Community policing and the hiring of more Black and Latinx officers—while they may be worthy goals in themselves—will only amount to “symbolic substitutes” for real reform unless there are structural changes to U.S. law enforcement culture and training, according to a new study.
As the nation is gripped by new calls for policing reform following the death of George Floyd, the study said many of the demands echo recommendations of the 2015 report of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing, created by then-President Barack Obama after the shooting death of 19-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.
However, an analysis of available data suggests there is little evidence to support two of the Task Force’s central recommendations for reducing fatal officer-involved shootings of civilians: increasing racial and gender diversity; and increasing community policing,
There was more data to back up the third recommendation, to hire officers with more education, said the study authors, Kayla Preito-Hodge, a sociology professor at Rutgers University, and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
“The existing literature points toward an expectation that increased racial and gender diversity and community policing will not actually be associated with lower police use of force,” the study concluded.
“On the other hand, the existing literature suggests that more educated officers may resort to force against citizens less often.”
The authors acknowledged they drew their conclusions from an analysis of use-of-force data from police departments across the U.S., collected before the Task Force issued its recommendations, arguing that “evidence supporting the ‘[Obama] Task Force recommendations was…weak.”
The data came from the Bureau of Justice Statistics 2013 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics (LEMAS) survey, which tracks officer demographics, budget, weaponry, community policing activities and use of force—among other variables—for 2,822 state, city and county law enforcement agencies.
The authors also supplemented their research with the 2013 FBI Uniform Crime Report.
The first major finding was that police departments with more college-educated officers working on the streets reported fewer incidents of violence towards civilians. That supports the Task Force recommendation of employing officers with higher education, the authors wrote.
“College-educated officers who attained a degree (i.e. Associates or Bachelor’s) were more than 40 percent less likely to be involved in a shooting than officers without a college degree,” the paper said.
But recommendations by the 2015 Task Force—and by others—to increase the number of Black officers in the hope of reducing “racialized” police violence are not supported by available data, the authors said.
They cited, for example, earlier surveys showing that more than 40 percent of Black officers believe that cases of extreme police violence against African-American civilians were “isolated events,” the paper said.
This suggests “that the issue of race and policing might not be so easily solved by just hiring more Black cops,” the paper continued.
“Simply demographically diversifying police forces is unlikely to undermine the powerful organizational culture of policing in the absence of larger organizational change. On the other hand….we suspect [that] anti-violence training more generally, may reduce police use of violence.”
The researchers found limited support for the claim that more community policing would reduce officer-involved fatal shootings.
“A higher proportion of community beat officers is associated with significantly lower levels of police violence,” the paper said, adding that, nevertheless, it was still hard to conclude that greater engagement with the community was sufficient to change police behavior.
“Most community policing efforts are likely to be ineffective in reducing police violence and may simply be symbolic substitutes for real reform.”
Such findings, they said, suggest that while efforts to rebuild community trust and legitimacy can help curtail aggressive crime control strategies, they do not address the underlying causes of violence in police culture and training.
“Officers, regardless of race or gender, share blue socialization, identities, and organizational use-of-force training,” said the paper.
Overall, the authors recommend that, in order to create a new reform framework to match the current calls for systemic change in American policing, scholars, policymakers, and police must develop data-based guidelines for reducing excessive use of force.
The paper called for a “central data hub” with reliable and consistent information on police practices and behavior across the country to serve as the basis for more effective changes.
The authors contended that increasing accountability for officer conduct was critical.
“Because officers have the lawful power to take away life, they should be held at a much higher standard than the average citizen when using force,” they wrote.
The White House under President Donald Trump has established its own commission on policing. The President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice concluded its series of hearings last week, and is scheduled to issue a report this Fall.
Kayla Preito-Hodge is a sociology professor at Rutgers University, Camden, and she is the Senior Associate of Data and Research for the Public Safety Performance Project at The Pew Charitable Trusts.
Donald Tomaskovic-Devey, a sociology professor at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and he directs the UMass Center for Employment Equity and the Coordinator of the Comparative Organizational Inequality Network.
The full paper can be accessed here.
This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano