Police Reform In U.S.: Some Progress, A Long Way To Go


Policing in the U.S. is showing some signs of improvement, thanks to the attention paid to it by the public and by government officials—and despite the well-publicized misdeeds of a few law enforcement officers in the past year.

That’s the conclusion of members of President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, who addressed a conference at George Mason University in northern Virginia yesterday.

“Much of this is about culture change,” said task force co-chair Laurie Robinson. “That doesn’t happen because of legislation and regulations, but I think we will look back on this period of history and conclude that change actually did start to occur.”

Robinson is a former Assistant U.S. Attorney General now on the faculty at George Mason. The university’s Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy co-sponsored the two day symposium with the Police Foundation. Other sessions considered issues such as police use of deadly force, body-worn cameras and school safety.

The task force report, which was written between last year’s fatal police shooting in Ferguson, Mo., and mid-May, laid out a blueprint for police reform in a number of areas, including training, tactics and use of social media. Although the task force has disbanded, the U.S. Justice Department’s office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) is tracking the adoption of the group’s recommendations by local authorities.

Robinson, along with fellow task force members Charles Ramsey and Tracey Meares, acknowledged that reform of a diverse national institution like policing is a long process.

Ramsey, Philadelphia’s police commissioner and co-chair of the Obama task force, cautioned that—with roughly 18,000 police agencies around the nation, ranging from very large ones to very small ones—there is “no one-size-fits all” solution to all agencies’ deficiencies. Many of the problems of today’s police forces stem from basic practices like hiring and training, he added.

Ramsey noted that police hiring efforts typically display videos of SWAT teams and police helicopter deployments to applicants.

“Who is going to apply?” after seeing that, he asked rhetorically.

Robinson, who conceded that the task force spent little time in its 60-day research period on hiring issues, noted that law enforcement training should include topics like “people and relationships,” when in practice it tends to dwell on seemingly more practical items like “guns and cars.”

Ramsey and other speakers reiterated the idea that much of the challenge of dealing with crime problems comes down to characteristics of individuals, whether police officers or offenders. It’s “complicated” to issue sweeping policies that will direct officers to focus only on the worst criminals, he said.

Yesterday’s discussion also focused on the idea of “procedural justice,” a major issue covered by the task force.

In its report, the panel concluded that, “people are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have the legitimate authority to tell them what to do … The public confers legitimacy only on those they believe are acting in procedurally just ways.”

As Ramsey put it, an officer making a public stop of someone who turns out to be a career criminal “has no excuse not to be respectful to him.”

Conference attendees asked panel members whether aggressive policing tactics such as “stop, question and frisk” can be effective in stopping crime.

Criminologist Daniel Nagin of Carnegie Mellon University, appearing on a panel commenting on the policing task force report, said some research shows that such tactics can be effective in the short term in high crime areas but they can come with “enormous amounts of negative community fallout.”

“You can’t arrest your way out of crime,” he added.

Meares, a Yale University law professor who was a member of the policing task force, agreed. She contended that law enforcement should be judged not only on the basis of crime control but also on “efficiency, legality, and equitableness.”

The idea of procedural justice includes a “focus on service to the community,” she said.

Another criminologist, Dennis Rosenbaum of the University of Illinois, Chicago, also raised doubts about the police practice of aggressive “investigative stops.”

Citing a phrase “hot spots of crime” that was discussed at the conference–saturating high-crime areas with police–Rosenbaum said, “Sending officers to hot spots is no longer enough. We must know what they are doing and how they are doing it.”

Community policing doesn’t have to be practiced in a way that “undermines police legitimacy,” Rosenbaum contended. He urged promoting forms of policing that “create positive contact with people in the streets.”

At yesterday’s session, the George Mason Center, which is headed by criminologists David Weisburd and Cynthia Lum, honored seven people with awards in evidence-based policing or crime policy: Prof. Herman Goldstein of the University of Wisconsin, Prof. Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University, James Burch, former U.S. Justice Department official who is now a vice president the Police Foundation, Sean Malinowski of the Los Angeles Police Department, Chief Tony Farrar of the Rialto, Ca., Police Department, Retired Police Chief Michael Reese of Portland, Or., and Police Superintendent William Taylor of Lowell, Ma.

Ted Gest is president of Criminal Justice Journalists and Washington Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.

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