Eric Adams, James Johnson, Christy Lopez, Erin Murphy, J. Scott Thomson, and Kim Taylor-Thompson on a Milbank Tweed Forum panel discussing post-Ferguson policing practices.

On March 4, the Department of Justice issued a report condemning the racial bias and unconstitutional practices in the Ferguson Police Department that had bred routine abuse of power and community distrust. Last Wednesday, Professor Erin Murphy, a former public defender, moderated “Paths to Reform: Policing Post-Ferguson,” a Milbank Tweed Forum discussion of effective strategies for achieving meaningful police reform.

Christy Lopez, the deputy chief of the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, oversaw the “pattern and practice” probe in Ferguson, which uncovered what she described as a “willful blindness” to the problems in the department, as well as thinking that “dehumanized” the population. “It was seen as less harmful if black people went to jail,” she said. Over time, systematic discrimination had led to 30,000 outstanding arrest warrants in a town of 20,000 people.

Though Ferguson is in the spotlight now, it is emblematic of the situation in many police precincts. Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a lifelong New Yorker and a former captain in the New York Police Department, could speak from personal experience. Arrested as a teenager, he was brutally beaten by police. “Many officers, when they leave their precincts, don’t leave it with the understanding that the people they are protecting and serving are deserving of that,” he said. “We have evolved as a society.... Policing has not. Policing has remained stagnant.”

One of the major strategies for reform involves encouraging officers to trade in a “warrior” mentality for that of a “guardian,” according to J. Scott Thomson, chief of the Camden County Police Department in New Jersey. In the past few years, Camden has seen dramatic changes in its police, not the least of which was the disbandment and reconstitution of its police department in 2013. As part of his new policing tactics, Thomson has put more officers on walking beats, pushing them to meet community members in their daily lives, not just in crisis, as a way to foster relationships based on understanding and trust.

Leveraging the power of community members to prevent crime is essential, he argued, adding, “What you’ll find is that in the most challenging neighborhoods, you have far more good people than bad people.”

Results have been promising. Last August, the New York Times reported that shootings in Camden were down 43 percent in two years, and violent crime was down 22 percent.

Nonetheless, reforming police remains a knotted problem. Professor of Clinical Law Kim Taylor-Thompson drew attention to the negative effects of racial disparities between the police force and the communities they police, and how within departments, an “expectation of violence” in policing these communities can encourage even officers of color to adopt a “warrior” attitude. “Garner and Michael Brown and others are not new and not unique,” she said. They are examples of what this mentality can lead to.

The greater criminal justice system itself also has a history of indirectly promoting detrimental practices. James Johnson, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton, serves with Murphy on the Board of Directors of the Brennan Center for Justice, where he has been investigating how DOJ revenue streams influence certain policing behaviors. “If you want a grant,” Johnson said, “one of the things you report is the number of arrests—not the number of people who are given drug treatment. That’s a cultural factor, too.”

Some have dug in their heels at changes in the status quo. Case in point, in his first six months as chief, Thomson had eight lawsuits and 100 grievances filed against him. But, Adams said, opponents will soon be in the minority.

“This is the smart, new, creative policing that’s going to take away the nightstick justice leaders of those old police departments,” Adams said. “This is the way policing is going to go in America, and those who can’t catch up are going to find themselves displaced.”

Watch the Milbank Tweed Forum panel (1 hr, 17 min):

Posted March 30, 2015