Solution Sets for Baltimore and Beyond

May 02, 2015

America is finally and quite visibly confronting a broken justice system and the disproportionate arrest, detention and incarceration of people of color. The trigger for this awakening has been the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement. Other tragedies could have provoked such outrage including private for-profit prisons with federally mandated quotas for immigration arrests or the abuse of locked-up prisoners including juveniles or the built-in bias of laws that imprison women who act to protect themselves or their children from domestic violence. Clearly, this is an opportunity for change – let’s be wise and effective about what we do as a nation.

This initial outline of a strategic plan for justice reform calls for coordinated actions called “solution sets” that are put in place through networks of partnerships. These partnerships include community members and leaders, different agencies at all levels of government, services provided by community-based organizations and the support of faith-based, charitable, business and non-profit organizations. For now, I have divided the problems of a broken justice system into six solution sets each with actions to be coordinated over time and many to be begun at the same time:

1) DIALOG:  Peacebuilding is the range of activities that reduces and prevents violence. Peacemaking is the change of heart or new insights that occur when people on opposite sides of a conflict sit down and talk face-to-face about shared problems and agree on shared actions for improving the situation. Calling for a ceasefire or starting a task force on police practices or increasing summer jobs for teens are steps towards peacebuilding. Peacemaking and healing the broken trust between communities and law enforcement will only occur through face-to-face dialog.

In diplomatic circles, dialog often begins with each “side” meeting separately to vent emotions and to clarify issues and positions. Then with a trained facilitator or experienced diplomat, the different sides join together to share perceptions and agree on shared actions – sometimes just the ONE most important action to move toward.

Baltimore and other cities struggling with the broken trust between communities and law enforcement can begin such dialog tomorrow – starting separately, in small groups and with a few key questions. For example, for law enforcement, the conversation can start like this:  (1) How are each of you doing right now? (2) What is our perception of recent events? (3) What do we think is the community’s perception of recent events? (4) What is the ONE action we can take to re-build trust in our community? Then, when all officers have had this conversation, city officials can invite community members and leaders to join the conversation. Obviously, community leaders and members or city officials can also call for such dialogs. Whatever the format – including “Coffee with Cops” or Police Athletic Leagues -- the key is that changing hearts and minds only occurs through face-to-face dialog.

2) TRAINING:  Law enforcement in America is not a military function. Overly aggressive policing and the mass incarceration of people of color -- in some cities 10 times as great as white citizens – are symptoms of policing that has lost its way. The Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission is perhaps most eloquent describing the current situation: the change required is from police as warriors invading a community to police as guardians and problem solvers within a community. Such a transformation begins with honest dialog and includes new training, new policies and new programs. Many police departments and community leaders have called for new training models that emphasize ways to de-escalate tensions or provide crisis intervention. Police departments and citizen boards have identified training needs that include understanding addiction, mental illness and adolescent development or how to stop blood loss when someone has been injured  – good ideas that will take time to implement as each agency decides what is needed.

3) POLICY:  Envisioning law enforcement as guardians of human and constitutional rights, the current White house Task Force on 21st Century Policing made many policy recommendations. Some are likely to result in drawn-out congressional battles such as separating federal immigration enforcement from state and local police activity. Some were very focused such as the need for improved data collection or hiring and promoting a more diverse police force. There were calls for research on a variety of topics including the use of body cameras or riot gear. 

Some big policy issues were not addressed: the federal bias towards militarization of law enforcement; private prisons and the corrosive influence of big money; how to precisely use federal funds to shape a stronger community policing ethic; how to stop schools from using police officers to expel difficult students when school programs fail meet student needs; how to address the high rates of suicide and domestic abuse within law enforcement; the role of community police to battle our epidemic of domestic violence and school bullying; and reaching consensus on realistic expectations about surveillance, privacy and civil liberties. Such policy changes can only be successful if the American public is fully engaged in conversations about the role of law enforcement and the safety and security needs of citizens.

