Over the past few years, police departments have responded to tragedies involving civilian killings and excessive use of force with promises of new training methods and more diverse hiring practices.
These efforts have also been the focus of recommendations from criminologists, police think tanks and government commissions. But the frustration of communities who believe they are badly policed continues to build with each new tragedy, as many argue that even when these reforms are achieved, police culture barely seems to have changed.
The frustration has brought a new and impatient tone to the debate over the future of American policing, with critics calling for more radical changes, such as “defunding” or even outright abolition.
Where does the debate go from here? Is there any real chance for a reconciliation between the two increasingly hostile reform camps and, in the process, for generating sustainable change in the way Americans police themselves?
Can American policing as we have known it be saved? Should it be?
The Crime Report interviewed dozens of academics, police chiefs and criminal justice professionals around the country to take the temperature of the debate.
We found some encouraging signs of agreement. But most worrying, we found deep uncertainty about whether current law enforcement structures can meet the challenges of a deeply polarized society.
“First and foremost, we have to make sure that police are doing what we want them to do for us and doing the things that only police can do,” said Prof. James Forman Jr., a professor of law at Yale Law School, and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.
“The thing that we’ve spent the least relative attention on is this question of how to redirect and redefine policing, so that they do less, and other state-and community-based organizations do more.”
A former public defender whose work has focused on the disproportionate impact of the justice system on people of color, Forman believes that, while a middle ground on the future of policing is attainable, there are many aspects of the job currently given to police that could, and should, be given to other parts of society.
“We have to shift the responsibilities that we currently give to police away from them and, alongside that, build up the network of community based services and government agencies so that we still have a robust response mechanism, but one that is a principally non-law enforcement response mechanism,” he told The Crime Report.
This kind of response mechanism would keep police out of situations where they have been proven to cause more harm than good, such as dealing with the mentally ill, a strategy backed by a growing number of reformers even among police ranks.
A 2015 study by the Arlington, Va.-based Treatment Advocacy Center found that people with an untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than others.
According to Fatal Force Database produced by The Washington Post, which monitors the number of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers since 2015, roughly one quarter of all people killed by police officers in America have had a diagnosable mental illness.
And while police departments around the country have adopted measures such as crisis intervention training to teach officers how to deescalate dangerous situations involving emotionally distressed or disturbed individuals, it is rarely sufficient or implemented well enough to prevent unnecessary deaths.
The Rochester, N.Y., police department created one of New York’s first Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT) in 2004; yet its officers still handcuffed Daniel Prude, who had a history of mental illness, put a hood over his head, pinned him to the ground, and then pressed his face into the pavement for two minutes until he stopped breathing.
“When we’re talking about a job where you are authorized by the state to apply force and use violence against the citizens, that situation is going to inevitably be ripe for abuse,” said Foreman, Jr.
“So, do we want to have police doing traffic enforcement, responding to mental health, to people who are suffering from addiction, and to intimate partner violence in the way that they do now? I would argue no.”
Over Half of Americans Support Alternatives to Policing
In fact, according to a 2020 Gallup poll, 82 percent of Americans overall support a greater role for community-based alternatives to policing, with half of Americans overall (50 percent) strongly or somewhat supporting the idea of eliminating officer enforcement of nonviolent crimes entirely, including majorities of Black (72 percent) and Hispanic (55 percent) Americans.
In response, some departments and communities have started to make changes.
Minneapolis Public Schools replaced student resource officers with civilian safety specialists and the city implemented a violence interrupters program in which teams of civilians respond to and attempt to defuse conflicts instead of the police.
And in Fayetteville, N.C., the police department changed its focus on traffic safety vehicles from stopping drivers for nonmoving violations such as equipment failures or expired registration, to enforcing only moving violations of immediate concern to public safety, such as speeding, stop sign/light violations, DWI and reckless driving.
“It is happening every day,” Alex Vitale, professor of sociology and coordinator of the Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College.
“Every day another city is replacing policing in this area or that area,” said Vitale, author of The End of Policing. “I think five years from now we’re going to see dramatically smaller police departments all across the country.”
For Vitale, substantive justice steps like these, that examine and account for the actual effects of policing on the communities the practice targets the most, such as minorities, the mentally ill, and the poor, versus the more common procedural justice responses of more training, diversification, and community sensitivity, are the only realistic means of attaining constructive justice reform in this country.
“Procedural justice is rooted in the idea that the problems of policing are about a lack of professionalization, and that if we could just get the police to do their job a bit more professionally this will restore the community’s trust in policing,” he said.
“The assumption is that if the community trusted the police more, then they would cooperate with the police and that this would enhance police effectiveness. But there’s no evidence to that and even though it may make people feel better for a while it doesn’t translate into better outcomes and it doesn’t address the actual impacts of the criminal legal system on individuals and communities.”
Vitale maintains that the failures of procedural justice solutions are nowhere more true than in the current push by departments to pursue increased diversification as a means of addressing the racist culture of policing and the regularly biased, violent, and targeted deadly enforcement practices it produces in communities of color.
“When people are researching police diversity from a procedural justice perspective they’re measuring public attitudes towards the police and they just posit that a positive public response to diversity means that policing will get better,” said Vitale.
“But the discourse around diversifying police never measures whether or not the policing actually does get any better. And, as it turns out, when you look at that measurement, it doesn’t.”
In a recent article for TCR, Vitale points out that some studies suggest that there is no relationship between officer race and policing outcomes, that research has shown that increased racial minority representation within police agencies is not associated with fewer disparities for these groups in traffic stops, and that researchers at the University of Maryland have found that Black police officers even show evidence of the same racial biases as white officers.
In addition, a study for the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examining 5,494 police-related deaths in the U.S. between 2013 and 2017, found that Black Americans are 3.23 times more likely than white Americans to be killed by police, with larger metropolitan areas showing a majority of the disparities, such as Chicago where Black men and women were found to be over 650 percent more likely to be killed by police than white individuals.
“The Southside of Chicago is filled with black police officers, black police chiefs, and black precinct commanders and it’s a sh–show,” said Vitale.
“Look at Detroit, look at Philadelphia, look at Baltimore: filled with Black police officers, and none of them are being held up as a model of policing in poor communities of color because it just doesn’t make any difference when the mission of policing remains unchanged.”
That mission is rooted historically in enforcing slavery. Many historians join activists and criminologists in contending that American policing was built upon a foundation of oppression and subjugation that first targeted the enslaved African-American men and women who tried to escape and then, as generations passed, professionalized itself to aid in the government’s effort to keep Black communities, and other marginalized communities like them, suppressed, separated, and defenseless.
Police patrolled Black neighborhoods and arrested Black people disproportionately; prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.
According to TuftsNow, recent research by Daanika Gordon, an assistant professor of sociology in the School of Arts and Sciences, found that, due to a number of factors, “predominantly Black neighborhoods are simultaneously over-policed when it comes to surveillance and social control, and under-policed when it comes to emergency services.”
The result of the industry’s continued inability to accept and contend with that history is reflected in the continued over-policing of black and brown neighborhoods and peoples regardless of their police department’s diversity numbers.
“Diversifying the police force is not the answer to reducing police violence,” said Jennifer Cobbina, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Michigan State University.
“The experience of abusive and over-policing is not just the result of discretionary bias by individual officers,” she said. “It is also the result of factors such as “broken windows” policing, wide spread stop and frisking, harassment of young black and brown individuals, racial profiling, and the war on drugs.”
In her recent book, Hands Up, Don’t Shoot: Why the Protests in Ferguson and Baltimore Matter, and How They Changed America, Cobbina interviewed nearly 200 residents of Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore, Md., both cities which saw widespread unrest following the officer-involved deaths of two Black men, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray.
“25 percent of the people I spoke to did think that black officers enforce the law more fairly than white officers, and they believe that black officers were more courteous and respectful,” said Cobbina.
“On the flip side, another 25 percent said black officers are just as aggressive as white officers when they encounter black civilians. Diversity in and of itself is important, but will it solve the issue of policing when we’re often talking about issues of systemic racism and a culture of policing that often views poor, black, and brown individuals with suspicion and then, therefore, treats them aggressively?”
Moving Toward Accountability
Tashante McCoy-Ham, a regional manager of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice, and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice Task Force on Policing, which is assessing more than two dozen police reform measures to determine which hold the most promise to produce results. She explains that, for the communities that policing harms the most, finding that solution begins with police accountability.
“We need to normalize prosecuting cops who kill unjustly and removing the leadership who do not support police accountability,” said McCoy-Ham, whose non-profit advocacy organization brings together crime survivors in 10 states.
“Because you shouldn’t have to beg for accountability, you shouldn’t have to protest and tear up things simply for people to be held accountable.”
McCoy-Ham, who is also a founder of a community activist group based in Stockton, Ca., called The Owl Movement, Inc. (One Woman’s Love), says the Stockton school system has set up accountability standards teachers have to follow and maintain in order to keep their license.
