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Police Reform In U.S. Must 'Happen At The Grass Roots'


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The policing profession in the U.S. can be improved but only if leaders across government and local residents join the fight.


So agreed speakers at the American Society of Criminology annual convention on Thursday in Philadelphia.


Participants rejected the premise of a panel discussion titled, "Can Policing in America Be Fixed," saying they did not agree that it was broken.


"It's not going to fix itself," said Charles Ramsey, who headed police forces in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. "Change has to happen at the grass roots."


Ramsey co-chaired an Obama administration task force on 21st century policing with former Assistant Attorney General Laurie Robinson, now professor emeritus at George Mason University in Virginia.


The task force initially reported in 2015. Last April, it issued a "renewed call for action," including eight recommendations. The group noted that more than 135 unarmed Black people had died during police stops since its initial report was released.


Robinson also spoke at Wednesday's criminology meeting. She echoed Ramsey's analysis, saying that local police leaders should help in "breaking down silos" in which the policing profession operates by "engaging local leaders in allies," no only elected officials but also city managers, who can play a big part in police operations.


Policing culture has improved over the years, in part because more women have entered the profession and have advocated many reforms, Robinson said.


Another speaker was criminologist Robin Engel, who left the University of Cincinnati to become senior vice president of the National Policing Institute, a research and policy organization.


Many police leaders and other experts have agreed on steps that can be taken to make police forces operate more effectively, but police departments have failed in the key areas of implementation and sustainability, Engel said.


As it happens, many police chiefs who try innovative techniques and fail end up losing their jobs, while chiefs who maintain the status quo are able to remain indefinitely.


One recommendation in this year's report of Obama task force members would calls for providing "incentives for advancement that reflect the redefined mission of policing, placing less emphasis on arrests and enforcement and more on developing collaborative community relationships."


In a separate panel on policing at the criminology convention, James Nolan of West Virginia University presented data suggesting that police departments with high arrest totals relative to the populations they serve, such as St. Louis and Baltimore, have high rates of unsolved homicides, more than 50 percent of cases. By contrast, a city like Atlanta has many fewer arrests and many more solved homicides.


Former police chief Ramsey contended that police reforms are "all doable." He said, "I see a bright future for policing... but it won't be easy."

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