Coming: The Post-Policing Era?


Private security guards turn attack dogs on protesters.
Private security guards turn attack dogs on protesters.

“The “police problem and criminal justice systems needs fixing” debate over the past few years has consumed a staggering amount of time, but precious little in the way of solutions that will take us forward into the future—a future where the police will play a much, much reduced role” —  Eugene O’Donnell

Eugene O’Donnell, a former police officer and professor at John Jay College, provides some interesting insight on the future of policing. He suggests it will be a much reduced role.

Watching the events surrounding the Native American oil pipeline protest in North Dakota alerted me to the role of private police in handling this incidents which would be one way to reduce the role of governmental police.

I would say to those who criticize police to be very careful that they are not replaced by corporate police — this is not out of line; just take a look at the role of private prisons and even probation and parole services. If you think you are having trouble holding governmental police accountable, try those who work for a corporation.

The ‘Post-Policing Era’ in America: How Will We Cope?

By Eugene O’Donnell


“The policeman is denounced by the public, criticized by the preachers, ridiculed in the movies, berated by the newspapers, and unsupported by prosecuting officers and judges.  He is shunned by the respectable, hated by criminals, deceived by everyone, kicked around like a football by brainless or crooked politicians” —August Vollmer, police reformer and chief, Berkley, California, 1929.

This is the dawn of the post-policing era in America, and the nation needs to come to grips with how to maintain safety and secure order with cops playing a dramatically reduced role. From coast to coast there is an acute shortage of men and women seeking to be police officers.

Half a century ago, the Kerner Commission envisioned policing as a profession, with baccalaureate- carrying cops.  But almost no police department in the county requires, or plans to require, a four-year degree for hiring.  It is absurdly out of reach.

In fact, departments with even the most minimal requirements struggle to recruit new officers.

Policing was once seen as a noble profession: to generations of young people they were knight-like, but today the term “ex con” is more respectable in the public discourse than cop.  (Mrs. Clinton won’t even seek a national police union endorsement for fear of the contagion that would result.)

In many places, policing was in some measure a family enterprise, with incumbents encouraging their children to follow in their shoes, but cops nowadays are way more likely to tell youngsters contemplating a career in uniform to seek instead psychiatric care.

It is dawning on police officers and institutions that the police job is presently undo-able in our far too violent and armed nation, and is rapidly becoming utterly impossible without a willingness to shoulder enormous physical and psychic risks and exposure to dire, possibly incarcerative consequences.

To discharge the duties of a job that involves using force, even lethal force, on others in unscripted situations, while a camera records one’s improvised, clumsy and sometimes terrified decision-making for dissection by battalions of armchair second guessers makes this a career choice easily shunned.

(Some reforms are overdue and necessary but cannot be reconciled with the need to find humans to do the work.)

Like so much of the national discourse today, criticism of policing is retrospective, seeking to fix blame and identify villains, ignoring that we are now in a certain bad place and it matters little that almost everyone played a role in the tearing down of the police and the justice system to get us here

Once individuals have identified their political persuasions, than all issues are framed, and solutions filtered, through those orthodoxies.   In fact, political philosophies are pretty useless when trying to accurately identify what a community’s  problems are, and fashioning solutions.

Thus, at present, an absurd partisan conversation about who is “pro-police” and who isn’t  is a feature of this year’s presidential election.  This team-police versus team-citizen approach avoids serious issues and the need to make choices.   Only a political knave or a novice offers an affirmative blueprint for keeping the public safe from crime and terrorism: The rewards all flow to he or she who critiques the best and expresses in the loudest voice the need for empathy and a view of humanity that is distinction free.

I was recently interviewed about a professor who is teaching aspiring corrections officers about the need for empathy, something that you might practice on rare occasions,  but should never openly display lest you be eaten alive by prisoners—a conversation that encapsulates the core disconnect between those who criticize law enforcement and those who do it.

Meanwhile, FBI Director James Comey says that the nation is grievously exposed to further terrorism attacks, but echoes the words of others in law enforcement circles who suggest  it is too career-imperiling to prevent them: much easier to investigate them after the damage is done.

