The ‘Post-Policing Era’ in America: How Will We Cope?

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Photo by Giorgio Montersino via FlickR

Photo by Giorgio Montersino via FlickR

“The policeman is denounced by the public, criticized by the preachers, ridiculed in the movies, berated by the newspapers, and unsupported by prosecuting officers and judges.  He is shunned by the respectable, hated by criminals, deceived by everyone, kicked around like a football by brainless or crooked politicians.”

—August Vollmer, police reformer and chief, Berkley, California, 1929.

This is the dawn of the post-policing era in America, and the nation needs to come to grips with how to maintain safety and secure order with cops playing a dramatically reduced role. From coast to coast there is an acute shortage of men and women seeking to be police officers.

Half a century ago, the Kerner Commission envisioned policing as a profession, with baccalaureate- carrying cops.  But almost no police department in the county requires, or plans to require, a four-year degree for hiring.  It is absurdly out of reach.

In fact, departments with even the most minimal requirements struggle to recruit new officers.

Policing was once seen as a noble profession: to generations of young people they were knight-like, but today the term “ex con” is more respectable in the public discourse than cop.  (Mrs. Clinton won’t even seek a national police union endorsement for fear of the contagion that would result.)

In many places, policing was in some measure a family enterprise, with incumbents encouraging their children to follow in their shoes, but cops nowadays are way more likely to tell youngsters contemplating a career in uniform to seek instead psychiatric care.

It is dawning on police officers and institutions that the police job is presently undo-able in our far too violent and armed nation, and is rapidly becoming utterly impossible without a willingness to shoulder enormous physical and psychic risks and exposure to dire, possibly incarcerative consequences.

To discharge the duties of a job that involves using force, even lethal force, on others in unscripted situations, while a camera records one’s improvised, clumsy and sometimes terrified decision-making for dissection by battalions of armchair second guessers makes this a career choice easily shunned.

(Some reforms are overdue and necessary but cannot be reconciled with the need to find humans to do the work.)

Like so much of the national discourse today, criticism of policing is retrospective, seeking to fix blame and identify villains, ignoring that we are now in a certain bad place and it matters little that almost everyone played a role in the tearing down of the police and the justice system to get us here

Once individuals have identified their political persuasions, than all issues are framed, and solutions filtered, through those orthodoxies.   In fact, political philosophies are pretty useless when trying to accurately identify what a community’s  problems are, and fashioning solutions.

Thus, at present, an absurd partisan conversation about who is “pro-police” and who isn’t  is a feature of this year’s presidential election.  This team-police versus team-citizen approach avoids serious issues and the need to make choices.   Only a political knave or a novice offers an affirmative blueprint for keeping the public safe from crime and terrorism: The rewards all flow to he or she who critiques the best and expresses in the loudest voice the need for empathy and a view of humanity that is distinction free.

I was recently interviewed about a professor who is teaching aspiring corrections officers about the need for empathy, something that you might practice on rare occasions,  but should never openly display lest you be eaten alive by prisoners—a conversation that encapsulates the core disconnect between those who criticize law enforcement and those who do it.

Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey says that the nation is grievously exposed to further terrorism attacks, but echoes the words of others in law enforcement circles who suggest  it is too career-imperiling to prevent them: much easier to investigate them after the damage is done.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s decision to leave this month—almost running away from his life’s work in policing— underscores how dramatically esteem for the police has been eviscerated., and how angered people have become with hard truths.

Policing’s Hard Truths

Policing is differentiated from other occupations by the use of coercion; thus it is fair to say policing is not infrequently lawfully brutal, but relatively rarely crosses the crime to criminally brutal.  To say this in today’s environment is to utter words that are construed as almost hate speech, and subject the speaker to the loudest approbation.

Bratton, one of the few titans in American policing who was able to connect with cops because he was not seen as a panderer, who refused to sugarcoat the dirty job the cops were tasked with doing, was increasingly a muted voice, forced to sign off on reforms that will leave future NYPD leaders scrambling to find someone, anyone, to be cops.

