Earlier this month, I spoke via email with Keenon M. James, deputy director for the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE), who oversees the organization’s mission to enact and impart fairness in policing and the criminal justice system. Established in 1976 and currently headed by Durham, N.C., Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, NOBLE’s membership comprises primarily African-American chief executive officers of law enforcement agencies at federal, state, county and municipal levels, other law enforcement administrators, and criminal justice practitioners. The organization has nearly 60 chapters and more than 3,000 members, including in Canada, the Caribbean, Britain, and several countries in Africa.
James previously led the team at the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services Collaborative Reform Initiative, which engaged communities and police departments following high profile officer “use-of-force” incidents. He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University, and the recipient of numerous service awards from local and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as honors from his alma mater for Excellence in Law Enforcement and the university’s 40 Under 40 alumni award.
TNJ: How has the agenda of this year’s Training Conference and Exhibit changed in light of protests resulting from the most recent killings of unarmed African-Americans by law enforcement officers?
James: Our agenda was first impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. The on-going health crisis required us to transition to a virtual conference. The most recent events across our nation focused on policing have once again made us pivot the plans to deal with timely, relevant, and important topics facing our NOBLE members and law enforcement community. Our plans for the virtual conference focus on achieving modern, effective police agencies with 21st century policing practices. NOBLE chiefs and sheriffs are fully engaged in national and local conversations about re-imaging policing, building better community partnerships, ensuring citizens and officers are valued, and at the core of it all, safe communities for everyone.
TNJ: What are the “First Four” recommendations for law enforcement agencies that NOBLE issued in May?
James: The “First Four” are the policy recommendations NOBLE issued immediately following the death of George Floyd. In evaluating the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of video where the officer is on Mr. Floyd’s neck, it became obvious that some critical policy and training techniques may have greatly changed the outcome.
First, de-escalation training for all officers. If there is a situation where emotions begin to run high, law enforcement professionals should be trained to recognize the escalating situation and use proven techniques to reduce and eliminate those stressors.
Second, a prohibition on physical restraint maneuvers on or above the neck and any physical act that restricts the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain. Many agencies have prohibited chokeholds but we are encouraging more to do the same as these maneuvers can be contrary to the sanctity of life.
Third, requiring officers to render immediate medical aid. As we observed recently in the death of Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, the officers at the scene waited over two minutes before initiating aid to Mr. Brooks as he lay on the ground shot twice in the back by the officer.
Finally, a requirement that officers intervene where physical force is being applied to stop or attempt to stop another officer when force is being applied inappropriately or is no longer required. In Mr. Floyd’s death, three officers stood by and did not make an attempt to stop using force themselves or stop another officer when clearly, force was not appropriate.
TNJ: How have these recommendations been received?
James: The “First Four” have been well received by NOBLE members and law enforcement across the country. Agencies and some states have adopted policies that prohibit chokeholds, require a duty to intervene, and reinforced their sanctity of life stance by requiring officer provide immediate medical aid. Many other have added or already include de-escalation training and are working within the agency to reinforce the importance of de-escalating a situation.
TNJ: What other “actionable change” does NOBLE have in mind?
James: There are options on the table ranging from officer training to community engagement strategies. NOBLE is committed to long-term solutions that improve safety and trust for law enforcement in our communities. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but we are encouraging law enforcement leaders and community leaders to come together with open ears, open minds, and open hearts to understand where are, how we got to this point, and how do we move forward.
TNJ: Is NOBLE optimistic that meaningful change will come about in terms of relations between Black communities and law enforcement? If yes, how long do you think it will take to see that change and what would that change look like?
James: We believe meaningful change is already underway. We see the evidence that communities and law enforcement are coming together first to be heard and then to impact necessary change. The change will not be instantaneous and there is no real timeline. Change looks different for every community and we encourage police, municipal, and community leaders to develop the change and improvement plans that best fit their needs.
TNJ: How is NOBLE working with its overseas members to ensure fair and equal justice for Black communities worldwide?
James: NOBLE is engaged with our members in the Caribbean and in Europe who are experiencing similar calls for policing reform in their countries. Every country has different laws and policies, but the underlying similar experiences of racial inequalities and injustices make this a global issue. We are working with our overseas members to respond to their needs and provide resources to help them build community-police relationships.