She suggested police departments could use that model.
“When I was a teacher, I knew there were certain things that I had to do and that I couldn’t do if I was going to continue to be licensed,” said McCoy-Ham.
“Police departments can do the same thing, if they had an infrastructure that prioritized accountability.”
But building that infrastructure depends on departments taking the first steps by having hard conversations with communities and making certain that the appropriate community representatives are at the table to voice their concerns and contribute to reform.
“It’s important to be connected to the community because you can’t serve a community that you’re not connected to and that you don’t hear,” said McCoy-Ham.
“And if you really want to see the system change, the community has to be connected to it enough to impact it and check some of that deep seeded bias and privilege in policing so that they serve a community without contributing harm.”
And in the communities that experience policing the most, people want to make that connection.
A 2020 Gallup poll found that 81 percent of Black Americans, and 83 percent of Hispanic Americans, want police to spend the same amount of or more time in their area.
Meanwhile, in smaller communities like Eugene, Ore., and Northampton, Mass., departments and city councils are considering changes to their police forces that focus on both diversity in hiring and the allocation of tax funds for social services instead of increased police presence and jail capacity based on civilian recommendations and community surveys.
However, the level of transparency and accountability needed to prompt real and effective change is often actively opposed by police organizations and unions that continually promote and defend bad police officers and bad practices.
According to a recent investigation by The Washington Post, police have frequently defied efforts to impose civilian oversight, contending that citizens are ill-equipped to judge officers. But that in turn has undermined the ability of communities to hold law enforcement accountable.
And even in those jurisdictions where civilian oversight committees have been created, members are often hand-picked by the mayor or police chief, making them beholden to the very departments and systems they are designated to reform and investigate, observes Jennifer Cobbina.
“Often these community meetings are more likely to be the kinds of residents who are owners instead of renters; they are older residents as opposed to young people, and they may not include immigrants or people who are generally marginalized,” she said.
“The communities that are poor, that have high levels of crime, and experience constant aggressive policing, are overlooked and excluded.”
Would removing police from the frontlines of issues that do not directly impact public safety make a difference?
Thaddeus Johnson, an assistant professor of Criminology & Criminal Justice at the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, believes it will.
“We need to take the responsibility for these social problems off of the justice system,” said Johnson. “But just moving these things from police to social services alone is not going to work because you’re still going to need guardianship.”
A former ranking law enforcement official in Memphis, Tenn., Johnson says that the conversation around whether to remove the police entirely from certain areas of society or not has become fractured.
Too many people are focused on improving individual services instead of considering potential dangers and creating unified models of public safety that allow police to participate in and contribute to the evolution of American social and criminal justice, he said.
“The military has public safety departments where fire, EMT, policing, and mental health services are all dispatched from this one entity,” said Johnson, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice.
“I think police departments should become public safety departments with critically trained officers, critically trained dispatchers, and civilian social workers that are partnered together and deployed with a main goal of providing needed services safely and without a mindset based on arrests.”
Combining all of a community’s social, mental health and policing services under one roof would allow police to respond with trained civilians as support and protection in case a situation turns violent, argues Johnson. And, he adds, it would create a sense of partnership among the various areas of public health and safety that are today both locked in competition for funding and wholly focused on their own industry initiatives.
“A public safety department’s paychecks would all come from the same place and that would build commitment and ownership, as well as challenge the false dichotomy of having to choose either to defund or not, which is the wrong narrative,” Johnson said.
In the past year, some cities have made efforts to shift their police departments in that direction.
In June 2020, 13 days after George Floyd was killed, nine Minneapolis city council members pledged to “dismantle” the city’s police department and “create a new, transformative model for cultivating safety in Minneapolis.”
Although the council’s effort to change Minneapolis’s city charter, which governs the structure and size of the police department, ultimately failed last fall, members have already introduced a new proposal to rewrite the city charter that hopes to avoid the pitfalls that ended the first effort.
The Newark, N,J., police department launched an intense reform initiative involving community outreach, continual public meetings between police and civilians to work out grievances, and engagement of local clergy and neighborhood leaders. As a result, more Black and brown officers were hired, and new training methods and procedures were introduced, such as requiring any officer who uses force to report it in detail, and for the supervisor to review it.
The changes led to a policing model that focuses on de-escalation, empathy and engagement over the more common paramilitary tactics of the past. Newark officers did not fire a single shot during the calendar year 2020, the department did not have to settle any police brutality cases, crime dropped, and police recovered almost 500 illegal guns from the street during that year.
