Reinventing America’s Police Forces

Print More

Faced with one of the nation’s highest crime rates, Camden County  (NJ) Police Chief Scott Thomson gave his officers a simple message a few years ago .

“I’m not looking at your outputs [arrrests], I’m looking at your outcomes,” Thomson told them. “When we drive through the neighborhood we want to see little kids riding on their bicycles and people sitting on their front steps. So go make that happen.”

It sounded obvious—but in many ways it was a profound reinvention of traditional police culture.

Thomson, who also serves  as president of the Washington-based think tank, Police Executive Research Forum, told a panel last week at the 11th Annual Harry Frank Guggenheim Symposium on Crime in America, that without that kind of reassessment American policing will continue to have a troubled relationship with the communities it serves.

“If arrest is your benchmark for success…it’s a failed policy,” said Thomson.

He said four years ago Camden “hit the reset button.” In response to what seemed to be an insurmountable amount of violence in 2012, the city of Camden decided, in a very controversial move, to eliminate its police force and create a new one run by Camden County.

The new force would be one focused on community policing, rather than arresting their way out of the problem

“We created positive interactions between police and communities,” he said, including everything from putting more cops on street corners to buying ice cream for residents during a spate of shootings. Rather than continue to focus on making arrests and writing summonses, police in Camden changed how it judges its officers.

The verdict?  Crime remains high, but officials say they are making tremendous progress since initiating changes.

A Model for 21st Century Policing

Camden’s approach is held up as a model for the kind of policing envisioned by last year’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  Thomson, who testified before the task force, is considered to be an example of the new generation of police chiefs who recognize that cops need a major “culture change” to respond to contemporary needs.

But will Thomson’s approach work for a larger, big-city force?

Christine Coulter, deputy commissioner of the Philadelphia Police Department, believes it can.

She told the panel how her department, under former Commissioner Charles Ramsey, was transformed from the “tough-on-crime” model used by former police commissioner Frank Rizzo in the 1970s.

Like Thomson, who talked about changing the metrics of how police are judged, Coulter spoke about rewarding restraint in situations where deadly force could have been used, rather than rewarding officers who are exonerated for using deadly force.

She also said police managers have started giving out awards for saving someone’s life, not based on how many arrests were made.

While many of the changes in philosophy have been implemented from the top down, Coulter said change from the bottom up should also be a focus. She cited flaws in how departments recruit officers.

“The recruitment fairs focus on police work, such as chasing criminals, breaking down doors, and high speed car chases. These actions make up 2 percent of what a police officer does,” she said. “We need to recruit people with a mindset of guarding and not just chasing criminals.”

In Camden, Thomson admits, it wasn’t easy.

Getting officers and unions to buy in to the new philosophy was a concern, he said, because police officers are generally resistant to change.

“There is some disruption in comfort levels that happen with change,” he said. “One thing you find in policing is generally people won’t like the way things are, but don’t want change either.

“It’s a paradox.”

When asked about resistance from police unions, Thomson said there was some reluctance. Some officers, he conceded, were “resistant to really getting out of their squad cars and engaging in this.”

But, he said, officers liked hearing a top-down message that they would no longer be measured by how many summonses they wrote or arrests they made.

“The things that matter most can’t be quantified,” said Thomson.

A Response to Outrage

The Task Force was established following widespread outrage over the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of officers in Missouri, New York City, Ohio and elsewhere in 2014. The report, co-chaired by Philadelphia’s Ramsey and former assistant attorney general Laurie Robinson, offered 59 recommendations  including more police diversity, better training, smart use of technology, and greater accountability and transparency in law enforcement policies and practices.

“We are confident we can implement many of the recommendations,” Coulter said.

Nevertheless, widespread change in police departments around the country is going to take time, said Jerry Ratcliffe, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University.

Ratcliffe said some departments might not even read the report’s recommendations because of its association with President Obama.

Far more worrying, he added, is the fact that “there’s nothing in this report that is enforceable (at the federal level) because of America’s decentralized government.”

A major problem, he said, is making widespread change in a U.S. justice system that has 17,000 police departments, half of which have less than 10 officers and police chiefs who were “appointed by a mayor who was a real estate agent last week.”

“You have a very political environment,” he said.

Ratcliffe also expressed skepticism about the effect of community policing.

“It doesn’t bring down crime,” he said.

He quoted a study by Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University that found it takes four to 14 positive interactions with police to recover from a single bad incident.

Still, he said,  the 21st Century Policing report was a good start.

“This is a marker in time and place that says something about what police should be talking about. To some degree, I think policing in the next 15 or 20 years will be held accountable to the response to the report,” Ratcliffe said.

“While it feels great to be at the end of 20 years of crime reductions, we still have a long way to go before we match other civilized countries,” he added.

Adam Wisnieski is a contributing editor of The Crime Report. Matthew Williams is editor of the John Jay College Sentinel. They welcome readers’ comments. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *