Dangerous status quo shows need for reform of policing

Sam Olens is Georgia’s Attorney General.

I recently had the honor of attending a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, along with activists, religious leaders, civil rights leaders, police union leaders and chiefs of police, as well as Loretta Lynch, the Attorney General of the United States, and senior members of her staff and the President’s staff. The meeting was to discuss law enforcement and race relations.

The current level of violence and racial tension in our country has made it very clear that we need to reform our system so we can transform our communities into places where all citizens feel safe. Achieving this will require improved and increased police training, ongoing community outreach, and a justice system that demands accountability.

As Attorney General of Georgia, I have close ties to the law enforcement community and I have the utmost respect for the difficult and dangerous job its members do for our communities. My brother was a police officer. When I was Chairman and Commissioner for Cobb County, approximately one-third of our employees were first responders. As Attorney General, I am honored to represent numerous law enforcement agencies, including the GBI and the Georgia Department of Public Safety.

Society has asked our police officers to be our guardians, partners, ministers and mediators, but they are neither equipped nor able to solve all of our social needs. In order for law enforcement to better meet the increased demands of their job, the police force should reflect the demographics of the community, and the hiring of local residents should be encouraged. Our police academies should augment basic training to include sessions on de-escalation and communicating with individuals who may suffer from mental illness. Further, each department must provide wellness programs to assist their officers in dealing with the stress of their jobs. Implicit bias and cultural training should be included in basic training. And we should always be looking for ways to update best practices, revise policies, and review new laws to address the needs of our communities. We must also increase the salaries for our police officers.

Community policing is critical for building empathy and necessary relationships. There should be no place in our country where minorities fear the police. Law enforcement agencies need to participate regularly in community programs with all minority groups. Citizen Police Academies help build that bridge between the public and law enforcement and are also a great platform for recruiting local residents. Law enforcement agencies should also utilize social media to educate the public on what is occurring in their community along with programs to bring the community together.

We need more measures to ensure accountability and justice. Body-worn cameras should be considered for all police departments, wherever budgets will allow for such equipment. When an officer uses deadly force, there must be a mandatory and thorough review of the incident, which should be conducted independently from the agency where the officer was employed.

It is important to acknowledge that our perception of racial bias is naturally limited by our own experiences, necessitating that we truly listen and seek to understand each other so that we can restore trust in our communities. U.S. Senator Tim Scott, an African American Republican, recently discussed having been stopped by police seven times in one year, with a Capitol Hill officer asking him to present his ID even when he was wearing his Congressional pin. “There is absolutely nothing more frustrating, more damaging to your soul,” said Sen. Scott, “than when you know you’re following the rules and being treated like you are not.” He urged people to “recognize that just because you do not feel the pain, the anguish of another, does not mean it does not exist. To ignore their struggles … simply leaves you blind and the American family very vulnerable.” Other anecdotal stories involve African-American officers who are racially profiled when out of uniform.

Adherence to the rule of law is critical to the well-being and security of our nation. It is never acceptable conduct to express discord by threatening, harming or killing a member of our law enforcement community. Instead, we must focus our efforts on improving our criminal justice system. Understanding, trust and mutual respect are essential for a civil society. Better training, outreach and accountability will move us forward. Let’s work together for the safety of our communities, our citizens and our law enforcement professionals.