What ‘Systemic’ Police Reform Really Means

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Photo by Willy Ochaya via Flickr

Three-quarters of Americans consider “police violence against the public” to be a problem. The same percentage believes that police killings of Blacks are not “isolated incidents,” but instead a “sign of broader problems.”

The statistics bear that out. In 2014, 43 percent of the public took the “broader problems” position. In June of this year, 74 percent did so.

And whereas in 2014 only 35 percent of whites and 51 percent of Hispanics subscribed to the “broader problems” idea, sizeable majorities of all groups now hold this opinion: 70 percent of whites, 75 percent of Hispanics, and 94 percent of Blacks.

A series of controversial incidents in a short span of time, coupled with public protests throughout the country, has convinced the vast majority of Americans that misconduct is not confined to a few bad cops.

But what exactly are these “broader problems,” and what does the growing demand for “systemic” change mean?

Systemic change can be defined as initiatives that alter the structure of the organization and affect police officers generally. (Here, I am excluding the most radical proposals, such as defunding, disarming, or abolishing police departments, and focusing instead on more practical organizational changes.)

Some of the remedies listed below would require a huge commitment of resources; others will be met with resistance from rank-and-file officers or police unions. But the most enlightened police chiefs have already instituted at least some of these reforms.

It is instructive to imagine what a department committed to “best practices” would look like.

A progressive department would rank high on each of the following measures, the sum total of which can be considered systemic:

Modernizing Hiring and Training

Police departments in many American cities are highly unrepresentative of the local population. Systemic reform would mean the department reflects the racial composition of the city. While most studies indicate that diversification in multi-racial cities has little impact on officer behavior, it has the advantage of symbolizing inclusiveness and demonstrating that the department is an equal-opportunity employer.

This kind of change would also mean hiring a substantial number of women. Currently, 12 percent of police officers in the U.S. are women, a proportion that has not grown in decades.

Research shows that female officers are less likely than their male colleagues to use physical force, draw their weapons, and injure suspects. They receive far fewer citizen complaints, and are more able to defuse contentious encounters with members of the public.

Another element of reform: Intensify training of officers in anti-bias principles, de-escalation techniques, community relations, and problem-solving engagement with residents of high-crime communities.

Patrol officers would be required to take in-service refresher courses every two years. Chokeholds, neck restraints, and “zero-tolerance” and “stop and frisk” practices would not be part of the curriculum.

Mechanisms of Accountability

In a department committed to systemic reform, mechanisms of accountability would take multiple forms.

For example, all patrol officers would wear body cameras. Video of problematic incidents is released to the public in a timely manner.

When officers stop pedestrians or drivers, they record demographic data on those stopped. The data are periodically reviewed to ensure that stops are not racially biased.

Frontline commanders – sergeants, lieutenants – are held responsible for officers under their command. This means disciplinary sanctions for those who tolerate misconduct by subordinates. According to one recent poll, the public favors extending this principle to all officers present at the scene: 94 percent say these officers should be required to intervene when they witness abuse by another officer.

When an officer kills a citizen and there are legal grounds for prosecution, a prosecutor from outside the jurisdiction is enlisted to lead the inquiry.

An Early Intervention System would be created to identify officers who appear prone to misconduct. Rule violations and citizen complaints are recorded in a database, and remedial measures (counseling, retraining, anger management) are imposed on officers who accumulate a threshold number of violations. Some 80 percent of the public supports this reform, which was recently adopted by Chicago.

A civilian review board would routinely review complaints from citizens. Most large cities today have such agencies.

An Independent Auditor would monitor the complaints process. While civilian complaint boards deal with individual cases, auditors have the advantage of addressing systemic issues.

Only a few cities currently have such auditors.

A community-policing ethos is nurtured throughout the department, not confined to a small Community Affairs unit.

Finally, the local police union stays out of politics. It refrains, in its public pronouncements, from automatically jumping to the defense of officers accused of serious misconduct. Remarkably, 56 percent of the public want police unions abolished entirely, apparently because they are seen as obstacles to reform.

The above list is not intended to be exhaustive.

ronald weitzer

Ronald Weitzer

And research shows that some of these measures will have limited impact on their own (e.g., bodycams, racial diversification). While no single reform can substantially improve policing, each of the above can be considered an important part of a broad package of comprehensive, systemic transformation.

Ronald Weitzer is professor emeritus of sociology at George Washington University. He has researched police accountability and police-community relations in the United States, Northern Ireland, Israel, and South Africa. He is co-author of Race and Policing in America: Conflict and Reform and author of Policing Under Fire: Ethnic Conflict and Police-Community Relations in Northern Ireland. He welcomes readers’ comments.

2 thoughts on “What ‘Systemic’ Police Reform Really Means

  1. Dr Weitzer,

    Solid points all

    A systemic and basic problem permeates my profession; our lovely, 50 you’re running war on drugs which is simply a war on the American people, mostly of color. As you know, it divides the country into the good guys and the enemy, especially In the minds of police officers. This is a poison to police/ community relations.

    As you go about your travels, I hope you’ll throw in a good word for the need to immediately implement a decriminalization policy for all simple drug possessions. This would greatly slow down to 27,000 drug search is done daily by my profession.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Detective Howard J Wooldridge, Bath Twp Police #18, Retired

    Currently a lobbyist in DC for 7000 police officers who you want to make the medical community the tip of the spear for drug issues, not us.

  2. Thanks Detective Wooldridge. Decriminalizing marijuana possession will indeed reduce the number of contentious encounters between officers and citizens. Data from states that have done so, as expected, show a sharp drop in drug arrests.

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