4) BEST PRACTICES:  The burden is on community members and police departments to seek best practices for improving the quality of law enforcement and police-community relations. There is no national database; there are wonderful examples of effective policing innovations all over the country. Here are some that may help us all define an era of better policing:

  • Comprehensive probation reform in New York City
  • Community policing in Camden, New Jersey and Richmond, California
  • Police academy training in Washington State
  • Diverting low-risk youth and young adults away from the criminal justice system in Philadelphia and New York City
  • Los Angeles, California Community Safety Partnership
  • Las Vegas “use of force” Review Board and the Wisconsin model for independent investigation of police-involved deaths
  • Memphis, Tennessee Crisis Intervention Training
  • Boston Police Department use of social media during community crisis

Many of these best practices are highlighted in the interim report of The White House Task Force on 21st Century Policing. The report also pointed to the challenge of reaching consensus on best practices when America has 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies and each wants to control training and policies. Still, a crisis is brewing this summer and the use of social media means demonstrations can simultaneously leapfrog all across America. What is the Monday Morning Action for the Department of Justice? “Fast track” concise case studies and user-friendly on-line tools so law enforcement at all levels have somewhere to look as they think through right now how to de-escalate long-simmering tensions and use this crisis as an opportunity to engage in dialog with the communities they serve.

5) ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT:  Democracy is a living system – it’s all connected! We cannot separate crime and violence, unemployment and poverty, the lack of access to quality health care and bad schools leading to low-paying jobs that do not provide a living wage. Then, add in overt or unconscious racism of all sorts and institutional biases against women and minorities. If you do not understand frustration, anger, protest and demonstrations – you are not paying attention to social realities.

The only way to find the hundreds of billions of dollars needed to invest in our communities is to take the waste out of bureaucracies! This includes down-sizing the agencies that do not directly serve the American people, holding agencies accountable for results that matter and demanding a wiser use of taxpayer monies. For example, the U. S. Department of Education has failed this nation for decades. Compared with other countries around the world, we rank #30 in math, #22 in science and #20 in reading. Maybe we could use the Department’s $70B budget and the $40B earned on interest from student loans to provide free college tuition for all Americans, free pre-kindergarten, free parent education and resource grants to schools in poor neighborhoods!

6) PARTNERSHIPS:  It’s true to say solving complex problems such as aggressive police practices, the disproportionate incarceration of people of color, and the broken trust between law enforcement and communities requires partnerships. However, government departments and agencies – especially at the federal level -- design and deliver programs in isolation from other agencies. Goals, plans, budgets and metrics are rarely coordinated by any set of agencies and oversight mechanism such as the Office of Management and Budget and Congressional committees focus on individual programs and protect turf rather than cooperate and coordinate.

We actually have laws and policies that prevent cooperation across agencies! If the desks and computers at a job-training site are funded by the U. S. Department of Labor, employees of the U. S. Department of Education cannot sit on the chairs or use the computers. It’s worse than that: legal barriers prevent the cooperation needed to fight cyber-terrorism or understand threats. Right now, when agencies try to work together there is no place in all of the federal government that supports those partnerships -- no place responsible for establishing a unified mission or integrated funding or shared accountability. There are no permanent structures in place to coordinate across government agencies and with community partners.

Final Thoughts:  Solving social problems such as poverty and broken trust and wasteful agencies are possible only if we look at the big picture: our government is organized like the hierarchies of the 19th century and not the interconnected world of today. In my last book, Performance Networks: Transforming Governance the 21st Century, I concluded that we need an architecture of transformation that crosses traditional agency boundaries:

Our current problems are so complex that new initiatives can be successful only through multi-agency plans that rely on cross-boundary teams, connect neighborhood organizations with policymaking leadership, and embrace citizen participation. This framework will in turn transition government hierarchies that build bureaucratic empires and measure paperwork to performance networks accountable for results that matter [p 153].

The secret sauce for successful performance networks is often structural – how exactly are goals, plans, teams, actions, budgets and metrics coordinated? Such mechanisms must be put in place for each complex initiative and the federal Office of Management and Budget -- unable or unwilling to manage and budget across agencies -- must be re-booted to provide overarching coordination and integration in a form better suited for the 21st century.

If we act wisely, we can shape an American future where everyone has the opportunity to realize their dreams. United, We the People can create a wiser and more just America For the People.

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