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Obama's Policing Task Force Sounds As Divided As The Police And Protesters

The task force meets for the first time next week and has 90 days to make policy recommendations. Members are ready to talk — but it's tense.

Posted on January 9, 2015, at 8:14 a.m. ET

A December protest after the grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved in Eric Garner's death.
Elizabeth Shafiroff / Reuters

A December protest after the grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved in Eric Garner's death.

WASHINGTON — Next week, President Obama's police task force will sit down for the first time amid an increasingly nasty, continuing conflict between police officers, public officials, and protesters in New York City.

No one has any clue how the task force will turn out.

Interviews with members of the president's Task Force on 21st Century Policing in recent days show a panel of activists and police leaders willing to sit down, but deeply divided on what the most important problems are, and which groups (police officers or minorities) are being unfairly targeted. The task force, announced in December and promoted by administration officials as senior as top adviser Valerie Jarrett, has 90 days to make policy recommendations.

Ron Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (known at the DOJ as COPS) and the executive director of the presidential task force, said he expects to begin with the basics.

"The first concept that I would embrace quite frankly draws from the Steven Covey Seven Habits of Effective Leaders. One of them is, 'Seek first to understand, then to be understood,'" said Davis, a former police chief of Palo Alto, California, and longtime Oakland police officer. "And I think all sides I think first have to understand the perspectives of others and respect that perspective even if they disagree with it."

That there should be conversation is about all the two sides of the policing debate, both represented on the panel, can agree on. That agreement may not extend very far, however.

Jose Lopez, a task force member and lead organizer for Make the Road NY, a group generally critical of police tactics, said police safety — a main focus of the law enforcement members on the panel — isn't his top priority. "I don't know if I could sit at that table. I don't imagine that I'll be in that position" to be responsible for figuring out how to keep police safe, Lopez told BuzzFeed News. "I'm there for community safety… for keeping black and brown people safe from the police."

Lopez was among the young activists who met with Obama to talk about policing in the Oval Office after Ferguson, and he said he's not willing to accept a final result from the task force that doesn't hold police accountable for their tactics and put deaths at the hands of cops on the same level as the deaths of police officers.

"Everyone was struck with grief that day [that two New York City police officers were shot and killed]. But we need the same response, and for police to respond the same way regardless of what life is taken. We understand that this is a loss, not just for the department, but for all of us," Lopez said. "This moment happened and it was a hard moment for New York. But in terms of response, why don't we respond the same way when a black man dies every 28 hours?"

Police leaders have expressed frustration with these kinds of questions, in numerous public statements in New York and elsewhere.

When it comes to the task force, police leaders not directly associated are keeping their distance. A representative for New York's Patrolmen's Benevolent Association declined to comment. A spokesperson for the International Union of Police Associations said the group will not be speaking about the task force until its findings have been released.

Sean Smoot, a task force member and the director of Police Benevolent and Protective Association of Illinois, said tensions among rank-and-file police officers are high and respect for the debate around policing is low. He said that, like the police critics, officers feel like they're not being heard by those in power.

"A lot of people still don't feel safe in their community. Now, statistically, they're safer now than they've ever been. But if they don't feel safe, the statistics really don't matter," Smoot said, referring to the decrease in crime in recent decades. "And it works the same way from the other side. If the officers don't feel supported, if they don't feel like the people who set the policy into place supports them in carrying out their duties, if it's well-founded or not, I don't know that it really matters. The perception: That's their reality."

Since officials first announced the Obama police task force on Dec. 18, a lot has happened — and an already tense situation has become more acute.

Fewer than 24 hours after the official list of members was announced on Dec. 18, New York Police Department supporters held a rally featuring cops wearing "I Can Breathe" T-shirts, an incendiary parody of the "I Can't Breathe" shirts that popped up across the country after a grand jury declined to indict NYPD officers after the death of Eric Garner.

The next day, a man shot and killed two Brooklyn police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, who were sitting in their patrol car. At the memorials for the two murdered policemen, some rank-and-file officers turned their backs on New York's Mayor Bill de Blasio, who some police officers view as an ally of the protesters.

The situation has not abated in the days since. The National Fraternal Order of police is pushing for violence against police to be prosecuted as a hate crime and stepped up attacks on Obama for what they see as a weak defense of the cops.

Smoot, who has known Obama since the president's days in the Illinois legislature, acknowledged that some cops don't like comments the president has made in the months since Ferguson, criticizing police for militarized tactics and acknowledging that many still view the police as adversaries, particularly in communities of color — even as, he said, the state of race relations in America is improving. Smoot wouldn't answer when asked if Obama is "pro-police," though he said Obama has a "good heart" even if he's "made some mistakes like we all do."

Smoot said that as a member of the task force, he's keeping an open mind and going in without "any preconceived notions or goals." But he said that the current state of the debate has not included enough of the police point of view.

"In the law enforcement world, the true rank-and-file leaders are always open to a conversation," he said. "I don't think that there has been any real conversation. There have been a lot of accusations, there have been a lot of complaints, but there haven't been a lot of real conversations about what the real problems are, and what potential real solutions are."

Asked for potential areas of compromise between cop and protester, both sides say "disagreeing without being disagreeable" is a result in itself. As for tangible, real areas of agreement on how to change policing, Smoot said he'll wait for testimony and "keep an open mind." Lopez noted that "the White House has said this is not going to be a silver bullet."

The chasm between the sides represented on the task force stands in contrast with the White House expectation for quick results — especially with the tight, 90-day timeline on the task force laid down by the president for policy recommendations. The task force is charged with creating a list of real changes police can make, and Davis, the task force's executive director, said he intends to hit the deadline.

He said the current poor state of relations between police and some of the people they serve could actually be enough pressure to force results.

"The tension has captured national attention. I think everyone recognizes that something has to change. We need to move forward. People are recognizing that we need to come together to do so," Davis said. "So I think the time is now, I think the president is 100% right in his timing of it, and this is why we have a relatively quick turnaround. Because the timing is now. We do need concrete recommendations."