Hard v. Soft Policing?

downloadI am beginning to wonder if the problem confronting police and citizens in America is not a problem of “hard” versus “soft” styles of policing? While we use a rock or a pillow?

Simply stated, in all that I have learned as street cop, detective, chief, husband, father, parent, and community member is that hard doesn’t work.

So, what is going on with our readiness to be hard? Why do police seem so militarized today, so protective of a what I call a consistent “hard” style of policing?

What do I mean by “hard?”In 1997, Los Angeles Police were outgunned during a North Hollywood bank robbery. The robbers not only had automatic weapons, they were wearing body armor! Prior to this during racial unrest and anti-war protests, police began ramping up weaponry and other military-style equipment. It was a good idea to plan for a highly trained and equipped unit to respond to barricaded, armed suspects. I supported it and fielded a SWAT team. But I also made a commitment to field a hostage negotiation team — as we selected SWAT team members, we selected hostage negotiators — officers who were extremely talented in these respective skill sets.

At the same time, there needs to be rules about weaponry, dress, equipment, training, leadership, and when physical force is to be used. And especially about the situations and circumstances in which they were to be deployed. It appears that the use of SWAT teams has been dramatically increased over the years and many units routinely doing warrant service. All that presents an image that is contrary to the founding principles of our nation embedded in our Bill of Rights and Robert Peel’s “Nine Principles of Policing.”

This hardness has even trickled down to school resource officers. In my era we deployed them to schools wearing blazers and a uniform patch on the pocket. The mission? Keep kids out of the CJ system. Today, that no longer seems to be the predominant practice. Instead, officers show up in school in battle dress, sometimes with exterior body armor and visible weaponry.

When we look at more serious problems, like police use of deadly force, many police leaders from my era would be shocked to learn of the street situations which officers used deadly for to end an encounter.

When the public sees police in para-military activity and dress and when they experience instances in which police were not respectful to them or used excessive force, citizens may come to the conclusion that police are apart from the community in which are serve.

Does “hard” work? When I look back on my career the advances we made in responding to public protest, working with kids, communities of color, and building community trust and support, what worked was “soft,” not hard.

A society does not encourage its members to follow the rules through fear, threat, or violence. A society comes to willingly comply with its rules because it is the best way to assure a peaceful existence for everyone.

As a detective, I learned very early treating suspects with dignity (even with the most serious offenders) because it led to more cases solved and more bad guys off the street. It was “honey,” not a “switch” that led to their conviction.

Earlier, I had hoped the addition of women and officers with strong backgrounds in the liberal arts would have forestalled this unfortunate shift towards hardness. Peacekeepers (working softly) involves self-control, empathy, and, yes, kindness.

Have we lost this understanding today?

4 Comments

  1. Thank you for your cogent and timely article. As a late Baby Boomer (born in March 1964); and as an African American male growing up in middle-class neighborhoods in along the Queens/Nassau County border of NYC, I can definitely concur with analysis. Though there were what I would describe as extra-judicial police killings and unjustified police brutality… there was much less militarization and far fewer police killings of African American men. Police officers were more apt to use their powers of persuasion and inherent authority… or they utilized the non-lethal weaponry of the era consisting of batons and later tonfa type batons that could be used defensively as well as offensively. This is no longer the case… as with non-lethal weaponry people in general and African Americans, in particular, are more subject to the use of tasers and pepper spray, when the situations often do not objectively warrant their use. Within minority communities, even within this era, certain subsections of the police perceived any hesitation or objection to a police encounter could result in extremely negative consequences for that minority member, as it was seen as a direct negation of the officer’s “authority and position”. These encounters were much less frequent in the past. I believe that policing changed in the NYC Metropolitan Region when everyday officers were issued 9mm automatics with expanded magazines as opposed to the revolvers of old. Thus began the slippery slope toward the eventual militarization of police forces within this region. So instead of the Emergency Service Police (e.g. SWAT in NYC and surrounding Counties) having military grade weaponry to take on those rare occasions when it was needed, now just about every officer now had the opportunity to fire off many rounds of ammunition where in the past they were limited to six shots then perhaps a couple of speed reloaders. Its the temptation of when you have it… you want to use it. I have several police officers and friends within my circle and they more or less agree with my assessment. In full disclosure, I am a doctoral candidate in social work with an emphasis on criminal justice issues. I am fully familiar with the relevant statistics concerning this issue and their limitations. Thanks for the opportunity to comment.

    Africanus Emeritus

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    1. Derwin, thanks so much for your astute (and on-target) assessment. Having worked through this era I concur that almost unknowingly (and that’s another perennial problem in policing) this occurred. Unfortunately, few in the ranks, and fewer still in leadership positions, can see this trend nor have the gumption to reverse it. I hope you’ve seen my book, “Arrested Development,” and the Four Obstacles. The field of Policing needs creative and open minds to challenge the status quo and lead police to improve and recover their important role as a “glue” that helps a free and diverse society to stay together and function effectively. Sir Robt Peel and others figured this out in the early 19th century. Lasting police changes will never be implemented by outsiders. Only cops can do this. I am still waiting for this to happen! Keep up your excellent thinking. Police who move to change and improve will need allies like you.

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      1. Thank you sir, one of my professors from my graduate days at NYU (Dr. George Patterson, PhD) was performing a study or series of studies on the effects of the traumatic events of 9/11 on the NYC and NY/NJ Port Authority Police. This reinspired my interests in community police relations. It was an even handed and empathetic study on the effects and aftermath. As part of the NYU community back then, one can say that for about 3 to 6 months…perhaps up to a year, community and police relations were fair to good across all racial, ethnic and socio-economic categories. An external threat brought us closer to one another, however tragic it was. I also remember taking a social justice history course back in my undergraduate days at Queens College (CUNY) given by a Professor (Detective -NYPD) Leinen who was a revelation as to the reality of policing and its mostly negative impacts on minority neighborhoods and individuals. They both were and are big influences on my perceptions as to the local, national and global issues regarding policing. No I have not read your books but had previously added them to my must read list. I will definitely move them up in rank order. The life of a doctoral student is one where pleasure reading occurs between semesters. Your books can fall under the academic rubric as well. I have cited your books within my student papers. Come dissertation time I will definitely cite a quote or two. Thanks again.

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