Obama: Local elections are the key to criminal justice reform

“The elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels”


In this Nov. 2, 2018, photo, former President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign rally for Democratic candidates in Miami. Image: AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

Earlier this week, former President Barack Obama took to his Medium page to release a statement on the tragic loss of George Floyd and the unrest that continues across the nation.

Acknowledging the “genuine and legitimate frustration over a decades-long failure to reform police practices and the broader criminal justice system in the United States,” the former president also decried “the destruction of neighborhoods that are often already short on services and investment” — a move, he argued, that only detracts “from the larger cause.”

If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code,” he wrote, “then we have to model that code ourselves.”

And while peaceful protests certainly have their place in bringing about the desired change, he continued, they’ll never be enough on their own.

“Eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.”

Yet, not all elected officials, he wrote, have the same ability to impact the criminal justice system.

Though it’s certainly important to “make sure that we have a president, a Congress, a U.S. Justice Department, and a federal judiciary that actually recognize the ongoing, corrosive role that racism plays in our society and want to do something about it,” he explained, “the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”

It’s mayors and county executives that appoint most police chiefs and negotiate collective bargaining agreements with police unions,” he wrote. “It’s district attorneys and state’s attorneys that decide whether or not to investigate and ultimately charge those involved in police misconduct. Those are all elected positions. In some places, police review boards with the power to monitor police conduct are elected as well.”

“Unfortunately,” Obama continued, “voter turnout in these local races is usually pitifully low, especially among young people — which makes no sense given the direct impact these offices have on social justice issues, not to mention the fact that who wins and who loses those seats is often determined by just a few thousand, or even a few hundred, votes.”

But as long as reform-minded citizens are willing to show up across the board, he concluded, there’s hope. “If we want to bring about real change, then the choice isn’t between protest and politics. We have to do both.”

Resources for a new era of public safety

Find resources and organizations dedicated to reform at the Obama Foundation website.

Review the following recommendations from the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which are based on the work of the Obama administration’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing:

New Era of Public Safety by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

Sarah is based in North Carolina, where she lives with her son and several rambunctious reptiles. Before taking on her current role with Lexipol, she was the staff writer for the tech website DZone and served as an assistant editor with the rural lifestyle publication GRIT Magazine. Get in touch with her at ssinning@lexipol.com.