Religious Action Center Associate Director Submits Comments on Community and Police Relations

Testimony of Barbara Weinstein
Associate Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
The Task Force on 21st Century Policing
Task Force Listening Session: Building Trust & Legitimacy

On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes over 2000 Reform rabbis, I write to express our views relevant to the work of the task force on The Role of the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Policing Services.

Law enforcement officers who risk their lives each day to ensure public safety deserve the respect and appreciation of all Americans. Their work is challenging and the decisions they are forced to make are difficult. We are deeply concerned that incidents that undercut fairness and justice harm the credibility and efforts of law enforcement agencies and personnel and erode respect for law and justice in America more generally. Thus, even as we reaffirm our respect and appreciation for law enforcement, we acknowledge the long-standing structural injustices, particularly concerning race, that plague too much of our society including our criminal justice system.

Race and poverty play roles in determining who gets arrested, who gets a fair trial, and how those convicted are sentenced. There is an increasing perception that our nation has two criminal justice systems, separate and unequal: one for affluent whites and one for racial minorities and the poor. Foremost among the complaints are unequal application of the death penalty, police brutality, racial profiling, sentencing disparity, and structural discrimination in the juvenile justice system.

While the recent cases in cities across the United States involving the questionable use of deadly force by police differ, the common threads running through them dramatize ongoing challenges: economic, social, and racial factors that deny opportunities to individuals of color and erode families and communities; the violence plaguing too many low income communities and communities of color; the violence faced daily by law enforcement, leading some police to view too many in communities of color with suspicion and even hostility; and the different treatment that grand juries and prosecutors too often give to police versus civilian crime suspects. In order to address these structural inequalities, we must look to the roots of the problems and work to:

Define the role of police in a democratic society and hire a diverse workforce
We call for a return to the basic ideals of community policing in which police officers see themselves as community members and are integrated into the neighborhood and culture of their jurisdictions. To that end, police units and command staffs should, to the greatest extent possible, reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the community they serve.

Build a culture of transparency
In order to truly address these problems, we must first fully understand them. The collection of accurate, nationwide data on police use of lethal force can help guide this work. Each city and community needs to review the data and must assess whether victims of law enforcement shootings are disproportionately people of color and if so, officials and civil society representatives must develop a public "action plan" to ameliorate such disparities.

More can also be done with new technologies, such as police body cameras that provide a recording of interactions with the public and can help to protect the interests of all parties.
However, not only do these technologies need to be utilized but also the recordings must be accessible to the public in cases of accusations of unnecessary violence in order to increase transparency and trust within the community.

Ensure procedural justice
As Jews, we are inspired by the words of Leviticus (24:22), "There shall be one law for all of you." Members of law enforcement must also be accountable for their actions. Our grand jury system is in need of reform that reflects this principle. For example, the grand jury system should include the appointment of a special prosecutor in cases where police conduct is at issue.
Additionally, when appropriate to the size of a community and in cases of a clear, ongoing pattern of excessive police violence in general or against specific segments of the community, the efficacy of establishing a representative police review board with subpoena powers must be considered.

Promote racial reconciliation
Systemic change is needed urgently, including repairing broken relationships between minority communities and law enforcement. Racial profiling denies individuals the constitutional right of equal protection under the law and contributes to the damaging of community-police relations. Racial profiling also raises civil rights concerns, undermines the criminal justice system by diverting resources from pursuing actual criminal behavior, and reinforces false stereotypes, whether in the context of counterterrorism, street-level crime or immigration enforcement. While the Justice Department's new guidelines banning racial profiling by federal law enforcement officers are an important step, the guidelines do not directly apply to local law enforcement. It is imperative to end the use of racial profiling and mitigate racial disparities as applicable to arrests, prosecution and sentencing by police and judicial officials at the federal, state, local and tribal levels.

Community engagement and dialogue
Relationships within and across communities must be strengthened. State, local and municipal governments are key partners, especially working with representatives of the police, political leaders and civil society (including the religious community), to begin the process of healing. Faith communities can serve as places of unification and understanding, as they have many times in history, successfully bringing together diverse groups of people who sometimes disagree. We are encouraged that so many Reform congregations, including those in and around St. Louis, are engaged in such interfaith and inter-coalitional efforts. They have joined together with clergy of all faiths to assist those in need, help quell violence, and provide spiritual support.

These actions can serve as a model for other houses of worship and communities, helping establish and sustain relationships with diverse racial, ethnic and economic sectors of their communities, participate in community-based dialogues pertaining to race and community-police relations, and work to enhance violence prevention and conflict resolution procedures.

We come to these issues rooted in Jewish tradition that teaches the very basic belief that all human beings are created b'tselem Elohim (in the Divine image), as it says in Genesis 1:27, "And God created humans in God's own image, in the image of God, God created them; male and female God created them." Regardless of context, discrimination and violence against any person arising from apathy, insensitivity, ignorance, fear, or hatred is inconsistent with this fundamental belief. We oppose discrimination and violence against all individuals and will continue to work toward the day when all people are treated equally, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Additionally, in Deuteronomy (16:20) we are commanded, Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, "Justice, justice you shall pursue." The sages explained that the word tzedek is repeated not only for emphasis but to teach us that in our pursuit of justice, our means must be as just as our ends. We are also guided by the words of Leviticus (19:15), "You shall do no unrighteousness in judgment; you shalt not respect the person of the poor, nor favor the person of the mighty; but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor." We remain committed to engaging in the pursuit of justice through just means, strengthening and improving our criminal justice system and the relationships between law enforcement and communities.

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