Police Reform: An Impossible Dream?

Over half a million police in 18,000 decentralized police agencies, when and how can reform ever begin? Or is it “an impossible dream?”

I have to admit that looking back over almost 60 years, I see improvement — more police are college educated, more diverse (women, blacks, Hispanics), and have technologies that most of us could not even have dreamed of in the 1960s.

Yet I have a nagging feeling that, perhaps, the actual practice of policing has not improved as much as I hoped it would have. I say this understanding that I have been influenced (as you have) by a flood of on-line videos that have captured the worst of police practices. But I think I know what good policing is — and could be. And it’s not the standard I see today.

The explosion of personal phones with video capability have documented far too many of these questionable, often illegal behaviors by our police; behaviors that a decade ago would have gone unreported and only noticed by few, if any, bystanders. Often eyewitness reports with quickly countered by an official denial of police misbehavior.

In light of this, how do community members press public officials, including their chief of police, to be more transparent and willing to improve police practices — especially in light of the fact that most communities of color simply do not trust the police who work among them?

Here are some ideas. They are not exhaustive (for more thorough recommendations read the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing). Being able to accomplish even one of these recommendations would be a strong step forward. Accomplishing all of them would be significant reform with many lasting benefits to your community.

1. Establish, train, and passionately promote the value that the police department exists to protect and save human lives. This should be evident in how deadly force and high-speed pursuits are regulated, including the department’s response to all shooting victims (“scoop and emergency room runs, and availability of hemostatic bandages and Naloxone to save lives on the street). See also the PERF report, Guiding Principles on Use of Force.

2. Require all police applicants to hold a 4-year liberal arts degree from an accredited institution and that they be emotionally sound and mature and have already internalized the values in which the department aspires.

3. Increase initial training for all police recruits to 12 months and monitor that training (which should include topics such as police-racial history in the United States, response to the mentally ill, and de-escalating conflict situations along with more standardized police training).

4. Upon academy graduation, require new police officers to continue their training with a Field Training Officer for a period of at least one year.

5. After initial and field training, require an additional year of probation while the officer works without a coach.

6. Institute and require the practice of Procedural Justice within the ranks of the police department and in all contacts with community members.

7. Develop and improve leaders who are good listeners, respectful, collaborative, helpful to subordinates, and know how to improve the systems in which they work.

8. Implement Community Oriented Policing not as a program but the Way police services are delivered. Identify and share with the community measurable goals to evaluate its implementation and permeability.

9. Do the same (#8 above) with Problem-Oriented Policing.

10. Periodically and consistently survey the community as to how the department is trusted among those who have used its “services.”

11. Develop a commitment to institute more neighborhood foot officers and wean away from traditional 9-1-1 call-driven policing. Strengthen community safety resources and capabilities and work collaboratively with neighborhood residents on solving problems they identify.

12. Hold meetings periodically with neighborhood residents; be open, listen, and helpfully respond to their concerns. Get closer to those who are served.

For working police officers, change can begin with YOU, with small improvement steps beginning with your next police contact.

Significant improvement in policing will not come about through presidential commissions, consent decrees, elected officials, or even strong, committed police leaders.

Instead, I believe it will come about when individual police officers make an honorable commitment to being fair and respectful in everyone of their community contacts and at all times (not just when people are being nice and cooperative).

It’s true, change first begins within us — and then in and with everything we do.