Only “bold” approaches to changing behavior and attitudes can “break the cycle of excessively aggressive policing in the U.S.,” says the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City.
In a paper released Monday, the commission urged policymakers and senior law enforcement managers to consider shifting police from an agency of “force” to one whose primary mission is “service.”
“We have been here before,” the paper said. “Serious complaints about police behavior are not new, but rather seem to recycle every few years.
“It is the recurring nature of these issues that must compel us to think in bold and new ways, to try a new orientation of policing that breaks the cycle of excessively aggressive policing.”
Arguing that “one bad apple (shouldn’t) spoil the bunch,” the Commission warned that negative rhetoric can obscure “the good work done by police every day.”
But it added that only by nurturing solid relationships with communities can police achieve the legitimacy that allows them to fulfill their mission of public safety.
The Commission identified the two most common hurdles to reform as inappropriately aggressive policing and implicit bias. Given the amount of focus on these issues, and the consistent bipartisan support for change, “we have a unique opportunity to rethink policing in the United States,” the paper asserted.
Why Isn’t Implicit Bias Training Effective?
Following the May 25 murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, citizens have grown increasingly critical of police departments and their handling of tense encounters with civilians — especially those where excessive force is used against a person of color.
Many critics say implicit bias training can challenge pre-encoded stereotypes about people of different races. But there are doubts about its effectiveness.
In 2018, more than half of all people (56 percent) stopped by officers of the New York Police Department (NYPD) were Black, the Citizens Crime Commission noted. Moreover, Blacks represented 52 percent of summonses issued and 47 percent of arrests.
However, after implicit bias training was introduced in the following years, African Americans still comprised 57 percent of all stops, 52 percent of summonses and 48 percent of arrests.
This suggests, the paper argued, that the current implicit bias training model doesn’t work.
To make genuine change, the Commission suggested that bias should be weeded out in the screening process of police recruits, through psychological evaluations and written examinations that can determine whether candidates harbor negative biases about people of other race and ethnicities.
“Importantly, we must be sure to recognize, reject and remove racist recruits and officers,” the report continued.
“Individuals with extremist views and/or affiliations, such as white supremacy sympathizers, have no play in policing.”
Many police departments already use this general approach, the paper acknowledged, but the differences are substantial, the paper said.
In California, police are required to pass at least two written tests. One is designed to identify unstable mental tendencies, and the other to assess “suitability” for a job in policing. Minneapolis requires only one test focusing on the applicant’s mental stability, but not whether a candidate is psychologically suitable for the role.
The various shortcomings in the processes required to obtain a badge could be backstopped by a system in which screening takes place at regular intervals throughout the officer’s career, the Commission suggested.
Overall, the policy paper says that police departments need to take a “multifaceted approach” to various trainings and interventions supported by research to make sure that implicit bias doesn’t undermine legitimacy.
This will not only keep both officers and community residents safe, but reduce crime, the paper said.
Reimagining Who Joins Law Enforcement
The policy paper agrees with advocates who argue that police forces should reflect the demographics of the community they serve, both in ethnicity and gender, considering that “multiple studies have found that more diverse and reflective police departments are more effective.”
Yet the trend seems to be moving in the opposite direction.
According to a New York Times analysis of 467 police departments with at least 100 officers, more than two-thirds of the departments hired more Caucasian officers, making the police departments more white relative to the population they serve.
This can create a cultural disconnect, a feeling of mistrust, and diminish representation, the paper warned.
That inability to understand each other’s perspective affects recruitment, especially in the current environment, Ryan Tillman, a police officer in Chino, Ca., told the New York Times.
“There are a lot of minorities who just don’t like police,” Tillman said. “And if you do have one who wants to be a police officer, they’re afraid to come out and tell people that they want to do that.”
Read a Different Perspective: Why Police Diversity Won’t Fix the Problems of Policing
In terms of gender, higher levels of female representation are associated with law enforcement agencies that are proven to emphasize community policing. However, according to Statista, only 12.8 percent of full-time law enforcement officers were female, compared to 87.2 percent for male in 2019.
“Female police officers have a positive influence on the perceived job performance, trustworthiness, and fairness of a police agency,” the researchers found.
“Female officers are less likely to use force, use excessive force, or be named in a lawsuit than male officers.”
The researchers also found that female officers typically have high levels of interpersonal communication skills, which results in a more “effective” handling of situations in the field. Women are also found to have a “calming effect” on male law enforcement partners when the pair responds to high-stress and dangerous assignments, resulting in fewer police deaths.
These findings, the authors write, add further reasoning as to why law enforcement agencies need reimagined who adorns a badge.
Looking beyond who wears a badge, the authors are concerned with the attitudes that police have, as their attitudes influence their behavior. The paper suggests that officers need to lead by example, and feel central to the service of the community, as well as altruistically feel that holding one another accountable is important.
These important factors can also be addressed through smart recruitment and psychological screening, the authors suggest.
Some of this reform work is already underway.
Most notably, the NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing program is highlighted in the report as being “exemplary” as each community has two designated officers acting as neighborhood coordination officers (NCOs).
NCOs work as liaisons between the police and the community by building genuine rapport with the residents and working with their own departments to discuss what a community is lacking, and what they need more help with.
Overall, the researchers say there are four core concerns all members of law enforcement should be focused on:
- Respectful interactions between police and members of the public, where members of the public are given the opportunity to be heard;
- Use of force only under warranted conditions; and,
“If there is a failing or disconnect in even one of these areas, legitimacy is diminished,” the researchers concluded.
“Change is hard but if achieved, it would be substantial.”
The Citizens Crime Commission of New York City is a nonpartisan organization working to reduce crime, protect the economic and social viability, and to improve the criminal justice system and the safety of New York City through task forces, groups, and participation in the New York State Law Enforcement Council.
The full report can be accessed here.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR staff writer.