Less force, more trust will keep police, citizens safer

In the days of last August's unrest in Ferguson, Mo., with young, black protesters standing face-to-face with police in full body armor backed by former military vehicles obtained through federal grants, Sen. Claire McCaskill reacted as much of the nation did.

The Missouri Democrat didn't like the image of a militarized police targeting American citizens just miles from her home.

"It escalated the situation," she told reporters at the time.

Now she and Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr., D-Mo., plan to do something about it.

They are sponsoring the "Protecting Communities and Police Act," an attempt to bring more transparency and common sense to the three disparate federal programs that in the past couple of decades have turned neighborhood cops into armored-up Rambos.

The bill would create a task force to oversee the three separate grant programs operated by the Department of Defense, Homeland Security and the Justice Department. It would limit the distribution of some military surplus equipment, such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP vehicles, while dedicating more money for body cameras. It would restrict small police departments from obtaining certain military equipment, and strengthen the requirements and transparency for SWAT teams to arm themselves with militarized equipment.

Some of the recommendations made by McCaskill and Clay mirror those made by President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which he convened after the protests in Ferguson brought attention to the growing distrust between police and the communities they serve.

The task force made several recommendations focused on changing police culture in an effort to increase community trust and improve safety of both police and those they serve.

This week, Obama took executive action on a couple of those recommendations, banning the transfer of some armored vehicles, powerful weaponry and camouflage uniforms from federal agencies to local police.

While some police union representatives criticized those actions, it is worth noting that many police organizations -- including those that represent the officers most likely to use military-grade equipment -- are on board with such recommendations. McCaskill's proposal has both the endorsement of the National Tactical Officers Association and the NAACP.

That says something about the reasonable approach being taken by the White House and legislation pushed by McCaskill and Clay. It says something further about today's Congress that even such a thoughtful bill will have trouble gaining passage.

As the nation continues to learn from the unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore and Cleveland and New York, it's vital to take the approach that Obama's task force did, and that the Ferguson Commission is taking locally: Police officers and protesters have to sit at the same table. Solutions must be found that increase trust.

The biggest issue with the militarization of local police departments is one of scale and proportionality, and that's where Obama and McCaskill are on the right track.

The American Civil Liberties Union reports in a recent study that about 80 percent of the SWAT raids in the U.S. are conducted to execute a search warrant in a drug case, more often than not in communities of color. The images of police as an occupying military force in the opening days of Ferguson protests were jarring to TV viewers. But in many American neighborhoods, they're real, everyday occurrences. The escalation in force has shown exponential hikes in the past couple of decades, according to Eastern Kentucky University's School of Justice Studies.

What Americans must ask, what Congress should debate, is what is the cost of this militarization?

How does it change the perception of police in local communities? What equipment contributes directly to the safety of police officers, and what is just gratuitously macho, ultimately decreasing trust and making the job of the cop walking the beat that much more difficult?

It's been nine months since young African-Americans took to the street in Ferguson and stood toe-to-toe with cops in body armor. In that time, some of those from both sides have come together to talk about their differences.

Reducing police militarization is one of the steps key leaders from both sides agree must be taken to improve trust, and, ultimately, the safety of our citizens and police officers in urban communities suffering from massive concentrated poverty.

Even with the president pre-empting some of what is in McCaskill's and Clay's proposal with executive action, it's time for Congress to do the same thing: Come together. Let the nation see that we have learned from our mistakes and learn from each other.