Following the national outcry over police killings of unarmed African Americans in Ferguson and Staten Island, President Obama created a task force of police chiefs, activists, lawyers and professors to brainstorm ways to reform police-community relations across the country. Today, mayors from cities of all sizes had a chance to weigh in on that report at a conference in Washington, DC, where they offered an array of recommendations including more training for police officers on de-escalating tense situations, dealing with the mentally ill, and the use of social media, body cameras and other technology to gather information.
But the Task Force chair Charles Ramsey, also Philadelphia’s police commissioner, expressed reluctance about changing one of the most visible and controversial aspects of modern policing: the armored vehicles, automatic weapons and other military equipment that has flowed free of charge to police departments across the country.
Some mayors at the conference in DC raised concerns about the program, saying, “We have a faction of the community who says, ‘We don’t want that.’” But Ramsey shot back, defending the controversial program by referencing the recent shootings at a satirical magazine and Kosher market in Paris.
“If you have a situation like we had in Paris, you don’t want a cop to show up with a flashlight and a baton,” he said. “The term ‘militarizing the police’ sounds so bad, but to take away equipment just because someone thinks it looks military-like is a problem.”
When ThinkProgress pressed him on whether police in Ferguson and other cities used the equipment inappropriately, he acknowledged that there need to be stricter policies and better training.
“We need to be clear about under what circumstances should the equipment be deployed and guidelines about how to deploy it properly in those cases, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a need for it,” he said. “But is there some that they don’t need? Probably.”
Other recommendations from the mayors’ working group are raising concerns around privacy and free speech. The group stopped short of recommending that all police wear body cameras, but called them an “important tool” along with vehicle-mounted cameras, license plate readers and facial recognition software.
They also state: “Departments should understand, monitor and make use of social media,” a recommendation that raised a red flag for Kade Crockford with the American Civil Liberties Union in Boston. Crockford told ThinkProgress that police all over the country already monitor social media, use special software programs to map social networks and search for keywords, and target people involved in peaceful protesting. In many cases, police have made arrests based on protected speech.
“It certainly chills free speech,” said Crockford, citing the intense monitoring of the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements . “Just because police can monitor social media doesn’t mean it’s a good use of law enforcement resources or that it’s appropriate. It seems to me, the way they use it now has more to do with controlling political events than protecting public safety.” Responding to these concerns, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson of Gary, Indiana told ThinkProgress that “there is no expectation of privacy” when it comes to social media. “We understand the First Amendment, but at the same time we have to enhance and encourage that the police use all the tools available to them.”
Ron Davis with the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program added that police should use social media just as much to disseminate information as to collect it. But police departments’ social media efforts have also backfired thus far. When the New York Police Department launched the #MyNYPD hashtag last spring, encouraging people to tweet about positive encounters with the cops, the trending hashtag was quickly inundated with stories and photos of police brutality and discrimination.
Regardless, Davis maintained that social media must be a piece of the sweeping overhaul of cop culture President Obama called for when he established the task force.
“We have an opportunity to redefine community policing in a democratic society,” he said. “It’s more than an absence of crime, but the presence of justice.”