Despite the fact that NYPD street cops are mostly minority, that agency has been forced to hunker down in the face of fierce, incessant attacks.  As some former colleagues observe, there was once a time when there was more than a handful of bruisers in blue, people who hardly needed weapons at all to secure compliance from the resistant.  Today’s generation of cops, with a few exceptions, are way kinder and gentler and it would typically necessitate half a dozen of them to make an arrest that a lone officer would make several decades ago.

We live in a nation where there are savage inequities and shocking want, and it is that which is intrinsically brutal and dehumanizing.

Policing is expected to be the one and only profession that can achieve a fairness that is elusive in every aspect of a market economy.  Thus far in  Chicago out of nearly 300 homicide victims, almost all are black and a handful, nine, are white.  No fairness there.  Some construct arguments about the police that omit these shockingly disparate facts, ignoring that these numbers are potent weapons in the hands of the most divisive figures in public life.  (And it is worth looking at the faces of the lives snuffed out by this long running genocide:

It is absurd indeed to talk about police even-handedness in the face of such lethal inequity.

The country is no longer able to endorse  the paradox that is policing within the construct of a free society, especially since its brute side has been laid bare to a nation that has cameras at the ready.  (It is so far a little less hard to avoid coming to grips with the inhumanity of mass incarceration since we only now and then get a glimpse of life behind bars .)

The unstated idea that the police are no longer needed has become a mainstay, amongst many elites including those who pen editorials for the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Enforcement and incarceration are regarded as evils per se.  Last week’s Department of Justice  report on the Baltimore police nowhere mentions the toxic implications of allowing shooters to shoot and remain free in their own communities.

The hard lives suffered by some in childhood exculpate especially the poor for committing even the most brutal offenses.

Some advocates and commentators denounce jail for all, except cops.

Community policing—which is ill defined and amorphous–is once again being offered up as an ameliorative in the midst of our current crisis.  It is never quite clear what it is or how it works in a poor or high-crime community, but it advances the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine.  In fact, when the police are doing the enforcement duties that differentiate them from other civilian occupations they are enmeshed in conflict, undertaking work that is adversarial and frequently leaves people smarting.

Organizing little leagues or holding block meetings is work that can—indeed should—be done by others.  Chicago has had a community policing initiative for over two decades, during which time 20,000 lives have been snuffed out homicidally.   Today’s CPD is a police force in name only with cops avoiding engagement at all costs, getting there when they get there.

A Narrative of ‘Otherness’

Perhaps the knell of doom for our justice system is the ingrained construction of a narrative of otherness, the notion that individuals who commit crimes are an irredeemable lot, a breed apart.  The raging political debates since the 1960s often boiled down to isolating and caging “those people.” invariably invoking racist imagery.

In his beautiful riveting new book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance provides valuable and all too rare insights into the impoverished and dysfunctional life he was born into in white Appalachia.  Those people are his people-and ours too of course.

In reading it, I could not help thinking of  scarring impact on my own parents who were born into the soggy dread of rural Irish poverty.  Many children of immigrants became cops; and some–but not nearly enough—of us remembered and were informed by that legacy in their dealings with the poor and damaged souls in some of the nation’s most forlorn communities.

Many Americans face enormous odds just to simply survive and talking to them about fairness and equity is farcical indeed.

So what will replace the current policing system?  Can we create a program of national service in lieu of employing nearly one million paid police officers?

How far can reforms on drug addiction, mental health and addiction bring us to a less punitive society?  What does technology offer in terms of prevention and detection and prediction of crime and holding offenders to account?

Will machines come to own us?   DWI and traffic enforcement can be mechanized. You do not need to be enthused to acknowledge that we will soon have technology that makes wrongdoers as identifiable as license plates make errant motorists.

What can incapacitate offenders and protect all besides prison?

