When five police officers were shot and killed in Dallas on Thursday, with seven others wounded, the sniper fire threatened to leave another casualty: the campaign to reform policing, sentencing and other criminal justice practices, according to interviews with advocates, experts, and law enforcement officials.
In the world of criminal justice, pushes for change can be diverted or stalled by major news events. In recent days, the shooting of two black men by police — captured on video — mobilized demonstrations across the country, demanding police be held more accountable for violent encounters with black civilians. But the sniper killings of five officers in Dallas seems to have stiffened the opposition to reforms. With legislation to reduce prison terms for some crimes stalled by election-year politics and efforts to repair police-community relations moving slowly, leaders across the political spectrum are watching to see if such efforts can survive this heated moment.
“Police reform is not dead,” insisted Laurie O. Robinson, co-chair of the White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing and a former assistant attorney general in the Obama and Clinton administrations. The task force, which was created following the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson two years ago, urges departments to encourage officers to act more like “guardians” and less like “warriors,” particularly in communities of color. “Building, or rebuilding that trust — that is the question,” Robinson said. “I am an optimist. And I believe that it can be done. But it’s going to take some very hard work. And that has to happen on the ground, it can’t be imposed from the outside.”
Her optimism was echoed by prosecutors and police leaders working with the administration. “Times like these remind us that it’s a vital relationship that we have to have with our communities,” said Ronal Serpas, a criminology professor who has headed police departments in New Orleans and Nashville, and now chairs Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration. “Things have to evolve…Thirty years ago, when I started as a police officer, under the law you could shoot at a fleeing felon, and that changed in 1985.”
“It is a tragic part when people lose their lives, but we should learn from that,” Serpas said. “We should never lose the opportunity to learn. Learn more about de-escalation techniques. Learn more about mental health issues.”
But police advocates — particularly those who believe that local elected leaders have failed to adequately fund police training — see in Dallas evidence that the high-minded efforts were doomed from the start. Reform has “been DOA for generations,” said James Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, the lobbyist arm for police unions across the country. Police are being handed the community’s problems with “rotting infrastructure,” and “a lack of economic opportunities, and poor educational and mental health systems,” he said.
On the other hand, Jonathan Smith, who under Obama led Justice Department investigations of police departments in Ferguson, Seattle, and Cleveland, saw in the week’s events a sign that changes to policing had not gone far enough. “What we are seeing in the departments who have responded are cosmetic changes,” he said. “The movement is getting frustrated.” Between the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the five Dallas police officers, Smith said, “we are at a crossroads — unless we take seriously, in this moment, that something has to change, there will continue to be a growing hostility between communities of color and police departments.”