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Congress must take the lead on national police reforms

Police fire tear gas as demonstrators converge in

Police fire tear gas as demonstrators converge in downtown Charlotte, N.C., on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2016, for a second night of protests against the police shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott. Credit: AP

This week, two new names, two new rallying cries in the street and on social media, joined a grim list. The names were Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott. The list is the long, disproportionate toll of black and brown Americans killed by police.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Crutcher was shot and killed with his hands up after police responded to his stalled car. The white officer who shot him was charged with manslaughter Thursday. In Charlotte, North Carolina, Scott was shot by a black officer. Witnesses say Scott was holding only a book, but police say he was pointing a gun. A gun was recovered at the scene. Police have declined to release video in Scott’s death, a fact that contributed to violent protests this week. Charlotte’s police chief said Thursday the video he has seen is inconclusive.

The list has grown longer since the deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Sadly, the record goes back further than that. But since 2014’s protests, names have been added and chanted.

Public opinion has swung back and forth. Protests cooled after two NYPD officers were killed by a deranged gunman in Brooklyn in late 2014. In July, Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota joined the list; then, two vengeful snipers killed eight officers in separate incidents in Dallas and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Protests have been mostly peaceful, but at times have drifted into destructiveness.

That shouldn’t distract from the disturbing question: Why do encounters, in particular those with no imminent threat to the public or police, result in death? How do we restore the deeply frayed trust between police and some of the communities they serve? Are we in danger of becoming numb to these horrific occurrences? Greater and more sustained actions are necessary.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission blamed that decade’s riots on systemic racism and lack of economic opportunity — problems that still exist today and go beyond policing — and called for renewed investment from the federal government. After the deaths of Brown and Garner, President Barack Obama created the Task Force on 21st Century Policing. It, too, found systemic problems at the core of police-community relations, and it assembled a blueprint to reform local policing with better data and more trust.

It was an admirable attempt, but lacked teeth. Some police departments have begun reforms. Others haven’t. And the carnage continues.

More urgency is required, especially at the level of each of some 18,000 police agencies across America. The municipal and local governments that direct most of them must prioritize reform. This is a problem across the nation, and Congress must use the federal purse strings to really improve the policing of the future. That includes collecting far more data on police shootings, setting best standards for training of officers, passing state laws that hold departments more accountable, and establishing disciplinary rules negotiated under collective bargaining that actually weed out bad officers.

That requires honest discussion and true compromise, and as with Obama’s task force, those on opposite ends of the issue may come away unhappy. But we must do something. Otherwise, the horrific toll of injustice will continue to rise. — The editorial board


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