“If there’s a unified collaboration between police and the communities to be safe and share the responsibility of safety, then the game changes,” said McCoy-Ham.
Tracie Keesee, co-founder and Senior Vice President of Justice Initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity, believes that is the healthiest direction in which American policing can go.
“I think part of the question is really how do you disentangle criminal justice and policing while also redefining what it means to be safe and providing that type of safety,” she said.
“We know anywhere from two to five percent of 911 calls are true crime calls, which means that everything else is social needs, so there has to also be a reorientation around what you need and who you call.”
Keesee, who served as the first-ever Deputy Commissioner of Equity and Inclusion of the New York Police Department and a 25 year-veteran of the Denver Police Department, believes that the shift starts with the police and authorities identifying the boundaries of policing.
“You have to stop and think, what are we doing?” she said. “And if it’s not working, then we’re going to have to think of something else, because the community is very clear about what their needs are and how they’d like to see those needs met.”
She noted that the NYPD recently approved the expansion of a pilot program that has kept officers away from many mental health crisis calls in parts of Manhattan to every precinct citywide. The unit will consist of 25 teams of highly trained professionals that can be quickly dispatched to the scene.
The expanded citywide program is part of a multi-pronged approach to mental health, which also includes a new mobile treatment unit that will respond to more severe situations and a new initiative that will train community-based organizations and peer counselors on how to handle mental health needs right in their community.
Other cities have also launched programs that replace police with trained civilian responders for a variety of 911 calls involving people struggling with mental health issues and homelessness.
“The one constant we know about people and organizations is imperfection,” said Art Acevedo, a former Houston police chief recently appointed to head the Miami Police Department.
“So, we have to be vigilant, diligent, and hold people accountable to create a workforce that is not only diverse in appearance, but also in terms of mindsets that are reflective of the community and that community’s values.”
During a previous stint as chief in Austin, Tx. Acevedo gained attention for reorganizing Austin’s administrative structures and patrol districts, redesigning department’s badges, demanding community policing and communication, and requiring department’s leaders to participate in the city’s many cultural events and disciplining them if they did not.
During the Houston protests of the killing of George Floyd, he marched with protesters and called for more police accountability.
He insists that, despite the polarized debate on the future of policing, creating better, more safety-focused departments and repairing the frayed social safety net in this country can both be achieved, without one negating the other.
Who Will Pay?
As with so many areas of public policy, it all comes down to funding.
“It’s a false equivalence to say you can’t have the education systems and programs, the social services, the public health, the jobs training programs, all of these things, unless you give up policing,” said Acevedo,who also serves on the Task Force on Policing.
The figures seem to back that up. Citizens Against Government Waste reports that since the beginning of the pandemic a majority of states have either failed to spend their share of the $150 billion in relief funding provided by the CARES Act or used it for “wish list” projects and programs, including free college and government-run broadband.
“The country could afford to print a trillion dollars when COVID hit to help corporate America, and the wealthy and affluent who live in the good neighborhoods can pay for the extra patrols, the off-duty constables, the armed security,” said Acevedo.
“So seeing reform now is just a matter of political will.”
“Get the services where they need to be and then we can begin to talk about the role of traditional policing, the role of armed police departments in the community, and what it means to be in law enforcement,” she said.
“Because when people are redlined, and you’re pushed into one portion of a community that is a food desert, that doesn’t have quality schools, doesn’t have jobs, what do you think is going to happen?”
However, thus far, federal aid has primarily gone towards changes to tactics and procedures that favor crime control over constitutional and equitable policing methods. And state legislatures in places like Arizona, Texas and Iowa continue to resist reform by crafting legislation seeking to block any attempts to reallocate budget funds to social services.
“Not only do we need accountability for police budgets, we need accountability for government spending in general,” said Prof. Thaddeus Johnson. “Because instead of pulling money from the police, state and federal governments could be investing wasted money into these programs, into these social services, and into solving these problems that have far reaching consequences.”
The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act offers a snapshot of the paralysis that has gripped the policing debate. The proposed Act would achieve some transformative changes, such as a national database for police who have been disciplined and would set national standards for police use of force.
However, some reformers argue that the bill fails to go far enough, pointing instead to the more ambitious Breathe Act which seeks to invest resources in all communities to alleviate police violence by building sustainable neighborhoods and reducing contact with law enforcement.
For Art Chang, a candidate running in the Democratic primary for New York City’s upcoming mayoral election, creating the political willpower for change requires a dramatic shift in the culture of leadership. That shift includes how to discipline bad cops―the other side of the challenges of transparency and accountability faced by all of the 18,000 police agencies in this country.
