Walter A. McNeil, Chief of Police, Quincy Police Department, Quincy, Florida
s police chiefs, our first responsibility is to ensure the safety and well-being of our citizens and our officers and to make absolutely sure that we are operating in the most effective and efficient manner possible. The nature of our profession requires that we continually adjust to a vast array of new and ever-changing challenges as we strive to fulfill our mission of protecting the citizens we serve. This has never been more true than in the decade since the 9/11 attacks. Today, law enforcement confronts a myriad of threats, challenges, and opportunities that were simply unimaginable just a short time ago.
Yet despite the importance of our mission to the security of communities and the United States, we still lack a central, comprehensive plan to guide our national criminal justice efforts to adjust to the new realities of crime and terror that our agencies face in the 21st century. This is simply unacceptable.
The United States needs a strategic plan. We need a national commission on criminal justice.
Law enforcement and the criminal justice community have faced this dilemma before. In July 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued an executive order establishing the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, recognizing, as he said, “the urgency of the nation’s crime problem.” The commission labored for a year and a half, producing 200 specific recommendations involving federal, state, and local governments; civic organizations; religious institutions; business groups; and individual citizens that were intended to create a safer and more just society.
The IACP believes that the work of that commission and the recommendations it produced marked the beginning of a fundamental change in our methods for dealing with crime and the public and built the framework for many of the highly effective law enforcement and public safety initiatives that have been in place for the last 40 years.
That is why, for more than 20 years, the IACP has advocated for the creation of a commission that would follow in the footsteps of the 1965 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.
Our mission has changed substantially since the Johnson Commission of 1965. In addition to new responsibilities for protecting the homeland, law enforcement agencies and the criminal justice system are dealing with changes in violent crime patterns, unsolved and complex immigration issues, overburdened prisons, increased illegal firearm trafficking and violence, continued drug trafficking, the development of new forensic capabilities, overburdened court systems, and technological advances that have the potential to change the way both criminals and law enforcement operate.
To that end, the IACP has strongly supported the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, sponsored by Senator Jim Webb (D-VA). This legislation would create a commission charged with comprehensively reviewing the nation’s criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations to address the public safety challenges confronting the United States. Unfortunately, despite receiving 57 votes, the legislation fell 3 votes short of the supermajority needed to pass the Senate.
Some opponents of the commission have claimed that the commission could weaken law enforcement’s ability to aggressively and effectively combat crime in our communities. Others have argued that the commission would somehow allow the federal government to dictate public safety and criminal justice policy to states and localities. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The proposed commission is designed to assist, not hinder, law enforcement and the criminal justice system in its daily efforts to protect communities from crime and violence. Its sole purpose is to review the current status of the nation’s criminal justice system, identify the challenges and opportunities that exist, and make recommendations for policy changes. This commission would in no way weaken our ability to protect the public or fight crime, nor would states and localities be subjected to federal interference.
Finally, other critics of the creation of a commission say that this work has already been done, that many have looked at pieces of the criminal justice system in the past. But this is the problem: We are taking a piecemeal approach to our criminal justice system. This effort is not about any one part of the system—corrections, law enforcement, narcotics, or technology; it is about how we must work as a whole to be the most effective and efficient that we can possibly be.
Despite the setback in the Senate, we must not be deterred. The time has come. The creation of a commission is no longer something we could do; it is something we must do. Today, we the leaders in the criminal justice system from every hamlet, from every town, from every city, and from every state have a responsibility to make this issue one of our highest priorities. I believe we can significantly improve our ability to effectively fight crime, reduce police officers’ deaths, and enhance police-community relationships with the creation of a comprehensive strategic plan. My request of you is that each of you, the leaders in our profession, add your voices to our cause by acting locally with the leaders in your communities and sharing with each of them the urgency of our cause. ■
Please cite as:
Walter A. McNeil, "The Time for a National Commission Has Come," President’s Message, The Police Chief 78 (December 2011): 6.