Barney Melekian | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Barney Melekian is not one for grand, sweeping statements, but he’s willing to make an exception about the mass upwelling of public outrage in the wake of the George Floyd killing. “We recognize it’s a pivotal moment in American history,” Melekian said.

Melekian, a law enforcement professional with 36 years of experience, now serves as Santa Barbara County’s executive officer in charge of public safety. Before that, Melekian functioned as Sherriff Bill Brown’s wonky and politically savvy undersheriff. But the “we” to whom Melekian referred is the National Police Foundation, for which he now serves as chair of the board.

Late last week, Melekian announced the foundation’s formation of a 17-person panel — scholars, criminologists, law enforcement professionals, and experts on mass incarceration — to study policing reforms and race. Most of the panelists, Melekian stressed, are African American. The purpose of the study, he said, is not to abolish or to defund the police so much as it is to reimagine the way policing is conducted so that it doesn’t give rise to such abiding distrust between Black communities and law enforcement. 

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The National Police Foundation, Melekian noted, was founded 50 years ago with a $25 million endowment by the Ford Foundation in response to riots that had just broken out in Black communities throughout the United States, triggered, in most instances, by episodes of police violence. 

“Here we are 50 years later, and we have all the same issues,” Melekian noted. “It keeps happening. Have we not learned anything?” At the same time, Melekian said he personally has witnessed major transformations within law enforcement since he first became a sworn officer in 1973. 

Jim Burch, executive director of the National Police Foundation, explained the lightbulb moment. After George Floyd, he said, the foundation was asked to prepare a statement in response. But as the weeks wore on, more and more statements became necessary. “The challenge became, how do we write a statement one week that doesn’t sound exactly like the one the week before?” he said. “Then it was how do we write something that doesn’t sound hollow. You can only say you’re outraged so many times. Why haven’t you done anything about it?” 

Burch said the foundation put together a group of passionate experts from inside and outside law enforcement to discuss the disparities and come up with research-informed solutions to address those disparities.

The foundation has budgeted $1 million to look for those solutions, Melekian stated, hiring as research director Dr. Andrea Headley, a nationally recognized scholar on criminal justice and racial equity with Georgetown University and an African American. Chairing the effort will be Florida Congressmember Val Demings, also an African American, and the first female police chief of Orlando, Florida. 

Co-chairing the enterprise will be James Forman Jr., a Yale law professor and author of Locking Up Our Own, a recent history of the mass incarceration of Black people in the United States. “For 400 years, Black Americans have been over-policed, over-punished, and under-protected,” Foreman wrote in the press release. “Today we have the chance to re-imagine and create a different future — one in which Black Communities depend less on police for safety and where law enforcement consistently values and protects Black life.”

The foundation is not a membership organization; it does not rely on law enforcement agencies for membership dues. It does, however, contract with law enforcement agencies to do after-the-fact incident assessments and other forms of evaluation. “This isn’t about simple fixes,” Melekian stated. “It’s not about more training or should we ban chokeholds.”

Instead, he said, it’s about examining the complex of causes that’s created the flashpoint that exists between the Black community and law enforcement. For example, Melekian said, the task force would look into union contracts and the extent to which they insulate law enforcement officers from disciplinary action. Some collective bargaining contracts require that officers involved in violent interactions with the public be allowed to watch videos of the event before answering questions from departmental superiors. Other contracts stipulate that such interviews cannot take place until two weeks after the precipitating event. “Everyone wants to blame the police, but many of these contracts are approved by city councils and mayors across the country,” Melekian said.

Another issue to be addressed will be how certain calls for service come to the attention of the officers in the first place. “Someone might call in and say, ‘There’s a Hispanic male walking down the street. He doesn’t belong here,’” Melekian said. “And then we respond to that. Clearly, one of the areas we’ll need to be focusing on is dispatch. We need to triage these sorts of calls. What is the bias of the person calling us in the first place?”

Melekian said neither he nor any of the other boardmembers of the foundation will be directly involved in the committee’s deliberations. “We don’t want to dictate or influence the outcome,” he said. “We want to go wherever the science takes us.”

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