In the protests against unjustified police shootings in the two and a half years since Ferguson, many critics of the police have charged that the police are “out of control.” Others accuse the police of being “a law unto themselves.”
It is indeed true that a lot of police conduct is lawless: unjustified shootings, uses of excessive force, and racial profiling in stops, frisks, and arrests. In these practices, officers not only violate the law but the policies of their own departments.
It is not exactly true, however, that the police are “out of control.”
The melancholy fact of American policing is that the 18,000 police and sheriff’s departments in this country are fully under control—control by duly elected mayors, city councils and county boards.
The problem is that the police are controlled and directed by elected public officials who are not committed to respectful, bias-free and constitutional policing.
In short, the problem of policing is a problem of democracy.
The long-term solution to our police problems lies in electing officials who are committed to professional, respectful and constitutional policing—and are informed about what needs to be done to get there.
As Donald Trump takes office after campaigning on a “law and order” agenda that has largely ignored this essential point, it’s never been more important to focus on the need to link police reform with our democratic values.
The misuse of the police reaches deep into American history.
In the nineteenth century, local political leaders saw police departments as a source of graft and jobs for their supporters. They took no interest in officer brutality, discrimination, or inefficiency. In the southeast, the problem was even worse. The police were an integral part of the racial caste system, with an explicit mission of maintaining first slavery and, after the Civil War, the system of de jure racial segregation.
In recent decades, in order to placate the general public, city officials have focused on aggressive crime-fighting, usually in the form of saturation patrol, aggressive stops and frisks and similar programs. But we now know that such programs not only don’t reduce crime but also alienate community residents, especially in African-American communities.
Fearful of alienating the police, and police unions in particular, our elected officials have been unwilling to address the failure of departments to control excessive force, unjustified shootings and discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices.
Basically, they are afraid of criticisms by police and others that they are “handcuffing” crime-fighting efforts. And the problem is compounded by the fact that few elected officials understand the police policies and practices that allow officer misconduct to continue.
To bring about comprehensive and lasting police reform, we must reinvigorate the democratic process. That’s only possible if Americans elect mayors and city council members who are committed to to making their police departments professional, respectful and lawful – and knowledgeable about how to get there.
How do we accomplish this?
If the problem is that our public officials are not well-informed about the details of police work and police reform, then we have to make them informed.
Community activists need to think long-term. And they must begin now to cultivate people who might run for city council or mayor at some point in the future. Reaching them is not that great a problem. They can be found in the networks of civic groups that exist in every city. Activists need to reach out to the members of neighborhood groups, the faith community, the legal community, the business community, and others.
The message to them should be: “We can make this a great city, with one of the best police departments in the country.”
Framing the issue in terms of creating a great city has powerful bipartisan appeal. And it also appeals to the budget-consciousness of prospective candidates.
When we reduce police misconduct, we also stop having to spend millions of dollars a year in civil suits—an expense that burdens New York City, Chicago, Baltimore and many other cities. That money can be better spent on after-school programs which will help reduce crime.
Stopping headline-making shooting incidents not only saves lives but it also ends the national news stories that make people and businesses wonder if that is a city where they want to live and work.
The key part of this process is to reach potential candidates for local office before they ever run for any office; so that when they do run, they are already on-board with a police reform program. And should they be elected, they take office with a concrete agenda and a network of supporters on the issue.
How does all this begin? Existing community groups and networks are a solid foundation for such a process. But those groups should be encouraged to develop a clearly focused plan for improving the police.
Today, there are many accessible sources to help develop such a plan. And in many cases, such ideas already have the strong support of established police groups, particularly the Police Executive Research Forum, which has issued a series of path-breaking reports on controlling police use of force, de-escalation, and improving police training. President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, released last year to wide support among police executives, offers another blueprint.
A short, written plan would provide examples of the most important reforms today: de-escalation, procedural justice, stricter accountability on officer use of force. And in each case, the plan will describe in plain English how it will reduce misconduct and lead to more professional policing—and perhaps just as importantly, apply these ideas to the specific local jurisdictions where community groups are operating.
A promising local avenue for pursuing reform are the broadly representative Community Police Commissions which consent decrees have created in Seattle, Cleveland, and other cities. As constituted, these commissions have the authority to review existing police policies and initiate new ones. Activists in other cities could use them as models for a locally-created one in their communities.
This agenda for police reform is not an easy one.
It will take sustained work over the long haul. But in the end, it is our best hope for bringing police under the control of people committed to the best possible policing, and are well-informed about what that involves.
It will be difficult.
But who ever said that democracy was easy?
For additional reading: See Prof. Walker’s article in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, “Governing the American Police: Wrestling with the Problems of Democracy.”
Samuel Walker is Professor Emeritus of Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the author of 14 books on policing, civil liberties and crime police. His new blog can be read here. Readers’ comments are welcome.