This month' Department of Justice report on the Ferguson, MO police department confirmed that in addition to the Jim Crow-like atmosphere created through profiling and aggressive policing tactics, the municipality of Ferguson was funding itself on the backs of its poorest residents. The same report exonerated Darren Wilson of any violation of Michael Brown’s civil rights and exposed the very problem Attorney General Eric Holder had discussed days earlier about the need to revisit the standard for bringing Federal civil rights cases. No sooner than we had a chance to review those findings in their entirety were we hit with news out of Madison, WI where another unarmed Black teen was killed by a White police officer in the line of duty. While we continue to await the complete facts in Wisconsin, it is almost impossible not to draw parallels to recent incidents that gave rise to and which further fueled the #Blacklivesmatter movement.
For as much as DOJ’s report lacked in surprising findings (unless you've turned a blind eye to the many stories of police brutality recounted by citizens after the death of Brown), it offered even less in terms of answers and next steps. America’s policing model is broken and its biggest failures are most clearly seen in communities of color. These are places where decades of justified distrust continue to persist and to widen a chasm between officers and the citizens whom those officers are sworn to serve. There is a compelling case with every incident of abuse by law enforcement and every Black life lost that the entire system of policing in America needs a click on the “refresh” button. This reset would include radical ideas intended to bring about widespread change to combat a cancerous and systemic mindset that has been a toxin in communities across the country. Toxins like these have polluted the delicate balance between police and community and resulted in racial profiling, over-policing, and needlessly aggressive tactics against Blacks and Latinos.
If you have spent any time abroad you may have noticed that the United States is in the minority of countries without a centralized police force. In some ways, this is understandable—many of our laws vary depending on jurisdiction, many of our states are the size of some countries, and to ask one police force to cover such a large area would be a large task. But, for as much as the idea of a nationalized police force separate and apart from our military might strike us as impractical, the current way that local U.S. law enforcement is structured is often highly susceptible to regional biases, disjointed, poorly organized, and oftentimes downright clumsy, with the exception of a few larger cities. The exceptions are usually cities that have the resources needed to properly police its residents with appropriate levels of training, supervision, and departmental oversight.
Some of the advantages to a nationalized police force are more readily apparent than others. First, funding could be more equally distributed. This would standardize equipment and ensure better control over some areas being ridiculously outfitted with gear and weaponry like a real life game of Call of Duty when they absolutely have no need for it. (Remember what Ferguson looked like this summer? Local PD needed digital camouflage and tanks because that was keeping them from being hit by bricks? Really?). Second, this could also standardize training methods to ensure that all procedures are standard and everyone is learning the same thing, thereby making oversight and troubleshooting problems much more straightforward. Finally, standardizing the selection of officers would also go far in ensuring diversity and eliminating entire departments of rouge cowboy-cops intent on creating a pervasive departmental culture entrenched in racism. This stands to address the same type of culture we saw in Ferguson and have seen in too many other places across the US.
One of the reasons we have felt a sense of optimism regarding Federal involvement in investigating Darren Wilson, Ferguson PD, George Zimmerman, and the like is the belief that the Department of Justice is not only capable and competent, but also that it is impartial or, at a minimum, less partial than local police forces. This is due, in no small part, to the confidence that Attorney General Holder has earned in positioning himself as one who truly understands the mistrust that our communities have for law enforcement. As Loretta Lynch prepares to take the reins at the top of the country’s law enforcement food chain, there is a similar sense of cautious optimism about what lay ahead. However, another reason a nationalized law enforcement agency makes sense to police our local communities would be to make us less dependent on who is in charge and their political ideology.
For advocates of community policing models, there is still room to tailor the methods of policing to be culturally competent for the areas that they serve. This is something that can and should be incorporated through training. While a nationalized police force may not solve all the problems with the current U.S. criminal justice system, it is clear that trying to continue within the present system without radical change is not a winning strategy for communities of color.
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights attorney and former Brooklyn, NY prosecutor. He also serves as an adjunct professor of justice studies at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.