The three most pressing problems police currently face are restoring trust, implementing reform, and improving police officer safety and wellness.
[Note: While I am still “taking a break,” I have felt compelled to write the following blog. The election was difficult for me. And the results puzzling as I have noted. We are badly divided as a nation. And part of that division is how we perceive our police and what we wish them to do. I have always taken the reform position rather than those who argue for the status quo. I do so because i know the heights to which world-class, democratic policing can attain. I simply won’t accept less.]
A recent survey published by the Police Executive Research Forum on December 3, 2020 were the opinions of a large group of college-educated police chiefs from our nation’s larger cities. They reported that the three most pressing problems currently facing them and their officers are lack of trust, implementing reform, and improving police officer safety and wellness.
From my experience working in and following police for the past half-century, I would have to say they are right on target. But we all know that identifying a problem is a lot easier than solving it.
While I have not been asked my opinion on what police need to do, I have never been reluctant during my police career, or my time in retirement, to offer one. So, this is what I would advise on how to solve these pressing problems.
Needless to say, since the summer of 2014 when Michael Brown’s body was left bleeding on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, trust has eroded from those with whom police have the most contact – persons of color.
So, if we want to talk about building or re-building trust between police officers and those whom they police, the obvious place to start would be by asking the persons most affected by police actions what needs to be done and then be accountable in doing it. A democratic society cannot be effectively policed without the consent of the community they serve.
I can only surmise what that might be, but I have sensed that the one thing police need to do is to reduce the number of persons of color whom they kill each year. On the local level, this means a deep and authentic effort by police to listen to minority communities, again, as to their expectations and desires regarding policing.
Following this, police must truly begin to implement a close-to-the-community style of delivering police services. Much has been written about what has been called Community-Oriented Policing, but I suggest a much deeper and closer approach to delivering fair and equitable policing (see Procedural Justice) at the neighborhood level, block by block. In Madison, Wisconsin we found that quality policing must first begin INSIDE the department, the OUTSIDE to the community. “Inside” means the way police officers are lead, trained, and nurtured.
Years ago, our mission in Madison was to get “Closer to the People we Serve.” A lot of community and internal good can flow out of such an organization-wide commitment.
In order to know if your leadership efforts are having the effect you want, it is absolutely necessary to be able to statistically evaluate the quality of police interactions with citizens. (A good example can be found in openpolicing,org).
I must also acknowledge that this involves police becoming “anti-racist;” that is to take action against racism and the racist system in which they must currently operate. This is not an easy task, for it involves taking personal action and speaking out against inequality. In the meantime, police will have to work in a system that has many vestiges of racism active and present. For White people declaring, “I am not a racist,” is simply not sufficient today.
The above solutions are not exhaustive, nor the only way forward, but they are actions that I have learned, and continued to support, that will begin to make a difference in improving the trust-level between police officers and those whom they police; in short, to improve the present quality of policing.
The solution to this problem is directly related to solve the other two problems; restoring trust and improving police officer safety and wellness. The ability to actively and deeply listen to community members is an absolutely necessary skill for police. Unfortunately, it and has not one that has been fully developed in the past. The reason is quite obvious, most of us avoid hearing bad news and personal criticism, We do not want to experience the fear and anger present in others. But I have to say that the nature and necessity of the job of policing requires those called to serve to be able to listen and understand those whose lives have been harmed by police actions. A good police officers knows how to do this without shutting down or becoming angry or defensive.
Any reform effort needs to follow the problem solving process: a) identify the problem, b) consider solutions, c) select the best one, d) test its effectiveness, e) continuously improve on what has been learned.
Once you know what needs to be done, then you must create a plan to implement the reform action. Any reform plan will, of course, involve many aspects of the organizational and community. The plan will need to be evaluated, and will take time along with passion, patience, and persistence. Efforts can range from new training methods an on-going dialogue with the community as to your objectives. It may also need to address an “attitude adjustment” on how rank and file police officers see today’s job and its requirements. That’s where leadership comes in and should never abate.
Improving Officer Safety and Wellness
There is no doubt in my mind that this third problem has been exacerbated by shocking videos placed online which showed police officers injuring or taking the lives of suspects in the most questionable situations and the response of an outraged citizenry. Unfortunately, the “bad apple” explanation does not have much traction, because to citizens, the bad apples should have been removed from “the barrel” before other apples are spoiled.
It should also be noted that solving problems #1 and #2 will go far in the improvement of the working conditions of rank-and-file police officers. When police officers truly see their work as being guardians of a community rather than occupying warriors, they will experience an improvement in their working conditions and the attitudes among those whom they serve.
I will also note here that the quality of their leaders makes a huge difference in how officers see their work. The job of leaders is to care for the men and women they are privileged to lead. The job of leaders is to assure the growth and development of their officers. The time has long past when anyone should tolerate top-down, coercive leaders in the ranks of their police department.
All of the above recommendations I have made will improve the job of policing a city, the effectiveness of its police officers, and the working conditions of those men and women.