What Should We Do to Ensure Fair Treatment and Keep Neighborhoods Safe for Everyone?

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Scroll down for the Policing issue advisory and other related materials.

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IN COMMUNITIES ACROSS THE UNITED STATES, people are rethinking police practices. The goal: to treat all people fairly while still enforcing the law.

In 2020, the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks caused nationwide protests as many people expressed their concerns about the unjust treatment of Black Americans. All three died during encounters with police, and their names joined a lengthy list: Eric Garner in New York City in 2014, Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015, Philando Castile in St. Paul and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge in 2016, to name only a few.

All Americans want to feel safe, both from crime and police misconduct. While the overall crime rate continues to decline, in 2020 alone FBI data showed a 30 percent increase in murders, and gun violence took nearly 20,000 American lives, the most in more than 20 years. Experts point to a range of possible reasons, including economic and psychological stress from the pandemic, a surge in gun purchases, changes in incarceration policies, and possibly changes in policing.

In our society, people know that policing is necessary, but many police chiefs and officers want more accountability and fairness.

Although federal, state, and local lawmakers have taken some steps to review policing policies and reform police departments, crucial decisions still have to be made. Making these decisions will require sustained focus and the involvement of community members, policymakers, and law enforcement professionals.

While some Americans, especially White Americans, have mostly had positive encounters with police, many people of color distrust and fear law enforcement officers because of a long history of violence and discrimination. While experiences and overall expectations may vary, complex questions remain, including:

  • What should be the top priority—increasing police accountability, addressing racial bias among officers, or rethinking how police and communities respond to nonviolent, “victimless” disturbances?
  • What law enforcement functions should be most valued and enhanced? What aspects should be eliminated or rethought?
  • What kinds of unintended consequences might result from the ideas we discuss? Are there risks and trade-offs to keep in mind?
  • Are nonviolent crimes really harmless to individuals and communities? What happens if these non-violent acts go unaddressed and unpunished?
  • Change takes time. What changes are urgent? Which can be made over time?
  • What roles should community members, law enforcement, officeholders, social services, educators, businesses, and others play as we work to enhance and improve policing? What should these groups do differently?

This issue framework presents three broad options for rethinking police practices, each suggesting a different set of reforms and different ways of thinking about how to keep communities safe. As with all ideas for change, some of these actions may involve risks and trade-offs, while others might effectively address the problem. But the ideas outlined here are just a starting point. They are meant to spur deliberation on an issue that increasingly concerns Americans of all ages and all races. Those taking part in these forums can consider the options and actions listed here as well as modify, reject, or add to them.

As with most difficult issues, sound judgments depend on taking the time to consider the facts and listen to people with different experiences and perspectives.

What should we do to ensure fair treatment and safe neighborhoods in our communities?