The police currently do not solve most crimes reported to them.  More than half of those who shoot and murder get away in some jurisdictions.  What can science and technology bring to crime fighting in the next decade?

Of course it may take time to come to grips with the sunsetting that is occurring in the work of the police.  Lacking an agenda for solving entrenched and concentrated poverty, both parties relish the chance to re run a law and order versus police as public enemy number one debate.

The “police problem and criminal justice systems needs fixing” debate over the past few years has consumed a staggering amount of time, but precious little in the way of solutions that will take us forward into the future—a future where the police will play a much, much reduced role.

Eugene O'Donnell

Eugene O’Donnell

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor in the Department of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is a former NYPD Officer and NYC prosecutor.  He will be speaking at Chicago Ideas Week on October 18. He welcomes comments from readers.


9 thoughts on “The ‘Post-Policing Era’ in America: How Will We Cope?

  1. Too much focus on “the community” (whatever that really means) and not enough on “the individual” (where everything emanates from – the good, the bad and the ugly). Vaguely defined problems get vague answers. The problem laid out in this article was way too broad and way too vague as a result. We need to narrow our focus in order to effectuate change. You can’t change “a community,” but you can change “an individual” who inhabits that community. You cannot change “a police department,” but you can change individual officers within that police department. There is a way to be an effective change agent, and that is what we must teach our police officers. It can be done, but leaders in charge have to be committed to doing it.

    There is a solution to all this strife and angst we are seeing in the country. We can move away from a culture of violence, poverty and despair and move toward a culture of prosperity and affluence if we are taught how and given a strategy to follow and someone to teach that strategy. We have models to follow and replicate, so it’s no big mystery in 2016 and beyond. It’s actually easy to do (and I define the word “easy” as “something you can do”). But here’s the kicker: “Things that are easy to do are also easy not to do.” If you’re interested in being a change agent and putting a dent in the universe and making your work your ministry then check out my free videos at:

  2. Excellent article. Professor O’Donnell depicts a future without policing as we know it — perhaps supplanted by drones and artificial intelligence doing some types of enforcement work. One can only imagine the legal issues that will be raised by such a scenario. Unfortunately, while stimulating thought, the article does little to suggest how to solve the problems now facing the justice system.

  3. I thought this article was all over the map and a bit of an intellectual mess. Much of it was silly, like the Clinton jab. And it’s a ridiculous lie to claim that the “idea that the police are no longer needed has become a mainstay, amongst many elites “Good to learn that average Americans don’t care about “fairness” or “equity.” Geez!

  4. Excellent article! I was hoping that much of what Professor O’Donnell discusses in his article would pass with no impact on policing. Unfortunately, it appears that the artificial call for change may have a substantial negative impact on the future of policing.

  5. It’s too early to tell if this is the dawn of anything. Government will always be involved in maintaining order, and thus fallible human beings at the controls.

  6. The problem is the drug war.

    Every major issue and many of the minor issues that Police and the Public are having with each other stem from the Drug War.

    End the Drug War.

    Become Police again.

    Stop creating criminals and solve real crimes.

    Cops love the Drug War.

    Cop apologists love whatever Cops love.

    A majority of Americans absolutely abhor the Drug War.

    End the Drug War and Law Enforcement becomes a much less dangerous job. Even now, Law Enforcement is not one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Not even Top 10. Yet, if one listens to the Law Enforcers and their constant whining and “fearing for the lives,” one would think America was a combat zone much like Syria.

    End the freakin’ Drug War!

  7. Community policing is only “ill defined and amorphous” to unimaginative individuals like the author who are incapable of thinking outside the box and resort to penning hysterical jeremiads like this article. I invite all to consider the progress the Albany NY Police Department has made over the past seven years in realizing true and workable community policing.

  8. I highly recommend the book written by another John Jay professor, Don’t shoot : one man, a street fellowship, and the end of violence in inner-city America, by David M. Kennedy

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