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton’s decision to leave this month—almost running away from his life’s work in policing— underscores how dramatically esteem for the police has been eviscerated., and how angered people have become with hard truths.

Policing’s Hard Truths

Policing is differentiated from other occupations by the use of coercion; thus it is fair to say policing is not infrequently lawfully brutal, but relatively rarely crosses the crime to criminally brutal.  To say this in today’s environment is to utter words that are construed as almost hate speech, and subject the speaker to the loudest approbation.

Bratton, one of the few titans in American policing who was able to connect with cops because he was not seen as a panderer, who refused to sugarcoat the dirty job the cops were tasked with doing, was increasingly a muted voice, forced to sign off on reforms that will leave future NYPD leaders scrambling to find someone, anyone, to be cops.

Despite the fact that NYPD street cops are mostly minority, that agency has been forced to hunker down in the face of fierce, incessant attacks.  As some former colleagues observe, there was once a time when there was more than a handful of bruisers in blue, people who hardly needed weapons at all to secure compliance from the resistant.  Today’s generation of cops, with a few exceptions, are way kinder and gentler and it would typically necessitate half a dozen of them to make an arrest that a lone officer would make several decades ago.

We live in a nation where there are savage inequities and shocking want, and it is that which is intrinsically brutal and dehumanizing.

Policing is expected to be the one and only profession that can achieve a fairness that is elusive in every aspect of a market economy.  Thus far in  Chicago out of nearly 300 homicide victims, almost all are black and a handful, nine, are white.  No fairness there.  Some construct arguments about the police that omit these shockingly disparate facts, ignoring that these numbers are potent weapons in the hands of the most divisive figures in public life.  (And it is worth looking at the faces of the lives snuffed out by this long running genocide.)

It is absurd indeed to talk about police even-handedness in the face of such lethal inequity.

The country is no longer able to endorse  the paradox that is policing within the construct of a free society, especially since its brute side has been laid bare to a nation that has cameras at the ready.  (It is so far a little less hard to avoid coming to grips with the inhumanity of mass incarceration since we only now and then get a glimpse of life behind bars .)

The unstated idea that the police are no longer needed has become a mainstay, amongst many elites including those who pen editorials for the New York Times and the Washington Post.  Enforcement and incarceration are regarded as evils per se.  Last week’s Department of Justice  report on the Baltimore police nowhere mentions the toxic implications of allowing shooters to shoot and remain free in their own communities.

The hard lives suffered by some in childhood exculpate especially the poor for committing even the most brutal offenses.

Some advocates and commentators denounce jail for all, except cops.

Community policing—which is ill defined and amorphous–is once again being offered up as an ameliorative in the midst of our current crisis.  It is never quite clear what it is or how it works in a poor or high-crime community, but it advances the notion that if the police are nice to everyone the world will truly shine.  In fact, when the police are doing the enforcement duties that differentiate them from other civilian occupations they are enmeshed in conflict, undertaking work that is adversarial and frequently leaves people smarting.

Organizing little leagues or holding block meetings is work that can—indeed should—be done by others.  Chicago has had a community policing initiative for over two decades, during which time 20,000 lives have been snuffed out homicidally.   Today’s CPD is a police force in name only with cops avoiding engagement at all costs, getting there when they get there.

A Narrative of ‘Otherness’

Perhaps the knell of doom for our justice system is the ingrained construction of a narrative of otherness, the notion that individuals who commit crimes are an irredeemable lot, a breed apart.  The raging political debates since the 1960s often boiled down to isolating and caging “those people.” invariably invoking racist imagery.

In his beautiful riveting new book, “Hillbilly Elegy,” Yale Law School graduate J.D. Vance provides valuable and all too rare insights into the impoverished and dysfunctional life he was born into in white Appalachia.  Those people are his people-and ours too of course.

In reading it, I could not help thinking of  scarring impact on my own parents who were born into the soggy dread of rural Irish poverty.  Many children of immigrants became cops; and some–but not nearly enough—of us remembered and were informed by that legacy in their dealings with the poor and damaged souls in some of the nation’s most forlorn communities.

Many Americans face enormous odds just to simply survive and talking to them about fairness and equity is farcical indeed.

