Re-Imagining Policing: Some Practical Suggestions


This is an age of uncertainty but also one of opportunity. Daily, we are presented with evidence that traditional models of policing and adjudicating unacceptable behaviors are flawed in important ways. We are uncomfortable about some of these practices, but for complex reasons are reluctant to adopt new approaches that make sense—lacking the political will to do so.

We are becoming more risk-averse. That has the paradoxical effect of increasing the risk that we will be harmed. So when a politician says she is going to be tough on crime it usually means she is going to incarcerate more people who are poorly educated, chronically unemployed, are embedded in inadequately-resourced support networks, abuse substances, and have mental health problems.

They will be incarcerated in facilities lacking good-enough treatment and adequate educational programs. They will then be returned to their impoverished communities where they will have tense, sometimes abusive, and occasionally fatal encounters with a police officer who is ill-equipped to handle this individual's problems. This officer is then either lauded as a hero or condemned as a villain.

Given that serious crime has been on the decline for the past 20 years, this approach criminalizes behaviors that should be dealt with by the health care system or by community-based institutions. At the same time we have witnessed the virtual decriminalization and lack of outrage at those who pillage our banking system, underfund our educational system, and despoil our environment, thereby doing incalculable damage to the American commons and especially to its most vulnerable members.

In some of these communities, the high school graduation rate is below 50 percent, while the chronic unemployment rate is above 50 percent. Alas, Broken Windows theorists and practitioners appear to be oblivious to this assault on the spirit, and to the disrespect that it engenders for the authority of an (un)civil society.

In such a scenario, the idea of an American commons with shared values of fairness, inclusiveness and opportunity appears to be even more fragile than ever. It was always in tension with a heavy-handed morality that now seems to be in ascendance. One can observe the resurgence of a potent adversarial stance in which there is a free-floating punitiveness that increasingly and harshly punishes wrongdoers who lack the resources to defend themselves. So even as serious crime declines, misdemeanor arrests soar.

As part of this culture, there seems to be less understanding and compassion in responding to our imperfectness; our tendency at times to act inappropriately. Those who are not able to rebuff attempts to increasingly criminalize their imperfections are always at risk for humiliation, crippling fines, incarceration and sometimes death.

Such an approach also puts police officers at risk. Too many of them appear to be socialized into responding to all badly behaving human beings as if they are evil persons, routinely bent on inflicting harm on them. This approach is psychologically costly for law enforcement officers who experience high rates of divorce, alcoholism and trauma-related disorders. They often feel embattled by a public that expects them to alternate seamlessly between being compassionate social workers, efficient vehicle inspectors, wary observers of the youth, and dispassionate sharp shooters licensed to kill. They feel embattled by departments that are often quite punitive in their management and disciplinary approaches to rank and file officers. Given such a bleak working environment, it makes sense that police unions adopt unenviable and seemingly irrational positions in defense of their members.

We are not however without reasonable alternatives.

Given the complexity of the issue, many of the suggestions that follow are incremental; doable within the fractured political space that we currently live in.

Part of the evidence for this bounded optimism is that many currently serving officers and administrators demonstrate the desired skillsets listed below.

  • Foster informed decision making: There is an abundance of evidence of policing practices that are effective, while preserving the dignity and safety of both the officer and the citizen. We should familiarize ourselves with these practices and insist that they become part of the dialogue on effective and respectable policing.
  • Disown political theatre: We need to challenge politicians and pundits who speak to fear, rather than safety. The public wants to feel safe and this requires policing and criminal justice practices that contribute to such safety. Fear statements speak to our atavistic selves and promotes criminal justice practices that unwittingly make us less safe.
  • Make policing a vocation: Policing is a vital function in a democracy where we grant an officer the awesome authority to bring lethal force to bear on fellow citizens. We need to rethink how we socialize men and women into this profession.
  • Re-think hiring processes: Not everyone has the disposition to be a police officer. Evidence-based procedures should screen out applicants who have difficulty controlling themselves in volatile situations. They should also screen out those who are overly anxious and quick to feel threatened or insulted. There are dangerous aspects to policing and one wants officers who are not overly preoccupied with being safe and feeling respected. Officers who are calm but vigilant will be less likely to inappropriately respond with force.

Such procedures should be biased towards finding and training applicants who are verbally adept and are therefore more able to communicate in a way that is reasonable and where necessary can contribute to de-escalating tense situations. This is especially important given how often officers must deal with impulsive youth, mentally ill individuals or persons actively abusing substances.

  • Revamp training curricula: We need a standardized curriculum for the fundamentals of policing. This should be complemented by mandating the completion of a certain amount of college credits in the humanities and social sciences. As it stands now there is still too much of a militaristic patina to police training. Too much emphasis on physical fitness and memorizing statutes, and too little on the psychology of young people and on working effectively with the community.
  • Develop sophisticated threat assessment: We have the existing technologies to assign threat levels to scenarios such as traffic stops, domestic violence complaints and inappropriate behavior by emotionally disturbed persons. That knowledge should be leveraged to inform training and response tactics.
  • Involve the unions: The police unions must be a proactive part of a meaningful dialogue that over time addresses the concerns of all stakeholders.
  • Humanize the judicial process. In too many jurisdictions, the law courts have been reduced to a process of dehumanizing disenfranchisement, arcane processes and money extraction. It has possibilities to be re-imagined as a place of dignity, fairness, remorse and redemption.

What needs to be done is intellectually challenging and politically risky. Given that all lives matter, we have a moral obligation to ensure that we leverage all we know to address this threat to our democracy.

C. Jama Adams, PhD, is the chairperson of the Department of Africana Studies at John Jay College. He welcomes your comments.

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