeting, the President directed all federal law enforcement agencies to review the Task Force recommendations and to adopt those that can be implemented at the federal level to the extent practicable. He also asked the Department of Justice to explore public-private partnership opportunities and other potential steps, including considering prioritizing grant funding to law enforcement agencies meeting appropriate benchmarks, to help encourage the implementation of these proposals. 

As a former police executive, an African American, and father of a 17-year-old son, I am profoundly optimistic about the progress we are poised to make as a result of the Task Force’s recommendations and growing support from community leaders, law enforcement, state and local officials. Today’s report will help to ensure that our communities are safer places for current and future generations, where a culture of trust between police and the communities they are sworn to serve only grows over time.

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