The report released in early March by a panel President Obama appointed to examine serious shortcomings in police practices across America, including the shooting of unarmed people, mostly non-white, listed problems and proposed solutions that are hauntingly similar to those found in a report on police abuses released 47 years ago by another presidential panel.
The March 1968 report of the presidential panel popularly known as the Kerner Commission noted with dismay that many minorities nationwide regarded police as “an occupying force” – a presence that generated fear not feelings of security.
The March 2015 report from President Obama’s panel made a similar finding, noting that perceptions of police as an “occupying force coming in from the outside to rule and control the community” had sabotaged the ability of law enforcement to build trust in many communities.
Reactions to police brutality, particularly fatal encounters, triggered protests and riots that sparked both President Barack Obama and President Lyndon Johnson almost two generations earlier to appoint these two panels.
Sadly, the recommendations from President Obama’s panel could sink under the weight of the same forces that sank full implementation of the Kerner Commission proposals: systemic recalcitrance from all sectors of American society to reforms devised to remediate festering race-based inequities.
The Obama panel recommended “civilian oversight of law enforcement,” calling this step essential to “strengthen trust with the community.” The Kerner Commission report had similarly called for the establishment of “fair mechanisms to redress grievances” against police.
However, for decades, police unions, backed by “law-and-order” politicians, in city councils, state legislatures and Congress, have vigorously opposed independent oversight by civilians and even oversight from governmental entities.
Such opposition mounted by America’s national police union – the Fraternal Order of Police – early last year killed Obama’s nomination of a civil rights lawyer to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. The national FOP in that case made it clear it resented any Justice Department monitoring of state and local police practices. Despite patterns of police misconduct that had led to what was at best only infrequent Justice Department monitoring, U.S. Senators – Republicans and Democrats – backed the national police union’s opposition to Obama’s nominee.
The Kerner Commission, which had examined race-based inequities beyond police brutality, called for a massive influx of resources to tackle poverty and discrimination.
That proposal from President Johnson’s panel, formally titled The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders because it was a wave of riots and uprisings in cities across the country in the 1960s that led to its creation, prompted immediate opposition from conservatives. Resources being poured into the war in Vietnam further crippled that proposal...
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