In a country deeply divided over many issues, there are calls from every quarter to eliminate police killings, particularly of African Americans. Many agree we need police reform, but there is little consensus about the means.
Do we need new use-of-force laws? More or better training? Should we ban chokeholds? Will it help to shift social service duties from the police to others? Can we improve our hiring or supervision? Eliminate police unions? Make it easier to sue or discipline errant officers?
I have advised, consulted with, trained and worked with the police for decades. I began studying police reform long before Los Angeles police officers beat Rodney King in 1991, focusing national attention on the persistent problem we now face. