Police chiefs push for reforms, say Ferguson focused national attention on the need for change

Oct 21, 2015

The push for criminal justice reform did not start with the shooting death of Michael Brown, but the events in Ferguson and elsewhere appear to have created momentum for change. More than 100 police chiefs from across the U.S. are in Washington, D.C., this week to push Congress and the White House to make “common sense” changes in criminal laws and sentencing options for nonviolent drug offenders.

Collectively, police chiefs have been pushing for criminal justice reforms since long before anyone ever heard the name Michael Brown, but Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland says, Ferguson made a difference with elected officials.

Charles McClelland, Houston police chief, at the podium
Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

“I don’t think it became a priority with Congress and the White House until these things began to happen and Ferguson started to look like Baghdad or Iraq.” McClelland says that while the nation’s police chiefs have been calling on policy makers to address problems in the criminal justice system for years, it was the images from Ferguson, Baltimore and other cities that looked similar to the violent civil rights protests of the 1960s, that caused some in Congress to finally take notice.

Chicago Police Chief Garry McCarthy says the criminal justice system is not really broken, rather he says, “it’s producing the results that it was designed to produce and those are the wrong results. We have to change the way that we think about crime.”

McCarthy says by focusing on “the right criminals” and strengthening laws to keep violent criminals in jail longer, the public will be better served.  

Garry MCarthy, Chicago police chief
Credit Jim Howard | St. Louis Public Radio

McCarthy, McClelland and the other chiefs all say the War on Drugs, begun in the 1990s, filled scarce prison space with nonviolent drug offenders and has produced generations of individuals destined “to fail” when they are released from prison.  

The chiefs are backing federal legislation to give judges greater discretion in finding alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders. McCarthy also faulted weak gun laws in Illinois as one reason violent offenders don’t stay behind bars.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson was in Washington earlier this month to attend a Department of Justice Summit on violent crime. At the time, he too talked about the need for stronger gun laws and other reforms in the criminal justice system, but he was unable to attend this week’s event in D.C., due to his work on the rash of church fires.

North Carolina District Attorney Benjamin David, from the state’s Fifth District, says police want to be “guardians and not warriors,” but he says the current system of incarcerating nonviolent drug offenders means that 98 percent of those same individuals will come out of prison no better off than they were when they went in.

According to David, without opportunities for drug treatment, education and job skills, 66 percent of those same individuals end up back in prison just a few years later. He says providing treatment programs, allowing judges greater discretion in sentencing and helping young people stay in school will help many avoid permanent criminal records that can keep them from finding work and other social services later in life.

The chiefs also support strong community policing as a way to strengthen ties between police and the communities they serve.