So what will replace the current policing system?  Can we create a program of national service in lieu of employing nearly one million paid police officers?

How far can reforms on drug addiction, mental health and addiction bring us to a less punitive society?  What does technology offer in terms of prevention and detection and prediction of crime and holding offenders to account?

Will machines come to own us?   DWI and traffic enforcement can be mechanized. You do not need to be enthused to acknowledge that we will soon have technology that makes wrongdoers as identifiable as license plates make errant motorists.

What can incapacitate offenders and protect all besides prison?

The police currently do not solve most crimes reported to them.  More than half of those who shoot and murder get away in some jurisdictions.  What can science and technology bring to crime fighting in the next decade?

Of course it may take time to come to grips with the sunsetting that is occurring in the work of the police.  Lacking an agenda for solving entrenched and concentrated poverty, both parties relish the chance to re run a law and order versus police as public enemy number one debate.

The “police problem and criminal justice systems needs fixing” debate over the past few years has consumed a staggering amount of time, but precious little in the way of solutions that will take us forward into the future—a future where the police will play a much, much reduced role.

Eugene O’Donnell, a professor in the Department of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is a former NYPD Officer and NYC prosecutor.  He will be speaking at Chicago Ideas Week on October 18. He welcomes comments from readers.


  1. An outstanding piece, thanks David.

    As we move deeper and deeper into the pit of blaming the police for societal problems that they are helpless to solve is it any wonder that those relatively few law and order cops are backing-down and retiring? With resulting dramatic increases in crime and disorder I fear that those demanding what I refer to as “wise” policing with be drowned-out by a new wave of “get tough on crime” policies that will make those that drove the war on drugs seem impotent by comparison.

    Private security will certainly rise from the ashes of our inner cities as the only alternative in combating violence and fear but they will only serve the well-to-do. Poor people will continue to suffer, and die.


  2. There is a new study from BJS that may offer some near term to long range hope.

    Click to access aspp9313.pdf

    Essentially, the crime wave associated with the baby boom generation seems to be restricted to that generation. Per capita Gen X and Millennials are much more law abiding. That may lend credence to theories about the effects of lead poisoning, but there are equally plausible competing and/or complimentary theories of crime.

    Policing is a public good and should be provided by government. National security is a public good as well and we should not depend on contractors to project power abroad. In addition to a reluctance to obey the law the baby boom generation has been loathe to shoulder its responsibilities to support effective governance.

    Perhaps things will improve once our generation no longer holds the reins of power.


  3. What about the wealthy people not obeying the law no matter what generation they belong to? They have refused to shoulder their responsibilities for the political, social, and economic mess they have created for a long time.


  4. “With resulting dramatic increases in crime and disorder I fear that those demanding what I refer to as “wise” policing with be drowned-out by a new wave of “get tough on crime” policies that will make those that drove the war on drugs seem impotent by comparison.”

    We have been having tough on crime policies since the 1970s and it was directed at minorities: Since then, every politicians, judge, police chief, sheriff, and district attorney have jumped on the band wagon because if they didn’t, they would be labeled as being soft on crime.

    I will say it again, the police play a large part in creating the societal problems. If they can spend as much time creating the problem, then they can spend as much time trying to solve the problem.


  5. …. those relatively few law and order cops are backing-down and retiring?

    What about cops who refused to do their jobs at all. There was a story about a 69 year lady with an oxygen tank being punched by the Trump supporter. The cops who show up refuse to arrest the guy and an ex-Chicago cop got into an argument with the cops about not doing their jobs. Cops seem to like to do their jobs as long as they have immunity from violating people’s rights or police misconduct but then don’t want to do their jobs when they have to be held accountable for any deliberate wrongdoing.


  6. . “In addition to a reluctance to obey the law the baby boom generation has been loathe to shoulder its responsibilities to support effective governance.”

    You can say that about the cops no matter what generation they belong to. What about the silent generation and the greatest generation? They took advantage of what the country had to offer them in the 50s and 60s, and then chuck it away for the rest of us. How can you blame the millennial generation for not shouldering its responsibilities when they have been beaten down and prevent from doing so? Let’s face it. America has not been a very friendly place for kids when it comes to investing in them. We have given up on them even before they were born.


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