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President Obama Already Has a Way to Prevent Policing Abuses

A presidential task force outlines steps to bridge the divide between police and communities of color.

Thousands of activists filled the streets of Manhattan after it was announced that a grand jury had failed to indict NYPD officer Joe Pantaleo in the killing of Eric Garner, December 3, 2014. (Photo: a katz /

The bloody images of police beating Floyd Dent, a 57-year-old African-American man pulled over for allegedly running a stop sign, and violently arresting Martese Johnson, an African-American student at the University of Virginia, went viral at a time when police across the nation are under increased scrutiny for civil rights abuses. These incidents come after a Department of Justice report that documents a pattern and practice of police discrimination against Africans Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as a presidential task force report with recommendations for bridging the divide between police and communities of color.

The reports document the reality of policing rooted in implicit bias and a legal structure that perpetuates it. They also lay out steps that policy makers from the federal government level down to local police departments can take to prohibit racially biased policing, hold police accountable to communities and protect public safety while upholding the values of fairness and human rights. The reports were released on the heels of nationwide protests demanding justice for police killings of unarmed African-American youth and a full 50 years after the march from Selma was sparked by a state trooper killing a civil rights activist. Considering the deep divide between police and communities, the tools at the disposal of his administration and the growing calls for justice, President Obama can and should go big to ensure that police departments respect the civil rights of all Americans.

President Obama can immediately do this by strengthening compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 through Department of Justice action. Title VI prohibits recipients of federal funds, including local police departments, from discriminating based on race, color or national origin. Unfortunately, the federal government has not been doing enough to ensure that recipients are upholding civil rights. It doesn’t – and shouldn’t – have to be this way.

One simple but vitally important step that the DOJ can take is to require that police departments clearly demonstrate equitable police practices when they apply for federal grants, undergo evaluations, submit reports and get audited by the Department of Justice for compliance purposes. Any assurances that police departments make, and any documentation that they provide to DOJ to prove compliance, must be reflected on the ground, where police officers interact with the community. The department should require specific, demonstrable evidence of proactive efforts to prevent and address racially biased policing.

Stronger requirements for police departments are not only necessary for civil rights compliance, but can also help to implement many of the recommendations made in the interim report by the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. These recommendations include police collecting and reporting data on stops, frisks, searches, summons and arrests disaggregated by race and ethnicity. They also include police trainings on implicit bias; on use of force that emphasizes de-escalation and alternatives to arrests or summons; on improving social interaction with community members; and on the treatment of LGBTQ, immigrant and Muslim communities. The task force also recommends accountability measures such as external and independent criminal investigations in cases of police use of force, community oversight, and mechanisms to address inappropriate use of equipment and tactics during mass demonstrations. It also proposes commonsense practices in police interactions like requiring an officer to seek consent for a search and to explain to that person that they have a right to refuse consent in the absence of a warrant or probable cause.

The Department of Justice can require police departments receiving federal funds to implement one or a combination of these recommendations to show compliance with Title VI. The nationwide protests in response to police killings in Ferguson, in New York and in other parts of the country continue to reveal deep patterns of tension and civil rights grievances, and the DOJ is well within its authority to respond by requiring concrete, demonstrable compliance prior to, and as a condition upon, receipt of federal funds, as well as during the period of funded activity.

Through these and other measures, the department can move us closer to equal justice by incentivizing policies that improve police and community relations and enhance public safety.

Fifty years ago, activists in Selma looked to the federal government when they were faced with violence at the hands of state and local law enforcement. Similarly, federal action is now critically needed on the issues of police killings of youth of color and equal justice for all. The Obama administration has an opportunity and obligation not only to shape its legacy, but also to use its federal authority to prevent civil rights abuses by police departments.