Editor’s Note: The Hon. Kevin K. McAleenan served as Commissioner of US Customs and Border Protection, the nation’s largest law enforcement agency, and as acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security until 2019. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
“Walk with us!”
The poignant invitation rang out from a group of protesters to Sheriff Chris Swanson of Genesee County, Michigan, who put down his baton and engaged with the marchers. By doing so, he made clear that he was there to protect their right to demonstrate and to be heard. It was a powerful moment of leadership and trust on both sides, and one which points the way for our initial steps forward.
The protests, which have grown to a national crisis after the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, are both searing and painfully familiar. Effective responses demand the type of strength demonstrated by Sheriff Swanson and others, and the willingness from our law enforcement leaders to engage communities and humble themselves. There is a path for them to galvanize healing while representing and supporting the vast majority of honorable men and women of all races under their command.
The demonstrations have also sparked one question that has resonated across the media spectrum: is there systemic racism in American policing? The answers have varied, but the truth is that of course there is.
Racism exists across all of our nation’s institutions and it’s as old as our republic. Our system of criminal justice is based on discretion – the officers’ decision in who to arrest, the prosecutors’ in who to prosecute, the jurors’ in whether to find guilt or innocence. That means our efforts to mete out justice will necessarily be burdened and undermined by the racism and inherent biases harbored by the people that administer it. The rage in black communities across the nation, then, is real and well-founded. The question is not whether racism in law enforcement exists, but how to combat it.
We aren’t powerless to respond and this devastating cycle does not have to repeat itself. Justice for George Floyd will be fundamental and while that process unfolds, we are starting to see law enforcement leaders demonstrate what we must do to emerge from this difficult reckoning.
First, law enforcement leaders must identify with the purpose and message of the peaceful protesters. The essential truth is that the vast majority of good cops that comprise our police agencies, and the members of the communities they are sworn to serve and protect, are in this together. They have a common adversary in those that violate their oath and the rights of citizens. Police leaders must embrace the pain of disenfranchised communities and recognize the role that some in their organizations have in causing it. Demonstrating that understanding can have a powerful impact, create common cause and change the tenor of the community response.
Second, smart policing measures are needed to enable legitimate protests and prevent violence and looting. Leaders must explain the commitment of law enforcement to protect the right of peaceful protestors to assemble and exercise their constitutional rights, and then back it up with clear and fair practices. Ensuring adequate numbers of trained personnel with a sound strategy is a starting point. Cities need to create safe times and spaces for peaceful demonstrations. There must be meaningful opportunities for demonstrators to communicate their grief and concerns, even while employing measures like limiting movement and applying and enforcing curfews.
Police departments must also use intelligence, plainclothes officers and dynamic interventions to identify and address agitators, looters and criminals, including outside left- and right-wing groups, and prevent them from highjacking legitimate marches and turning them violent or destructive.
Most importantly, there must be commitment to real and sustained reform from within police organizations. Significant progress has been made over the last two decades in a number of departments all across the country, but much, much more work remains. The 2015 report from the Task Force on 21st Century Policing left a sound blueprint. Let’s pick it up and start from there, legislate and resource it.
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We can take all the smart ideas on training and tactics, organizational change and hiring, as well as transparency, and demand they be implemented on a national scale. We must also create independent oversight that works and ensure prosecution of officers who cross the line. The ideas are there – we now need the commitment to see them through. We will need support from Congress and our national political leaders to be sure, but cops can lead the charge from the ground up. Reform is sustainable only when it is embraced from within.
The success of law enforcement depends on the trust of the public. The millions of men and women who have courageously chosen a career in protecting people and communities need leaders who take ownership, embrace the people’s concerns and commit to the hard work of addressing them. As Dr. King taught us, the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Now is the time for our law enforcement leaders to step forward to make that promise manifest.