Reaching toward reform

Woman takes part in a protest against police violence in Midtown Miami.
Woman takes part in a protest against police violence in Midtown Miami. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Police officers — their behavior, their attitudes and their seeming immunity — have been under the harshest of spotlights. This time, the debate was kicked off by the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, then Eric Garner’s chokehold death in New York. It was then kicked into high gear when grand juries did not indict the officers in either case.

Well-coordinated street protests — as opposed to lawless rioting — continue, across the United States and in spots around the globe. Last weekend in Miami, marchers stopped traffic around art fairs in Midtown. In London, activists held a “die in.” In Washington, D.C., congressional aides staged a walkout on the Capitol steps. Recently, President Obama announced the creation of a task force to examine police-community relations.

Orlando Police Chief Richard Beary told the Editorial Board that the task force is a good first step, but that its focus is narrow. Chief Beary is the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police — IACP — and, in fact, he was at the White House last week, along with others, for a sit-down with the Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden about the state of law enforcement and criminal justice in the country.

Chief Beary is well-positioned to help develop prescriptives to address the most flagrant behavior, and also the day-to-day encounters between police and citizens that can be informed as much by the nature of a perceived violation as the quality of an officer’s training, the color of a citizen’s skin, or just the mood of either person.

Miami-Dade County is not immune to police behavior that leaves residents rattled, befuddled and resentful. One resident, a woman driving to her home in a gated community, told the Board that she was stopped by an officer “pumped up” perhaps on self-importance, perhaps on steroids, perhaps both, loudly informing her that he had to make sure that “the right kind of people” were driving those streets.

Clearly, tensions don’t exist just between minority communities and police, though that’s the destructive issue that must be addressed. Police do dangerous work, swooping into the perilous situations as others are running the other way. But the good ones, the diligent, the responsible officers are too often overshadowed by the rogues. And, it seems, too often, the culture of policing gives them free rein — and guns.

Short term, relatively speaking, police departments across the country “cannot be afraid to address the issue” of disdain and distrust many minority communities harbor, Chief Beary said. “Police have to go to community meetings, churches, gatherings and town halls and have that conversation, show that we mean it.” Absolutely. Long term, Chief Beary said that lasting reforms should come from a more comprehensive examination of the system: policing, yes, but also recruiting, training, corrections, courts, the mental health system.

“IACP for 20 years has wanted a commission to look at the status of policing and criminal justice,” Chief Beary said. “We need to know what it looks like in the future, in an armed society — community relations, technology.

“The world has changed a lot since 1965 and the Johnson administration,” he said. “That’s the last time there was a real look into the criminal-justice system.” What he wants takes an act of Congress, which has not been cooperative. About five years ago, then-Sen. Jim Webb, of Virginia, introduced a bill, but it went nowhere. Given the depth and breadth of recent disturbing events, this issue needs another champion in Congress.