ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE
On Memorial Day 2020, as Americans gathered in backyards and cemeteries to honor those who have died while serving in the Armed Forces, a Black man named George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. The killing, captured on a bystander’s cell phone camera, poured fresh fuel on the fight for racial justice in the United States, prompting millions to protest in the streets. Their message was clear: too many people, especially Black people and other people of color, are dying during encounters with police. Sadly, the death toll continues to mount, along with unrelenting waves of outrage, forcing the nation to confront its legacy of racial injustice and wrestle with the role of law enforcement in our communities. Local, state, and federal lawmakers have been quick to respond to this ongoing crisis, offering – and in many cases enacting – policy changes targeting police use of force and myriad related problems. Such efforts are essential, and laudable. But too often the reforms lack a foundation in data and scientific evidence, making it unclear that they will produce essential progress.
The bottom line is that far too many people continue to be killed, injured, and traumatized by current policing practices, yet the policy responses to remedy this crisis are piecemeal at best.
The number of people killed by police has remained steady at around 1,000 each year, with the rate of deaths far greater for people of color. But it is not just about police-involved fatalities. While racial disparities in police arrests have diminished over time, the share of Black people searched, arrested for disorder offenses, and subjected to fines or fees continues to overshadow that of White people. The bottom line is that far too many people continue to be killed, injured, and traumatized by current policing practices, yet the policy responses to remedy this crisis are piecemeal at best. The Council on Criminal Justice convened the Task Force on Policing in November 2020 to address these shortcomings and help our nation move decisively forward in ensuring police agencies provide effective, equitable, and respectful services to all of those they are sworn to protect. Amid calls for reimagining public safety and transforming the role of law enforcement in American society, the Task Force was asked a discrete question: of the most commonly proposed reforms, which ones are the most important—which will have the biggest impact on preventing police use of excessive force, reducing racial biases, increasing police accountability, and improving the relationship between law enforcement and communities?
Members also agreed that no single measure – nor any collection of them – is sufficient to yield the impacts we seek absent fundamental cultural, organizational, and structural changes to policing as we know it.
To fulfill that mission, Task Force members weighed the relative value of each proposal based on the best available research and on their professional expertise and lived experiences. The result was 16 assessment briefs of a wide array of policies, trainings, and practices. Their goal was to help policymakers sift through the dizzying array of ideas and focus on measures they believe will create the greatest change. Members brought to their task strikingly diverse backgrounds: law enforcement, civil rights, research, big-city politics, racial justice, police oversight, and advocacy born of the gut-wrenching loss of loved ones to police violence. While they did not see eye to eye on everything, members demonstrated a firm commitment to advancing reforms that ensure this pivotal moment is not squandered, but rather leveraged to ensure police agencies evolve and provide the service and protection all in America deserve. To create a foundation for their work, the Council produced Policing by the Numbers, a digital chartbook of policing statistics that traces key trends underlying public debates about the future of law enforcement in America.
As they conducted their deliberations, Task Force members were mindful of the sobering and tumultuous events that defined 2020 and continue to shape the national conversation today. They recognized that while gains have been made in the passage of reform measures, many Americans feel progress is too slow and incremental for the gravity of the challenge. Members also agreed that no single measure – nor any collection of them – is sufficient to yield the impacts we seek absent fundamental cultural, organizational, and structural changes to policing as we know it. Reflecting that belief, the Task Force put forth eight foundational principles that should undergird any combination of policies that are implemented. It cautioned that agencies that do not adhere to these principles are unlikely to make meaningful progress.
At the same time, the Task Force confronted the same question as mayors and governors, local council members and state legislators, and federal policymakers with reform proposals piled on their desks: “What can we do now that will move us closer to the twin goals of safety and justice?”
Foundational Principles for Police Departments
Develop national training standards
Establish a federal decertification database
Adopt duty-to-intervene and mandatory reporting policies
Promote trauma-informed policing
Increase data collection and transparency
These research inquiries revealed that the state of knowledge across a wide array of law enforcement policies and practices is woefully lacking. This dearth of evidence and data must be addressed, both through federal leadership and philanthropic investments.
Turning outrage into lasting change won’t be easy, especially when a core dimension of the problem has stubborn roots in racism that stretch back centuries. But with intention and a common purpose, the nation can advance from last year’s catastrophic events toward a time when fair, effective, and just policing is a reality for all in America. The Task Force is committed to that vision, and its recommendations are designed to help all of us pursue it vigorously and comprehensively. These research inquiries revealed that the state of knowledge across a wide array of law enforcement policies and practices is woefully lacking. This dearth of evidence and data must be addressed, both through federal leadership and philanthropic investments. The Crime Lab’s Research Agenda highlights opportunities to expand upon experimental field trials both within and across law enforcement agencies. In addition, more research is needed on current police operations and practices, alternative community-led safety initiatives, and officer perceptions and reactions to policies intended to deter misconduct and increase accountability.