President's Task Force To Re-Examine How Police Interact With Public Tensions between police and communities of color are grabbing the nation's attention — all the way up to the White House. The Obama administration has announced a new task force to tackle the problem.

President's Task Force To Re-Examine How Police Interact With Public

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And with protests sweeping the country over police shootings here in the U.S., President Obama is aiming to exert influence over what is traditionally controlled locally - law enforcement. The White House has created what it calls a Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Its job is to find ways to strengthen the relationship between police and the public and then to share those recommendations with the president. Everything is on the table from rethinking training, to increasing officer diversity, to using body cameras.

Charles Ramsey is one of the chairs of the task force. He's the police commissioner in Philadelphia. Before that he was the police chief in Washington, D.C. We reached him along with his co-chair, Laurie Robinson, a former assistant attorney general under Presidents Clinton and Obama. She's now a professor at George Mason University. I began by asking her how much change can be brought about by a federal task force when policing is local.

LAURIE ROBINSON: There are 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies in this country. And the federal government can't order any of them to do specific things, but there are levers that can be pulled, for example, tying change to federal grants, like specific changes in the way training is done as a requirement for receiving federal grants in the area of criminal justice.

MONTAGNE: Is there any sense of how consistent are police forces and sheriffs' departments across the country in terms of how they train their police?

POLICE COMMISSIONER CHARLES RAMSEY: Well, there are some differences because, you know, state laws obviously very from state to state. So there are some differences. You know, we do a good job at training police in the mechanics of policing, not necessarily spending enough time in the educational component, having officers understand the role of police in a democratic society. How do you establish trust?

ROBINSON: Yeah, and I would add to that, Renee, the whole issue of how to de-escalate confrontations. We've seen in many of the incidents that have sparked controversy that de-escalation could have been a very helpful skill for the officers to have had. Oftentimes in training, there's a lot of technical training - how to drive cars, how to shoot - but people skills are so critical.

MONTAGNE: Charles Ramsey, you have been the target of some criticism in the past for doing in a sense what you're looking into in this task force. And that was back in the early 2000s as police chief in Washington, D.C., your police rounded up protesters who were demonstrating against meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Now, the city ended up being liable for something like $20 million in legal settlements, so clearly that was a problem. How does that experience color what you're doing on this task force and in a sense your view of reform?

RAMSEY: You learn as time goes on. That was 12 years ago. It was one year after 9/11. So there was an overreaction. There's no question about that in hindsight. So I learned a great deal about having a little more flexibility when it comes to protests. If you look at what is taking place in Philadelphia, we have a totally different approach during Occupy Philadelphia, even now in the wake of the Brown and Garner decisions.

Before roll call we read the First Amendment to our officers, reminding them people have a right to demonstrate. People have a right to protest. Now, you don't have a right to break windows and cause property damage. Protests can turn violent on occasions, and I think we've even seen that recently. So you do have to be careful. You can't just not take any action at all, but at the same time, I think you got to really measure your response very carefully.

MONTAGNE: If you had to offer solutions at this moment in time, what are the kinds of things that would be really key to making a difference?

RAMSEY: I'll start. I mean, establishing lines of communication, touching communities where we have the most tension and strained relationships, making sure that people are treated in a respectful fashion and also understanding that we're not going to get to a situation where there's zero uses of force throughout the country in the course of any year. I mean, we do have a lot of violence in many of our communities. And officers are sent in those communities to deal with the people who are committing acts of violence, and not everyone wants to go to jail peacefully.

The question to me, and the issue to me, is making sure that if officers do have to use force, that it's only that force that's appropriate based on the situation they find themselves in. If you do have to resort to deadly force, then, you know, your life or the life of another has to be in immediate jeopardy. And we've got to constantly train, constantly reinforce and hold people accountable if their actions fall outside of policy or guidelines.

ROBINSON: And, Renee, from my standpoint I would say this has to do with local police departments having dialogue with their communities. It's about open communication and discussion of accountability and ongoing discussion. It's not a one-time thing. It's about establishing relationships.

MONTAGNE: When you mentioned accountability...

RAMSEY: Right.

MONTAGNE: ...On the part of police, how do you see that working if that demand is coming from the federal level? What kind of accountability can be demanded or asked?

RAMSEY: One of the things that obviously, you know, people are concerned about is how these cases are reviewed. And is a grand jury, for an example, the proper way of doing it with the district attorney's involvement and so forth? I don't have the answer to that. But one of the things that we will be looking at as a task force is independent review of these kinds of cases, and how should that take place?

But we also want to make sure that everything we do protects everyone's rights, and that includes the rights of a police officer as well. As much information as you can get out publicly, I think ought to be given out so that people understand all the circumstances, not just a bit and pieces of what may have taken place. And then they form an opinion based on that, and the only outcome is one in which a person is either indicted or fired or what have you. That may be appropriate, but we need to really let the facts drive that.

MONTAGNE: Charles Ramsey is Philadelphia's police commissioner. Laurie Robinson is a professor at George Mason University. And they are co-chairs of the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Thank you very much for joining us.

RAMSEY: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thank you.

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