In her keynote speech at the David N. Dinkins Leadership & Public Policy Forum Wednesday morning, former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton proposed a raft of non-specific criminal justice reforms, but on one issue, she got very specific: police body cameras. In the wake of countless tragedies, many of which she cited in her speech, Clinton suggested that every police officer be equipped with body cameras, and that the federal government offer matching funds to equip them. The former Senator also seemed to recommend ending federal programs that equip local police with military-style weapons and vehicles:
“We can start by making sure that federal funds for state and local law enforcement are used to bolster best practices, rather than to buy weapons of war that have no place on our streets.”
President Obama’s task force on policing gives us a good place to start. Its recommendations offer a road map for reform, from training, to technology, guided by more and better data. We should make sure every police department in the country has body cameras to record interactions between officers on patrol and suspects. That will improve transparency and accountability, it will help protect good people on both sides of the lens. for every tragedy caught on tape, there surely have been many more that remained invisible. Not every problem can be or will be prevented by cameras, but this is a common sense step we should take. The President has provided the idea of matching funds to state and local governments investing in body cameras. We should go even further and make this the norm everywhere.”
Politically, this is a smart move on several levels, not the least of which is that it signals a concerted effort to keep President Obama’s hardcore supporters in the boat. This is not the act of a candidate who made rather naked appeals to white voters in 2008, or who might be so afraid of President Obama that she wouldn’t even admit voting for him. It’s a good harbinger for turning out the coalition that carried President Obama to victory twice. It’s also an idea that enjoys widespread public support, and on which most of the Republican field has yet to take a stand. The conservative reaction to events in Baltimore this week could significantly complicate this issue for them.
From a policy standpoint, Clinton’s speech also left room for other needed reforms that she got less specific about, but which offer an opportunity to build on. Federalizing the collection and analysis of law enforcement data and the investigation of police misconduct are crucial pillars that need to be placed alongside body cameras to protect citizens from the kinds of abuses that felled Freddie Gray and the countless invisible tragedies before him.
More broadly, criminal justice reform is something of a hot bipartisan topic to talk about these days, but putting it on the 2016 ballot offers the best hope that real progress can be made.
The real test will be how Clinton handles the reaction to this position, and whether she decides to expand in more detail on her ideas for reform, as well as how the Republican field reacts. It’s only a very recent phenomenon that criminal justice reform isn’t political poison for Republicans, but Hillary’s declaration, and their base’s reaction to recent events, will tell the tale.