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Police reform must be part of the presidential race

Police reform must be part of the presidential race
Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro has unveiled an ambitious plan for national police reform. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

You may not have heard much about Julian Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary who’s stuck way back in the pack among the two dozen Democrats running for president, but he’s talking about something that matters to Baltimore. It’s not affordable housing (though he plans a policy platform on that soon) but police reform. Far more than the other presidential candidates, he is taking aim at policy, tactics, legal protections and culture that result in 1,000 fatal police shootings a year in this country, with black men disproportionately the victims.

Mr. Castro brings up the topic in speeches by observing that “if police in Charleston, S.C., can arrest Dylann Roof after he murdered nine people worshiping at Bible study, without hurting him, then don’t tell me that Michael Brown and Tamir Rice and Aiyana Jones and Eric Garner and Jason Pero and Stephon Clark and Sandra Bland shouldn’t still be alive today, too.” We would add Freddie Gray to that list. How he sustained his fatal injuries one April morning in 2015, we may never know. But the disregard for his humanity at every step of the way from his arrest to his arrival, unconscious and unresponsive, at the Western District has never been in doubt.

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The unrest that followed Gray’s death, coupled with longstanding complaints of constitutional violations and unnecessary force, led to a federal consent decree in Baltimore that is designed to address many of the issues Mr. Castro has raised. But such comprehensive, mandated reform processes are rare. There are thousands of law enforcement agencies in this country, operating under a wide range of policies and laws. By using the federal funding virtually all police departments receive as leverage, Mr. Castro is proposing to require uniform standards for the use of force, eliminate stop-and-frisk searches, increase review and reporting requirements for possible racial bias and institute pre-employment screenings for police officers to weed out candidates who display prejudice or intolerance. He wants a national database to track officers who have been decertified. He would bar sales of military equipment like armored vehicles and grenade launchers to police departments and end agreements that deputize local police to enforce immigration law.

Some parts of his platform aren’t all that noteworthy — requiring body cameras, for example, which are already being widely adopted — but others could have profound effects. Mr. Castro wants to establish a standard that force can be used only when officers observe an imminent threat to someone’s life — and only if other reasonable alternatives, like retreating to safety, have been exhausted. He wants to target the thin blue line by making officers responsible for intervening if they see a colleague using excessive force or acting inappropriately. And he wants to make it easier to prosecute officers for misconduct — including the violation of individuals’ constitutional rights.

We don’t expect President Donald Trump to take up this subject; he still insists that stop-and-frisk works despite the continued declines in crime in his native New York since the practice was banned. But the rest of the Democratic presidential candidates should. Some, like Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, have addressed the issue of mass incarceration, which is also of vital importance, but the question of how police interact with citizens and especially minorities, the animating cause of the Black Lives Matter movement, needs to be a part of the Democratic primary debate. As we can attest in Baltimore, poisoned relations between police and the communities they serve provide fertile ground for crime. When people don’t trust the police, they don’t cooperate as witnesses and criminals go free.

But more fundamentally than that, those who would lead the nation need to recognize the innocent lives that have been needlessly lost because of the flaws in the culture and practice of American policing. Putting that issue at the center of the presidential election might be the only measure of justice Freddie Gray, Stephon Clark, Tamir Rice and all the others ever get.

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