Obama Names Phila. Police Commissioner for Post-Ferguson Task Force

mqdefaultPresident Obama named the Philadelphia Police Department’s commissioner, Chuck Ramsey, the co-chair of a task force that will examine the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color” following the Ferguson ruling.

Ramsey’s partner will be a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, Laurie Robinson, the President said.

They are going to co-chair a task force that is not only going to reach out and listen to law enforcement, and community activists and other stakeholders, but is going to report to me specifically in 90 days with concrete recommendations, including best practices for communities where law enforcement and neighborhoods are working well together — how do they create accountability; how do they create transparency; how do they create trust; and how can we at the federal level work with the state and local communities to make sure that some of those best practices get institutionalized.

Philadelphia’s mayor, Michael Nutter, participated in the White House meeting along with Vice President  Joe Biden and four other mayors:

  • Tom Barrett, Milwaukee, Wisconsin;
  • Bill de Blasio, New York, New York;
  • Karen Freeman-Wilson, Gary, Indiana; and
  • Martin Walsh, Boston, Massachusetts.Obama said that “Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our time,” and called to “begin a process in which we’re able to surface honest conversations with law enforcement, community activists, academics, elected officials, the faith community, and try to determine what the problems are and, most importantly, try to come up with concrete solutions that can move the ball forward.”

    The President: As I said last week in the wake of the grand jury decision, I think Ferguson laid bare a problem that is not unique to St. Louis or that area, and is not unique to our time, and that is a simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color. The sense that in a country where one of our basic principles, perhaps the most important principle, is equality under the law, that too many individuals, particularly young people of color, do not feel as if they are being treated fairly.

    And as I said last week, when any part of the American family does not feel like it is being treated fairly, that’s a problem for all of us. It’s not just a problem for some. It’s not just a problem for a particular community or a particular demographic. It means that we are not as strong as a country as we can be. And when applied to the criminal justice system, it means we’re not as effective in fighting crime as we could be.

    And as a consequence, what I’ve been able to do today, thanks to the excellent work by Eric Holder, our Attorney General who had to fly down to Atlanta to start a conversation down there around these issues, as well as the outstanding leaders around this table, is to begin a process in which we’re able to surface honest conversations with law enforcement, community activists, academics, elected officials, the faith community, and try to determine what the problems are and, most importantly, try to come up with concrete solutions that can move the ball forward.

    And one of the most powerful things that happened today was I had the opportunity to meet with some young people, including a couple of young outstanding leaders from the Ferguson community, Brittany Packnett and Rasheen Aldridge, who both served on the Ferguson committee, who live in the area, and I think have been hearing from a lot of young people in that area.

    And what made me concerned was the degree to which they feel as if they are not heard or that the reality of what they experienced has been denied. What made me greatly encouraged was how clear their voices were when they were heard, and how constructive they are in wanting to solve these problems. And I think anybody who had the chance to listen to them here today felt the same way.

    We also heard law enforcement and were reminded of what a tough job it is to be in law enforcement. Whether you’re in a big city or in a small community, as Eric Holder put it, police officers have the right to come home. And if they’re in dangerous circumstances, we have to be able to put ourselves in their shoes and recognize that they do have a tough job. I don’t think those realities are irreconcilable. In fact, I’m convinced that if we work hard, that we can make sure that police officers and the communities they serve are partners in battling crime, partners in making sure everybody feels safe; that we can build confidence and we can build trust, but it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not going to result just from a conversation around a table in Washington. It’s got to result in concrete steps that we are able to lift up in communities all around the country and institutionalize.

    In order to advance that goal, here are a couple of specific steps that we’re taking. First of all, I want to thank Chuck Ramsey, the Commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, as well as Laurie Robinson, who is a professor of criminology, law and society at George Mason University, and a former assistant attorney general.

    They are going to co-chair a task force that is not only going to reach out and listen to law enforcement, and community activists and other stakeholders, but is going to report to me specifically in 90 days with concrete recommendations, including best practices for communities where law enforcement and neighborhoods are working well together — how do they create accountability; how do they create transparency; how do they create trust; and how can we at the federal level work with the state and local communities to make sure that some of those best practices get institutionalized.

    So this is not going to be an endless report that we’re going to have collecting dust on the shelf. My expectation is concrete recommendations that we can begin to operationalize over the federal, state and local levels. And the good news is, is that we’ve got two folks who are respected by activists and respected by law enforcement, and I’m confident they’re going to do an outstanding job. I want them to help us make sure that crime continues to go down and more community trust in the police goes up.

    Second, one of the issues that came up during the response to Ferguson back in August was the issue of military equipment being utilized in the face of protests that may be taking place in the community. It raised a broader issue as to whether we are militarizing domestic law enforcement unnecessarily, and is the federal government facilitating that?

    I have now received the review that I ordered from all the agencies involved in this program, the 1033 program. I will be signing an executive order that specifies how we are going to make sure that that program can help, how we’re going to make sure that that program is transparent, and how are we going to make sure that we’re not building a militarized culture inside our local law enforcement.

    Third, I’m going to be proposing some new community policing initiatives that will significantly expand funding and training for local law enforcement, including up to 50,000 additional body-worn cameras for law enforcement agencies. And I look forward to working with Congress to make sure that in addition to what I can do administratively with the resources that we’ve already gotten, that we are in a conversation with law enforcement that wants to do the right thing to make sure that they’re adequately resourced for the training and the technology that can enhance trust between communities and police.

    And finally, as I mentioned, Eric Holder is going to be working in parallel with the task force to convene a series of these meetings all across the country, because this is not a problem simply of Ferguson, Missouri, this is a problem that is national. It is a solvable problem, but it is one that, unfortunately, spikes after one event and then fades into the background until something else happens. What we need is a sustained conversation in which in each region of the country people are talking about this honestly and then can move forward in a constructive fashion.

    Let me just close by saying this: It was a cautionary note I think from everybody here that there have been commissions before, there have been task forces, there have been conversations, and nothing happens. What I try to describe to people is why this time will be different. And part of the reason this time will be different is because the President of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different. When I hear the young people around this table talk about their experiences, it violates my belief in what America can be to hear young people feeling marginalized and distrustful, even after they’ve done everything right. That’s not who we are. And I don’t think that’s who the overwhelming majority of Americans want us to be.

    And I think there may be a convergence here where we’ve got outstanding law enforcement officials who recognize that times have changed and want to be responsive. I know that Richard Barry of the International Association of Chiefs of Police spoke about how eager they are to work with us. I think that we’ve got activists on the ground who don’t always get attention because it’s oftentimes the people who aren’t being constructive that get attention, but there are folks there who are working really hard. I think there’s a maturity of the conversation right now that can lead us to actually getting some concrete results.

    And in the two years I have remaining as President, I’m going to make sure that we follow through — not to solve every problem, not to tear down every barrier of mistrust that may exist, but to make things better. And that’s how progress is always made in this great country of ours.

From Tension to Connection on a Train

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A train in Philadelphia. Photo: Barry Bub.

Radio Times yesterday offered discussion of a study showing a positive impact on the well-being of commuters who chatted with the strangers sitting nearby.

I had a moment of synchrony with this study when noticing yesterday that my colleague, Rabbi Amita Jarmon who works as a chaplain in Israel, made a commitment in response to the tension in Jerusalem: “Every time I ride on a local bus or the light rail, I will reach out to a Palestinian passenger.”

So, how did this commitment work out for her?

Rabbi Jarmon reported how she approached two men speaking Arabic very quietly on the light rail:

I came over to you to let you know that I am really sorry about all the suspicion from the Jews toward the Palestinians in this city. Jews are afraid and I know you are afraid as well. I want to bridge the gap, create a positive connection. I want to live in this city together with you. I know that the vast majority of people in this city want to live together in peace.

The two men responded warmly. One became the spokesperson for the two who were coming from work, going home to Shuafat. He said that he has Jewish friends — they go to each other’s homes and trust each other completely. He said that while he is afraid traveling around West Jerusalem, those are only the leaders who “want us to be afraid and to hate each other.”

Rabbi Jarmon’s described her next encounter, on a bus, when she went to sit next to a young woman wearing a hijab:

When I sat down, I noticed she was studying the same “Modern Arabic” book I use and have in my backpack. I showed it to her, smiling. I asked why she was studying it, when clearly Arabic is her mother tongue.

Turned out she was a third-year medical student at Hadassah, and teaches spoken Arabic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was preparing the section that she was going to teach this week.

The fact that she was a medical student meant she must be an Israeli citizen, as Jerusalem Palestinians almost always go to medical schools in the West Bank, Jordan or Eastern Europe. She told me she was from a village near Carmiel. I said to her, “It must be hard to be a Palestinian in Jerusalem now.”

She replied, “Yes, it’s not like this up north, thank God.”

I told her that when I came to Israel five and half years ago, I came with the intention and desire to live here with both Jews and Palestinians. We had a really nice nice connection.

Rabbi Jarmon serves two nursing homes, so she decided to also “reach out on a human level to one of the Palestinian aides who seemed ‘down'”:

He told me it had to do with his family: “Trouble inside the family is even more disturbing than the troubles in the city.” He said that my taking an interest made him feel a little bit better.

Rabbi Jarmon said that these encounters are having a major impact upon her time in Israel:

I feel my main work, my main purpose in being here now, has become to initiate these little positive connections when I am out on the streets and on public transportation. I invite all my friends in Jerusalem to do the same!

How might this affect us here in the U.S., where tensions after the Fergonson ruling are running high?

On the bus today I took a leaf from my colleague’s mitzvah-centered model to consciously sit near a black man I have seen in the sit in front of me on the train perhaps dozens of times and talk to him:

I came over to you to let you know that I am really sorry about how the Ferguson ruling went down. The process has not been conducted fairly.  I want to bridge the gap, create a positive connection. I want to live in this city together with you. I know that the vast majority of people in this city want to live together in peace.

He began to pour out his heart to me to me about his fears and profound disappointment. I just listened and when his stop was called and he realized how long he had been speaking he said, “My name is Joshua. I feel so much better. Thank you for listening.”

Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com

Cartoon courtesy of The Cartoon Kronicles @ cartoonkronicles.com

I said, “My name is Goldie. I hope our paths cross again. Blessings to have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.”

A primary mitzvah of Thanksgiving is hakarat ha-tov, “recognizing the good” in this world and speaking our gratitude for it. I am grateful to my colleague for teaching this practice that can help increase peace in our world, one commuter, co-worker or neighbor at a time.