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What Does '21st Century Policing' Really Mean?

Pablo Martinez Monsivais
Attorney General Eric Holder is seen on an in-house television monitor as he speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. COPS director Ronald Davis (right) looks on.

It's an oft-repeated mandate: law enforcement needs to change for the 21st century. But what does "21st century policing" actually mean, and how would a forward-thinking department be different than what most jurisdictions have now?

On this week's episode of the Criminal Injustice podcast, University of Pittsburgh law professor and host David Harris talks to Ronald Davis, the former head of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS.

Davis helped write the 2015 blueprint for President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

RONALD DAVIS: Community policing is when the police and the community come together and become co-producers of public safety, which means together we're responsible for identifying problems. Together we're responsible for developing solutions to these problems. Together we implement that, and most importantly, together we hold each other mutually accountable for successes or setbacks.

DAVID HARRIS: And we get to the summer of 2014. A lot changes. Michael Brown is shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo. Riots erupt there. There's the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York. That year, in December 2014, President Obama asks you to serve as the executive director of the brand new Task Force on 21st Century Policing. What was the mission of the task force?

DAVIS: The biggest change that occurred was not the controversial incidents themselves or the concerns that the minority community shared. It was the revealing of that in such a public venue that many who did not understand the issues were forced now to look at and deal with the reality of what many communities of color had been talking about for generations.

The idea of the task force was to say, "Look, how do we now come up with some tenable, credible recommendations to help law enforcement improve its relationship with the community while ensuring that we're still getting the historic gains in reducing crime and violence in our communities?"

HARRIS: You've been in law enforcement for three decades and one of the things that I've heard you say is how certain police approaches cause collateral damage. What do you mean by the collateral damage of these kinds of tactics?

DAVIS: It goes back to the question that's asked. If we're guardians, that means we're there to guard our community, which in doing so, you have to use tactics to not harm the community. You can't burn down a village in order to save it.

So when it's a tactic that has collateral damage, you can't arrest your way out of crime. Because the collateral damage has been -- and this is not theoretical, these are factual -- has resulted in the mass incarceration of our people in general. We still have the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world. Inside of that, we have significant racial disparities, which means primarily young men and women of color.

The collateral damage is that we're destroying our trust, the credibility of the system, we're destroying communities, we're taking people out of the American way of life where they can vote and get jobs and really live a prosperous life.

So there's a lot of collateral damage for the temporary satisfaction of taking people to jail for very low-level offenses.

HARRIS: Now it's been about two years since the final report from the task force came out. Changes are beginning to happen. What kind of change are you seeing?

DAVIS: I think we're seeing broad, widespread, heartening and impressive change. It came from the field. We learned from what works or doesn't work. What I mean by the field, I'm not just talking police. I'm talking communities. We have people testify in front of the task force that came from community activist groups to civil rights organizations to labor unions to police to academics. So it came from the people that are fighting battles every day. What's the best thing that worked? It came from the best thinking, from the science, we did research. It's been embraced, because it makes sense.

As one chief told me, and it was the San Jose chief, I'm going to put him on blast, as they say. I think it was very powerful. And he said the following: "I'm not implementing 21st century policing pillars because President Obama asked me to and I'm not going to stop if President Trump asks me to. I'm implementing it, because it's in the best interest of my community, and my community and I have decided this is how we advance public safety in San Jose."

That one statement covers it all, and I think President Obama knew that. That it wasn't about politics, it wasn't about an administration -- it was about leadership and allowing people to come together to solve problems. And that's why this report is so widely implemented and embraced.

Criminal Injustice is an independent podcast recorded and produced in partnership with 90.5 WESA. Find more at criminalinjusticepodcast.com.

Megan Harris is a writer, editor, photographer and curator for Pittsburgh's NPR News station. She leads editorial coverage for The Confluence, 90.5 WESA's live, one-hour, daily morning news show.