There should be no slowdown on police reform

Biden should seize the 'bully pulpit' to lend urgency to reviews

IS THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION going slow on police reform? Recently, the White House announced it is putting on hold the formation of a national commission on this critical matter.  

“Based on close, respectful consultation with partners in the civil rights community, the administration made the considered judgment that a police commission, at this time, would not be the most effective way to deliver on our top priority in this area, which is to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act into law,” Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, said in a statement. The George Floyd bill is important because of the accountability in police reforms it proposes and because of the civil rights organizations that helped to craft it. 

The White House fears opponents of the Floyd legislation will use any commission probe as an excuse to delay action on the bill. I don’t believe that the White House logic coheres. A well-designed, serious effort by a presidential commission, or other instrument to achieve the same ends, need not be hijacked to thwart the Floyd bill. The issues are critical and deserve multiple approaches. 

Rice’s statement came the same day that a police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, claimed she mistook her handgun for a Taser and shot and killed an unarmed Black man, Daunte Wright, in his car. A few such claims have been made in the recent past. In most cases, officers were convicted of a lesser homicide charge and served some time in prison. Still, a police officer mistaking a Taser-style weapon for a handgun is like a surgeon mistaking a plastic table knife for a scalpel. 

An investigation is underway. Wright was wanted for armed robbery, according to reports.  Officers had every reason to exercise great caution in approaching him. Reports indicate he was resisting arrest when he was shot. We have to wait for the outcome of the investigation to make a final judgement. Police encounter thousands of violent people every day. The overwhelming majority of such interactions do not end in anyone’s death. Yet the claim of mistaking one’s service weapon for anything else simply defies credibility. The sidearm holds a central, unique, and gravely consequential place in the consciousness of the well-trained police officer. 

The president is in a unique position of influence, speaking from what President Theodore Roosevelt called “the bully pulpit.” (At the time, “bully” meant “superb” and was a term Roosevelt used regularly to indicate his high opinion of a person, place, or thing.) In my own experience, President Bill Clinton used that superb pulpit to advocate for a strategy on preventing youth firearm killings modeled on work taking place in Boston in the 1990s. 

We have not heard anything like this yet from the Biden White House. Meanwhile, our police service is at sea, in deep fog and storms, on matters of race and crime, with no maps and no radar. Many among the overwhelming majority of well-meaning police professionals feel besieged. 

While the Boston Globe reported last month that police use of deadly force in Massachusetts is the lowest rate in the country, we are not immune from law enforcement problems. Stories on a single day in mid-April included a Milton officer accused of a racist rant at her son’s adolescent friends; Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey announcing a new Office of Police Accountability and Transparency; a child advocacy organization accusing the New Bedford police of racial profiling; and the Boston Police Department and state agencies accused of ignoring charges against an officer they believed to have committed sexual assaults on children. 

On the same day were national stories on the Derek Chauvin trial, the Daunte Wright killing, and a report that Capitol Police were ordered to go slow on confronting the January 6 domestic terrorists. 

Imagine these stories were about your chosen profession.  

As these issues play out, violent crime is rising in cities across the US, including Boston. Violent crime rose 21 percent in troubled Minneapolis and 7 percent in Boston in 2020, as compared to 2019.  A presidential forum that addresses policing theory and practice, justice, and race and includes all stakeholders – including police officials – could not be more timely. 

Beyond the findings of the Wright homicide investigation, at least two bigger questions surround his death, questions that are central to that case and to too many thousands more like it. They are questions on which a thoughtful White House could be leading the conversation. 

  1. What was the hurry? Why weren’t de-escalation tactics employed? Police have learned much about life-preserving strategies to de-escalate and end conflicts. Rash uses of force are almost completely avoidable. What if it took all day to get Daunte Wright, or George Floyd, or Eric Garner to comply with lawful orders? Who is harmed, other than the pride of the officers, wounded by the contempt of the person they are trying to subdue?  
For a great example of a de-escalation program, look at the ICAT program offered by the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF). ICAT stands for Integrating Communications, Assessment, and Tactics. A team of social scientists from the University of Cincinnati in a field study found ICAT to be very effective at preventing the scenes we’ve seen in Minnesota and in many other places in the US. Based on years of observation and study, I would hypothesize that resistance to time-consuming de-escalation is rooted in a mythology of police identity. The culture teaches the young officer that a “real cop” overcomes resistance quickly and by their own power. This brand of masculinity is toxic for practitioners and can place in mortal peril the people they encounter in crime and disorder situations. The White House can use its bully pulpit to begin to counter this mythology with training and education. 

  1. Training is called into question when an officer becomes so unglued in a conflict. Police departments in the Midwest were badly infected earlier in the century by “warrior” training that essentially told officers, when in doubt, shoot. Was that in play in Brooklyn Center? In place of thoughtful approaches such as ICAT, are they still teaching officers the old, dead end “warrior” fallacies, such as, real cops handle things alone? Are we teaching them nothing about the way biases work in the human brain? What do we tell them about the unique stresses of the job and how they change people over the course of time?

Both the police officer who killed Wright and her chief have resigned from the Brooklyn Center police department. The officer has been charged with second-degree manslaughter. 

No matter what we learn about what happened to Duante Wright, and regardless of the outcome of the officer’s criminal case, those deeper questions and learning opportunities will likely go begging for attention. 

White House leadership does not require a formal commission. However, commissions can have big impacts when leaders are serious about change and the effort is fully resourced. The 1968 president’s commission under Lyndon Johnson, which studied the Detroit and Newark riots of 1967, and a 2015 commission on policing under Barack Obama have changed police thinking and practice to varying degrees. Locally, the 1991 St. Clair Commission set the Boston Police Department on the path to progressive changes whose benefits reverberate today for residents and officers alike. 

Meet the Author
As vice president, Biden provided valuable savvy and leadership to the 2015 process. He was prepared — by temperament, character, and history — to do good things then. As president, Biden has the bully pulpit now. The nation needs to hear from him.  

Jim Jordan is the former director of strategic planning for the Boston Police Department and co-principal of Public Safety Leadership. He has taught policing courses at Northeastern University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.