How Do We Change American Policing?
Are We Asking Too Much From Cops?
Does Everyone Want Change?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Thirty-five years of speaking for national and state criminal justice agencies. Former Senior Specialist for Crime Prevention for the Department of Justice’s clearinghouse. Graduate-Johns Hopkins University.
Comment on Declining Police Recruits (Facebook Group)
Well for one, people won’t be getting killed by cops. Safety. Guess what, people better wake up, cops never show up when you call, their eating donuts and stealing from the public… hmm. But they do show up when they feel like a fresh kill. Who cares, Politicians BS all the time.
Since the police shooting related riots in Ferguson, MO, Americans have had a continued discussion on race, class and law enforcement. It’s a discussion that’s been on the minds of cops and criminal justice professionals since the 1960’s, and long before that.
But where do we begin and end as to what we want to change? Police involved shootings contain a multitude of moving parts, so complex that’s it’s almost impossible to address this one issue.
How do you judge the officer and the person shot? Once deconstructed, a wide variety of “facts” we thought we knew about the shooting proved to be incorrect. There are still people of influence that insist that Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson while holding his hands in the air trying to surrender to police.
If we can’t get this right, what hope do we have as to comprehensive reform?
What Do We Want?
Changing American law enforcement is so complex as to be almost impossible; we want warriors/guardians/facilitators/unbiased arbitrators/unquestionably fair and polite social servants.
We want officers to make immediate judgments during times of immense stress that are completely devoid of preconceived notions. We want them to make the right decisions all the time.
Critics will reject my statements as being too protective of American policing. They will cite endless examples of excessive use of force where it wasn’t a split second decision, including an April 4 cell phone video that captured a South Carolina police officer firing eight times at as African American man as he ran away from a traffic stop. The officer was indicted on a murder charge in June.
The history of police officers and minority or poor communities is so filled with endless examples of injustice and police use of force as to be mind numbing and emotionally draining. That past plays an important role as to how some groups see cops during difficult times.
Are Minority Police Officers Different?
But having a majority of black police force doesn’t make any city immune from charges of police heavy-handiness or racial/class discrimination.
In Washington, D.C., black officers made up 58 percent of the force, with whites making up 28 percent, Latinos 7 percent, Asians 2 percent, but there are endless charges of police officers acting inappropriately, excessive use of force or questions surrounding police involved shootings.
Of the 2,745 active duty police officers in the Baltimore Police department 1,445 — more than half are African-American, Hispanic, Asian or Native American, yet we have the Freddie Gray case that rocked the nation.
There are many additional examples where criminal justice agencies are minority or women administered and/or staffed where the statistics are the same as any other agency.
If police departments and criminal justice agencies that are principally minority staffed and administered can’t keep us from the issues that cause us so much in the way of collective soul searching, then what will?
Holding Cops Accountable
There is a sense that many police officers see themselves as being above the law and that jurisdictions don’t hold the actions of police accountable.
But recent US Department of Justice funded research (first of its kind-2016) documents 6,724 arrest cases from 2005-2011 involving 5,545 sworn law enforcement officers. Slightly more than one-half of the cases (54%) ultimately resulted in job loss for arrested officers. Almost 60% of all of the cases identified in the study occurred when the officer was technically off-duty.
Is there really a complete lack of accountability as critics suggest?
A Crisis in American Policing
We now have a substantial increase in crime throughout the United States with record increases in homicides, fear of crime, and gun purchases, see http://www.crimeinamerica.net/crime-rates-united-states/. What cops do and don’t do, and the availability of people to become police officers are becoming significant issues.
While we understand that everything regarding crime now has a political context, there is one undisputed observation, remove cops and crime skyrockets.
There are endless articles stating that cops are “holding back.” They are not aggressively enforcing laws and many (including the Director of the FBI) are suggesting that today’s anti-cop environment is making police officers less proactive and contributing to record increases in violent crime.
While those questioning the use of unwarranted police tactics are right and justified in doing so, the question is, have we gone too far? Are the tactics painting all cops with a broad brush (we wouldn’t do that to others) creating an unsafe society?
A Public Relations Nightmare?
Veterans of the criminal justice system know that we are having an almost impossible time recruiting correctional officers, and now the same applies to cops. There are multiple news articles throughout the United States documenting the problems recruiting new police officers. Some suggest that it’s becoming impossible to fill open slots, or to fill them with quality people.
Citing recent statements from people in the sports and entertainment industries condemning cops would take 1,000 words.
Gallup reported in 2015 that public perceptions of police officers had reached its lowest point in 22 years.
Per Pew, only about one-third (36%) of the public says they have a lot of confidence in their police department. An additional 41% of Americans say they have some confidence in their community’s police department.
All of us want policing to be fair, impartial, just, community oriented and devoid of racial or class prejudice. So what will get us there?
18,000 Police Departments
Those contemplating changes in American policing need to understand that there are approximately 18,000 police agencies in the United States (no one knows the exact number).
America uses a “federal” system where the states have power not claimed by the federal constitution, thus the national government has little control over individual police departments. Reform can only come at the state and local levels.
The President and the Department of Justice have little control over American police departments beyond research, small grants, withholding a small percentage of federal funds for non-compliance with federal guidelines, and civil rights investigations.
