Time again to study policing

Richmond, Calif., police Chief Chris Magnus joined the city's human rights commission's demonstration about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths. The chief is noted for his focus on community policing.
Richmond, Calif., police Chief Chris Magnus joined the city's human rights commission's demonstration about the Michael Brown and Eric Garner deaths. The chief is noted for his focus on community policing. AP

A lesson from Ferguson, Mo., should be wholesale support for a national blue-ribbon panel to conduct a comprehensive and thoughtful examination of the state of policing. Far more than a postmortem of the tragic events in Ferguson is desperately required.

This body, led by an individual with credentials similar to those of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, needs to provide a new map for America's police services to help move us forward toward shared freedoms and opportunities.

This is not a new thought. For more than two decades, police leaders have been calling for a presidential commission on policing. The International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc. has been at the forefront of seeking a top-down, bottom-up evaluation.

This plea for assistance has fallen on deaf ears in previous and current administrations and in the halls of Congress. It is time for Congress to step up and order an assessment with published findings and recommendations.

The last time such a study was conducted was in 1965-67. This work was commissioned by the late President Lyndon B. Johnson in the wake of widespread civil disorder that impacted all Americans.

This resulted in recommendations for an unprecedented overhaul of policing. Police practitioners were stunned by the gravity of proposed upgrades but accepted change that led to marked improvement in many aspects of policing, not the least being increased education and training requirements for officers.

Times have changed and there is a burning need to again peel back the layers of police services and scrupulously examine why and how police perform their civic duties. This proposed work is essential to bring the police and community into harmony.

As Sir Robert Peel, leader of the London Metropolitan Constabulary nearly two centuries ago, declared, "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence."

This is an undeniable truth that remains in full force today.

The American system of policing is highly decentralized, with nearly 18,000 independent organizations mostly under the control of municipal and county governments. There is no federal authority that can dictate how policing will occur in the states.

Modifying police practices has always been, and will remain, a challenge. The federal government at best can influence limited changes through enforcement of specific laws, court-ordered or consent decrees, or by use of federal grant funds to induce change.

There is no easy fix to the complex and very often daunting issues facing our society.

Police play a significant role in determining quality of life. Police officers are on the street 24-7 and by default become the first responders to deal with problems that most people choose to avoid. Be it a homeless person dead in a cardboard box or a madman killing children inside a schoolhouse, it will most likely be a man or woman wearing the uniform of a state or local police agency who will be the first government representative on the scene.

The action of a police officer can be a lifesaving, life-altering or life-ending event.

All Americans must accept that, from time to time, the police will encounter a violent individual and face the dire decision to apply force to protect others or themselves from serious physical harm or death.

In these incidents a death, of citizen or officer, likely will become a community tragedy that may erode the crucial trust that must exist between the community and their police.

We are fortunate throughout Kentucky, and across our Bluegrass region, to have strong community-oriented police services. This has not occurred by accident but has been the result of careful selection and training of police practitioners serving at all levels.

Stewardship of public trust requires a police-community partnership constructed on a solid foundation of transparency and honest two-way communication. Trust must be established well in advance of community adversity. It is a fragile relationship that requires constant maintenance, demanding that police and community leaders be ever vigilant and keenly aware of shifting community needs, expectations and police performance.

I suspect personally worn cameras may be of value, certainly to the police, for we live in a time of video reality.

At the same time, the devil is always in the detail. Wearing cameras is simple. The challenge is finding money to purchase and maintain this technology. Costs that will include records storage and dealing with an anticipated onslaught of Freedom of Information Act requests requiring countless hours of personnel time to review videos to ensure privacy rights are not wrongfully compromised or restricted information does not show up on social media.

Cameras sound good at first blush, but a bit of thoughtful consideration results in sincere questions about how to deal with implementation of new technology and the downstream ramifications.

Thoughtful police leaders know a rush to judgment often leads to failed outcomes, be it human relations or technology application.

It has been five decades since the last comprehensive appraisal of policing in America. Now is the time for all citizens to demand that Congress create a blue ribbon panel to review the state of policing and provide a roadmap to guide citizens and police officers alike. This much-needed endeavor is essential to the freedoms we all wish to enjoy.