Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Critics say Obama’s law enforcement reforms don’t go far enough

President pledged $263 million in federal funds to reduce militarization of police, build trust

Activists cautiously welcomed this week’s federal action to mitigate growing civil rights concerns stemming from last week’s grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. However, many rights activists say proposals introduced by Barack Obama’s administration don’t go far enough to address the unjust criminalization of black youth.

After nationwide protests over the grand jury decision last week, the president on Monday requested $263 million in federal funds to help restore trust between communities and the police officers who serve them. If approved, the funds will be spent over three years and go toward the purchase of 50,000 body cameras, which could help provide clearer information about incidents involving police interactions with civilians.

Witness and police statements about Brown’s death on Aug. 9 differed, with some locals saying Brown was retreating with his hands up when Wilson shot him. Wilson claimed Brown attacked him first and was “charging” when he fired the fatal shots.

To address the “simmering distrust that exists between too many police departments and too many communities of color,” Obama said he would establish a task force to study how to improve community policing with an eye toward building trust.

Tighter controls would be set on the proliferation of military-style weapons and equipment, which rights groups criticized during the heavily militarized police response in Ferguson to the racially charged protests that followed Brown’s death.

Black Lives Matter — a rights group formed after the 2012 killing of another unarmed black teen, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida — said the demilitarization of police was an important step but didn’t go far enough. Racial profiling is at the heart of the problem, the group said, calling on the government to pass the End Racial Profiling Act.

“There are policy changes that can be made and also cultural,” said Opal Tometi, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “When you look at us as though we are inherently bad people or wrong or criminals, it leads to this kind of violence we’re seeing all across the country.”

To that end, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder followed Obama’s pledges on Monday with an announcement that he would soon unveil Justice Department guidance aimed at ending racial profiling. Holder made the announcement in Atlanta, where he was scheduled to meet with law enforcement and community leaders — the first in a series of meetings requested by the president.

However, Tometi believes that the issue extends beyond best practices and that the role of police departments must be re-examined altogether.

Restorative justice models are a better alternative, she said, because they focus on repairing the harm done rather than satisfying abstract laws and policies. In this way, victims, communities and offenders come together to accept responsibility and decide together how to fix the situation, she added.

“What is the role of the community in its own safety?” Tometi said. “Every 28 hours an unarmed black person is murdered by law enforcement. That’s unacceptable to us ... Sadly, there’s a problem, and we’re not seeing local, state or federal government address this in a serious way.”

The incident in Ferguson sparked a national conversation on race relations, and it revealed a lack of understanding about bias, activists said. 

“To have bias is to be human ... A lot of the bias that exists in police officers is not always coming from a place of animus. It’s coming from implicit bias and racial anxiety,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, executive director of the Perception Institute, a group aimed at ending racial bias. “There are ways that we can better support training to help police officers correct this.”

She said racial anxiety occurs when a brain is thrown into fight-or-flight mode in response to a perceived threat. She said officers could be tested for implicit bias and trained around it so that when they encounter people they are biased against, they do not experience racial anxiety and can think more calmly before acting. 

Racial anxiety and bias are not limited to police officers, she said.

“My fear around some of the protest strategies to date, which have been remarkable because of the young energy — but since Americans tend toward racial anxiety, we may be triggering that, and it’s not productive,” Johnson said.

“There’s a fear on the part of whites that whatever they say or do next will confirm them as racists,” she said. “And there’s anxiety by people of color that they [will be dehumanized].”

Al Jazeera and wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter