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Experts: Accountability Key to Change in Police Behavior

081715_PoliceWith the conversation around the anniversary of Mike Brown’s death examining disparities around Black versus White attitudes about police, the message has begun to shift toward solutions.

At Coppin State, Dr. Jacqueline Rhoden-Trader said the criminal justice department is beginning to shift the curriculum to incorporate a more real-time snapshot of what is happening in communities across the country. But the changes, experts say, cannot stop at curricular changes.

For one thing, said D.C.-based attorney Stephen Kohn, who has advocated for corporate and government accountability and authored books on whistleblowing culture, there must be self-policing within the departments. From the FBI to the local jurisdictions, Kohn said without people on the inside to report of malfeasance, the cycles will continue to perpetuate.

Racism, said Kohn, “is just a part of the culture” of the FBI. And, since the FBI has jurisdiction over the civil rights investigations at the local level, it is likely that said culture will continue to trickle down and negatively impact citizens of color on the ground.

“Ultimately, if you’re going to really root out discrimination in police departments, you’re going to need insiders who can either root out the systemic issues or identify the rotten apples,” said Kohn. “Within police culture, that’s generally very difficult.”

But Dr. Justin Hansford, the St. Louis University assistant professor of law who has experienced much of the aggression first-hand over the last year, said that whistleblowing without accountability still won’t solve the issue.

“There has to be accountability,” he said. “one thing I’ve always advocated [for] is there has to be some kind of financial impact when these things happen.”

Pointing to the recent Department of Justice report citing the racism of the Ferguson Police Department, Hansford said that the revelations mean nothing if there is no incentive to change the behavior.

Kohn said it is hard to hold individual officers accountable without court testimony or actual evidence of discrimination.

“Historically, obtaining a police misconduct ruling in a case” is difficult, he said, “because no one will testify.”

“How can you root out the problem if people who know where the problems are are scared to come forward?” asked Kohn.

Jennifer Benz, deputy director of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Academic Research within the University of Chicago, said some of the reforms presented in a recent survey the center conducted on attitudes about police-policed relationships in different communities suggest agreement on the policy changes that need to take place to improve the relationship between the two.

“There are a lot of divisions in attitudes and experiences [about and with police],” said Benz, “but there is a fair amount of agreement in policies and procedures to reduce tensions in minority communities and to limit violence against civilians.”

Among those is a need for body cameras and other apparatuses to increase accountability, she said.

But Hansford is skeptical that recordings of police misdoing will actually curb poor behavior, saying he believes the general attitude is “give us cameras … give us anything except us getting in trouble,” and reiterating a need for financial incentive to get it right for Black citizens.

A recent five thirty eight podcast revealed that most of the data collection around police brutality is still voluntary, which is something Hansford said needs to be corrected.

“Right now, we don’t even know how many people are being killed by the police,” said Hansford, who referred to data collection as “another common sense policy reform” that could easily be implemented toward a solution.

Dr. Marcellus Boles is the co-chair of the criminal justice department and a retired lieutenant colonel with the Baltimore Police Department, who served for 32 years before entering academia.

Boles said it is often a difficult task for police to find the balance between policing those engaging in criminal behavior and protecting and serving citizens of the same communities in low-income communities — which tend to be primarily communities of color in urban areas.

“One of the problems you see in some of larger urban areas is that there are a number of African-Americans who are operating below the poverty level,” said Boles. “Socio-economic situations are low in these areas.  … Unfortunately a lot of these individuals are struggling to exist and, in some cases, support their existence by participating in criminal activities.”

Complicating this, he said, is the “lack of education and/or understanding regarding the parameter of police officers.  Police officers represent the people and laws set forth by their representatives.  Police officers are thrust into these troubled areas, sometimes ill prepared, and try to be peacemakers and quell crime.  It is a difficult task trying to keep a balance between the law abiding aspect of the community and the criminal element,” said Boles.

“However, I do believe that many, if not most, officers conduct themselves extremely well in trying situations,” Boles continued. “Policing in these areas is a tremendous challenge.  However, as it is in most professions, there are some officers who don’t have the tolerance and abilities to be effective as a police officer in urban areas and should not be police officers.”

Benz said one suggestion is “developing more community policing programs in neighborhoods … across different racial and ethnic groups.”

In the end, it is likely that a combination of policy reforms — to include body cameras, increased protections for whistleblowers, increased accountability and increased police education — will be necessary to quell the distance between the police and those they police. But what is clear is that that distance exists primarily along racial lines, and something — or a combination of somethings — needs to be done if the African-American community is to expect any differences by the second anniversary of Mike Brown’s death.

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