If we are to reform American policing, we must be able to persuade all 18,000 chiefs of police and 900,000 individual officers to change. The operative word is “persuade.” There is no way that the federal government can force change except for exceptional cases.
How to “persuade” 918,000 individuals to change? The only way is to convince officers and Americans that change is necessary. Per recent data from Pew, there are vast differences as to how disparate groups see the value of police officers and judge the jobs that are doing. I guess that the vast majority of Americans see little need for comprehensive change.
There are no hard and fast guidelines from the federal government as to any aspect of police of criminal justice operations. We all say that we want community policing, but dictates as to what community policing means (or how it works) don’t exist.
It would help if the federal government provided explicit guidelines as to what works “and” how to apply those guidelines plus the money necessary for implementation. Yes, there are groups and research that the federal government funds that provide strong recommendations, but endorsements and proven, ironclad, successful tactics are two different things.
Go to the Department of Justice’s “Crime Solutions.Gov,” http://www.crimesolutions.gov/ and see the very small list of proven programs on policing. While I love Crime Solutions, you won’t find definitive guidance there as to what works.
Thus the federal government isn’t of much help. No President is willing to put himself/herself on the line as to hard and fast guidelines. People would suggest that the President is violating the dictates of federalism, and is trying to establish a national police force. It would be a quagmire.
Steps For Change
First, there has to be a massive effort to convince the American people that reform is necessary. Per Pew, even in these tumultuous times, most Americans believe that most police officers are doing a good job.
Second, the federal government needs to step up to the plate with research and specific guidance as to what works. No more hiding behind favored groups to carry the message. For example, many call for community policing (however it’s defined), but there are studies questioning the value of the tactic. We need to know what works, and as of today, we don’t know. It may come down to a matter of community preferences that could change over time.
Third, the federal and state government will have to put up many billions of dollars to fund improvements.
Fourth, there has to be a massive investment as to pay and training for 900,000 police officers. If you can’t force change, then you have to provide the incentives for transformation. This will require a massive change in funding from federal and state governments. Local governments can’t afford much beyond what they are already doing.
People want the highest levels of decision-making and professionalism under circumstances that would make the rest of us quake in our shoes. So what we are asking for is the equivalent of a medical professional that is trained and paid to accept these responsibilities. We wouldn’t accept anything less as to own own medical care. Why would we accept anything less as to our own safety?
Pay, Training and Positions
If we want cops to do the impossible (warrior/guardian/facilitator/unbiased arbitrator/unquestionably fair and polite social servants), we need to do the following:
Recruit police officers with exhaustive tests for integrity, fairness and intelligence.
Pay them a minimum of $50,00 to start, quickly reaching $75,000 within five years and $100,000 within ten.
Provide a minimum of six months of basic training. Provide one year of training for specialized positions.
Allow them to opt out of street enforcement due to stressors in their life. That would eliminate the majority of circumstances where cops make bad decisions. But there would have to be a sufficient number of on-duty cops to take their place.
Provide a minimum of two months of vacation a year.
Provide them with four weeks of retraining every year.
Provide civilian positions for everything beyond the need for arrest powers.
Cops should not have to deal with the policy failures of society. Have mental health, youth and domestic violence counselors respond to every appropriate call. No cop should be forced to deal with issues that are far beyond their training and skills. Understand that the civilian specialists will occasionally shot or injured.
Needless to say, the above will require a considerable increase in the number of civilian and law enforcement personnel.
Use civilian gang counselors on the streets in high crime neighbors to access and intervene.
Have a written contract with every community in the US as to what they want cops to do and how they want them to do it. It’s time to stop placing this burden on police officers. Let communities take responsibility for their own crime issues. My criminological training was that communities are responsible for crime control, not cops. Note that the vast majority of communities do not want or see a need for comprehensive change thus recommendations will only apply to communities who want them.
Communities get to choose between softer or harder approaches. At one time, New York and lots of cities enthusiastically embraced stop and frisk.
Have the funding to do bi-weekly surveys of individuals and communities as to crime and police officer issues. Ask about the behavior of officers responding to crime scenes. Publish the data for all to see.
Pay trained religious and community leaders to ride along with officers so when police respond to calls or act proactively, there are community representatives to act as go-betweens and witnesses. There should be community representatives for every three officers on street duty.
Trained community and religious leaders would be responsible for organizing continuous meetings with small groups of community members and beat cops. Officers need to taste, touch and feel the perceptions of community members on a regular basis beyond enforcement.
If we are really serious about cops being held to a standard that few of us would be willing to undertake (which is why we can’t get people to be police officers) then we better be prepared to pay for the service we demand.
We need better-trained officers and the support mechanisms to bring crime under control, and do it in such a way that it compiles with community wishes.
How we currently operate is like demanding that our walk-in medical clinics do surgery. They would vigorously complain that they are not trained or staffed to take on complicated medical procedures.
But it’s what we do with police officers daily. If we don’t like the results, there is probably a reason why.
Crime in America at http://crimeinamerica.net
My book: “Amazon Hot New Release”- “A Must Have Book,” Success With The Media: Everything You Need To Survive Reporters and Your Organization available at Amazon