by Danny Turkel, Digital Coordinator, NCLR
On December 18, 2014, President Obama signed an executive order to create the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, a committee composed of law enforcement, academics, and community organizers. The task force’s mission was to “examine, among other issues, how to strengthen public trust and foster strong relationships between local law enforcement and the communities that they protect, while also promoting effective crime reduction.” Their final report, issued last May, consists of six pillars: Building Trust and Legitimacy, Policy and Oversight, Technology and Social Media, Community Policing and Crime Reduction, Training and Education, and Officer Wellness and Safety. Within these pillars, the report offers 59 recommendations and close to one hundred specific action items in order to achieve the task force’s goals.
Jose Lopez, who currently serves as Director of Organizing for Make the Road New York, a New York City–based immigrant justice organization, was chosen to serve on the panel that authored the report. Lopez agrees that there are larger issues at play than just poorly trained, trigger-happy police officers. He views policing in a historical context, commonly used for “racialized social control.”
“When you think of it in that way, you see it as housing, you see it in the denial of voting, and you see it as the denial of higher education, no access to financial aid,” said Lopez. “It’s interesting that today it is still completely legal to discriminate against criminals in the way that it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans in the Jim Crow South.”
Lopez made it clear that when we talk about policing, however we frame it, we need to be moving away from discrimination. “When I think about 21st-century policing, I think about it from the lens of the young people whom I work with on a daily basis; what do they experience, and how does policing impact them and their communities?”
For Latino communities, Lopez highlights the need to disentangle local law enforcement with immigration enforcement. While this is not the sole cause of friction between police and Latinos, it would certainly go a long way to rebuilding the trust and confidence Latinos have in law enforcement.
“If immigrant communities only see police as the gateway to deportation, there will absolutely never be any trust there or any push from the immigrant community to want to come forward, for example, to report a crime that they may have witnessed,” said Lopez. By putting police officers on the front lines of America’s immigration battle, public confidence in law enforcement is eroded, especially for Latinos.
He also describes problems stemming from the expansion of the National Crime and Information Center (NCIC), an FBI database originally created in 1967 to track criminals across jurisdictions. However, as Lopez describes, “In 2002, an immigrant violator database was added to the NCIC and so what the database now does is it tells police officers if the individual who’s stopped has an outstanding removal order, failed to complete post–September 11 registration requirements, or was previously deported on a felony.”
According to Lopez, if any of anything comes up as a hit on the database, local law enforcement is then supposed to contact U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A study by the Migration Policy Institute found that the NCIC database has a national average error rate of 42% when attempting to determine someone’s immigration status; Shelby County, Tennessee, is the worst offender with a 98% error rate.
Another item that Lopez talked about was getting police officers out of local schools. “Examining New York City during the 2013–2014 school year [the latest data available], there were 775 arrests and summons, almost four per day, by the NYPD’s School Safety Division. Black and Latino students account for 60% of students but made up 94.3% of all students who were arrested” said Lopez. “The impact on Latino students is real. Our students are two times likelier to be suspended than White students and one suspension doubles the likelihood of dropping out. Students who drop out are more than eight times as likely to end up in the criminal justice system. We have to move away from making schools feel and act like prisons.”
One major improvement that could be made in our communities, says Lopez, is the creation of crisis intervention teams, groups made up of community members, mental health experts, and law enforcement officials, which can respond to emergencies and provide holistic, community-based solutions to situations that may be exacerbated by regular police protocols.
Even as he’s listing the names and circumstances of the countless victims of police violence, Lopez speaks with an energetic optimism and clarity that hints at why he was qualified to sit on the president’s panel. Despite the difficulties in implementing nationwide policing standards, Mr. Lopez is cautiously hopeful about the future.
“It’s one of those things that can quickly go south if you don’t have the right people on the team and who respond to these things in a timely fashion. We have to get it right.”