Police Reform: A Lost Cause?

“Lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for.” — Clarence Darrow

I have to admit I can get pretty despondent over the pace of police reform — is it a lost cause? (After all, I have studied, worked in, and been part of this problem for almost 60 years.

I don’t want to think of democratic police reform as a “lost cause.” If I still wore a set of dog tags from my days as a Marine I would add the tag “Hope springs eternal” along with my name, serial number and blood type!

What have I learned about the cause for which I champion? I have learned that it improving a system like policing takes time and much longer than most elected officials (or even community activists) are willing to give.

The problem is that we look at change in America in 4-year political terms of office. And that’s simply too short a period of time to change anything. In my experience, to significantly alter the culture and practices of an organization like a police department takes at least seven and more likely ten years. But we seem to never talk about it. So, mayors and commissions pick nice, capable, often charismatic police leaders who are short of how to actually implement change and are too immersed in the culture in which they have worked in for many years. It’s not a prescription for reform.

Of course, police reform is not just about the man or woman on top, it’s about an organization that can practice the right values of a free society, and leaders who are mature, emotionally intelligent, and value human persons. It’s also about those leaders having the passion, patience and persistence to be the embodiment of those values and, thereby, influence those around them.

I have to admit that the only hope I see for significant and continuing reform is some outside regulatory force (the federal government) to work with failing police agencies such as U.S. Department of Justice has done with a number of our nation’s police agencies. That is commonly done through a consent decree oriented toward improving police practices. In the past, this could only be done after blatant civil rights violations on the part of a police agency.

What does that record look like? Since 1994, over 60 cities and counties have come under a federal consent decree. Twenty police agencies agencies in our nation are currently under a consent decree which often involves a court-appointed outside monitor and oversight by the federal district judge.

However, it is a mixed bag as to how effective this level of reform is. Has it improved policing in those cities? Michael Wood, police management scholar and former Baltimore police officer makes an argument that it does not.

Cincinnati is the city that has been the longest under federal oversight. It’s been over 15 years now and I think it is fair to say that reform has been slow – but, perhaps, the question might be, what would Cincinnati been without this intervention?

Whatever way you come out on the effectiveness of consent decrees and police improvement you have to admit that it is one heck of a way to run a police department and deliver police services.

Of course, anyone who follows national politics and police will know that this discussion is now a moot point under the current administration in Washington as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appears adamantly opposed to such federal intervention – even with a finding of long-term and egregious civil rights violations by a local police department. After all, is not policing a local matter? But we all know too well that policing ceases to be a local matter when one’s civil rights are ignored.

So where does that leave police improvement and reform? This is what I have learned:

  1. Change takes time; sustained improvement even longer.
  2. The central factor (but not only) in police reform is the chief of police. He or she must be experienced, with strong internalized constitutional and ethical values.
  3. It is not enough to have a chief with these characteristics, he or she must also be able to practice what I call a “Quality Leadership;” it is a collaborative, servant-style, and community-focused leadership style with high Emotional Intelligence.
  4. As Jim Collins wrote a number of years ago in his book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” (2001), it’s important to put the right people “on the bus” and be able to get those of the bus who aren’t willing to be on the improvement team. (And that has strong implications for latitude in police officer hiring, assignment, and promotion.)
  5. Collins identified the best leaders as “Level 5 Leaders;” those “who display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”
  6. Changing and improving police, however, is not a singular, top-down effort. Reform police chiefs must have a mayor, city council members and community leaders in their corner. Without this kind of community-wide support and understanding as to why improvement needs to happen, change will either never begin or soon falter.
  7. Within the department, formal and informal leaders must be able to become the values they profess. It’s also important for them to see the self-interest in what they are trying to accomplish; to see that this can benefit them as well as community members. For without coming to understand that what is being proposed is best for most all of them and a road on which they wish to travel, change will never take root or be sustained.
  8. Leading a change process is takes constant and energetic cheerleaders for reform. That means leaders who are able to “tell, sell, persuade” others;, rank and file officers, elected officials, and the community at large that what is being proposed and pursued is good for everyone. A good example is what is called Procedural Justice. When building trust between citizens and police is a primary police objective and it is periodically measured, improvements will be seen when community members agree they are treated with dignity and respect during police contacts. And police themselves will sense they are working in a safer environment. The beneficiaries of Procedural Justice (PJ) are not only citizens who encounter police but also police officers themselves. That is because in order to make PJ work it must also be practiced within the ranks of the police agency.
  9. I would add to my learning that which I have written in two of my books where I explain this in greater detail and illustrate an actual successful and sustained process of change.

–Arrested Development: A Veteran Police Chief Sounds Off About            Protest, Racism, Corruption and the Seven Steps Necessary to Improve Our Nation’s Police. (2017) and –How to Rate Your Local Police (1983/2015)

10. Further information on successful reform can be obtained by reviewing the two-year, outside study of police reform in Madison, Wisconsin by the National Institute of Justice: “Community Policing in Madison: Quality from the Inside Out” NIJ (1993).

11. Over the years, the successful process of improving a police agency is what a learned professor told me years ago, “It’s not what you say, David, it’s what comes out the spout!” And the spout for me has been a police organization staffed my mature, educated, well-trained, emotionally controlled men and women who are committed to working with community members in the solving the problems they, community members, identify.

12. Finally, I have learned that community-identified problems are the problem on which police need to work and not the problems they think need addressing. As a primary example, the problem the community sees with police use of deadly force needs to be addressed with the community and to find and use less-than-deadly methods to contain persons NOT threatening with a firearm. Once that problem is addressed and the numbers go down I am confident community trust will rise. Police must connect and stay connected with those whom they serve — all of them — and continue to assure fellow citizens by example that they are primarily in the business of protecting and saving lives

I pray that the proper and effective policing of a free society is not a lost cause, that it is possible, and that after I no longer walk upon the earth, there are young men and women in today’s ranks who will carry the cause I have identified over the years across the finish line and hear the community raise their voice as one:

“Yes, we have a learned, trusted, effective, and respected police of which we all support and take pride in.”