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Ferguson police reform: Will it work?

The city of Ferguson, Mo., agrees to make changes in its police force, as recommended by the US Department of Justice. Is this a credible path to progress?

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    Protesters march in the rain, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9, 2015, in response to Michael Brown being shot and killed by Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.
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The City of Ferguson, Mo., where the 2014 fatal police shooting of an unarmed black teenager sparked riots and a national scrutiny of policing practices, has agreed to implement reforms set forth by the US Department of Justice (DOJ).

The agreement, published on Ferguson City’s website, comes in the wake of a DOJ investigation into Ferguson’s criminal justice system, published in March 2015, which found that “Ferguson law enforcement efforts are focused on generating revenue” and “violate the law and undermine community trust, especially among African Americans."

The proposed DOJ remedies for Ferguson include changes to the conduct of searches, arrests, and general police interactions with citizens. There will be an overhaul of training and a drive to recruit more minorities, as well as an increase in the use of body cameras worn by police officers.

This is the latest deal in a long line of agreements between the DOJ and police departments across the nation. How long federal oversight lasts – and how effective it is – varies from city to city.

For example, a 2003 investigation into the Detroit Police Department resulted in 11 years of reform efforts leading to an eventual "successful resolution" in August 2014. 

The Cleveland police department reached a similar DOJ consent decree agreement in 2015, following what was described as “a pattern of excessive use of force and civil rights violations."

That particular agreement has been in place less than a year, and has a total of five years to run, as Daniel Ball of the Cleveland Mayor’s Office says in an e-mail interview with The Christian Science Monitor.

“It may be premature for us to attempt to gauge success at this time. Though I can tell you that the agreement has been met as a welcome step in the right direction towards improving police and community relations," Ball writes.

But, as mandated by the DOJ agreement, a Community Police Commission has already been set up, representing diverse Cleveland communities and is tasked to “develop policy recommendations, build better community-police relations, and achieve comprehensive, systemic reform” of the Cleveland police department.

In Philadelphia, the police chief himself requested a DOJ investigation after a spike in police shootings in 2013.

“It’s a good report with a lot of solid recommendations,” said Commissioner Charles Ramsey of the findings released in March 2015. “These changes don’t happen overnight, but we’re going to push as hard as we can and make substantial changes over the next few months.” 

Yet, as all of these reforms are implemented, and their results awaited, it may be worth noting that they are only one part of the picture.

“Protesters across the country have been shouting for 'police reform.' But do they really know what truly reforming American law enforcement would entail — what it would cost? Do they know what they themselves would first need to bring to the table?”

So says former Colorado police chief Joel Shults on PoliceOne.com, an online law enforcement resource. In answer to these questions, Shults goes on to talk about, among other things, understanding the stresses that police officers themselves face as part of their daily job, of not losing sight of that part of the equation as reform efforts gain traction.

In addition, while many of the issues brought to light are systemic, and need to be addressed in a fundamental manner, there are still no guarantees of their efficacy.

Race, for example, is at the heart of the current discontent and disconnect sweeping through American communities and police forces. Yet, as The New Yorker points out, of the six Baltimore police officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray, three were white, and three were black

There are no simple, straightforward solutions. Indeed, the very nature of policing needs to be reassessed, suggests Ta-Neshi Coates in The Atlantic.

“Police officers fight crime. Police officers are neither case-workers, nor teachers, nor mental-health professionals, nor drug counselors. One of the great hallmarks of the past forty years of American domestic policy is a broad disinterest in that difference.

“The problem of restoring police authority is not really a problem of police authority, but a problem of democratic authority. It is what happens when you decide to solve all your problems with a hammer.”

Yet these deals between the DOJ and various police departments are at least a start, pointing us in the right direction.

"The challenges that caused the problems this decree addressees, did not arise in a day and we’re not going to get rid of them in a night," said Steve Dettelbach, US attorney for the northern district of Ohio, speaking of the Cleveland agreement in 2015. "There’s only one way to accomplish this hard work going forward: together."

In the case of Ferguson, the proposed agreement represents the culmination of seven months of negotiations between the Ferguson City Council and the DOJ, in which “neither side received everything that they requested, and both sides made concessions in order to reach an agreement,” according to the City of Ferguson press release. 

There will now be a period of public consultation before a final vote is taken on Feb. 9th.

"It's going to depend on the public," said Ferguson spokesman Jeff Small. "We're not just going to negotiate and say, 'Boom. This is what you have to live with as a community.'" 

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