“Leaders have to put themselves on the line to show that this is important in order to build trust with these communities that have the worst crime and the least safety,” said Chang.
“And the first step is getting police chiefs and commissioners to give up sole power over discipline.”
Richard Aborn, president of the New York City Citizens Crime Commission warns, however, that too little involvement by police chiefs and commissioners in accountability and transparency efforts could do more harm than good.
“One of the ways you address the culture of policing is by endowing the civilian oversight board with sufficient authority to make meaningful decisions and not to be ignored by the police department,” said Aborn.
“But, also, if a commissioner’s personnel know that the commissioner is somewhat toothless, that they have to go to some outside board and convince them to fire somebody, or an outside board can fire somebody and the commissioner can’t do anything to back that person up, than that both undermines the authority of the police commissioner and diminishes their ability to lead the department.”
Aborn said he preferred an oversight system where civilian members of the board appointed by the municipality were given the ability to charge and prosecute an officer, but that “the final decision goes to the commissioner, who then has to articulate why they deviated from that board’s decision so you could build a record of their performance.”
“It’s not perfect,” he added. “But you could at least have oversight and a written record that you could mandate the department itself to report on when a commissioner deviates from the board’s decision.”
A recent editorial by the Los Angeles Times critiquing the effects of an all-civilian review board on the LAPD points out that the board routinely meted out lighter discipline than Chief Michael Moore sought, keeping 11 officers on the job whom Moore believed to have committed acts so egregious as to warrant firing.
And because a ballot amendment entitled Charter Amendment C, which was pushed through to voters years before by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City Council, and gave suspect officers the power to select their own appeals panels after the chief had called for them to be disciplined, officers could now choose an all-civilian board known for handing out far softer penalties.
But even police reforms that have attracted consensus support from police management and community activitists can run up against the barrier of police unions. In New York, the Police Benevolent Association is credited with intimidating Mayor Bill de Blasio into delaying needed reforms until only recently. The association has spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying and campaign contributions since 2015.
It’s had a measurable effect.
A review by New York’s The City news website of 302 trial decisions issued from Jan. 1, 2017, through February 2021, found that New York Police Commissioner Dermot Shea, and his predecessor James O’Neill, have altered the punishment in 43 cases of cops found guilty after an NYPD trial, while even the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board has overturned hundreds of its own misconduct findings.
Similar examples of union power have been found in cities like Los Angeles, where unions have been able to remove politicians from interfering in officer discipline, and in smaller agencies like
Brooklyn Center, Minn., where authority over the police department rested with the city manager, who outranked the mayor. He refused calls to fire the officer who killed Daunte Wright after mistaking her gun for a Taser.
“There has to be more of a balance of power,” said NY Mayoral candidate Chang. “Otherwise it’s going to be basically impossible to bridge that divide between communities and police.”
But even here the balance may be shifting.
Maryland recently became the first state to repeal the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. New York City became the first city in the country to end qualified immunity for police officers.
Colorado legislators voted to remove qualified immunity and permanently revoke professional certification for officers who have been found in court to have used inappropriate force, preventing them from being re-hired elsewhere.
The federal government’s role will also be crucial.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has ordered civil rights investigations into both the Indianapolis and Minneapolis Police Departments, promising more investigations in the future and a return to the kind of oversight of local police that had been curtailed under the Trump Administration.
“This type of legislation is what the community’s asking for and what is needed,” said Keesee.
“The question is why is there such a pushback to having a group of people tell you that your service is no longer needed and we want to do something different?”
Finding the answer to that question may be as complicated as finding the solutions to the social problems plaguing our society.
A recent poll by NPR found that most Americans believe police use-of-force guidelines should be reformed; and a majority thinks race relations will be better for future generations, with younger people being among the most likely to say so. However, despite that optimism, only 46 percent of Black adults express at least a fair amount of confidence that local police can gain trust and two-thirds of respondents said they believe current policies regarding police use of force need reform.
The fact is that reforming the police is going to take time, experimentation, and the collaboration of hundreds of seemingly opposed players.
American policing could be saved― but only if it evolves, and people on all sides of the debate are fairly represented at the negotiating table.
Earlier articles in this series:
Additional Reading: “Coping With the Crisis of Violence,” by Greg Berman, The Crime Report, May 13, 2021.
Isidoro Rodriguez is editor of TCR’s Justice Digest. He writes frequently on policing.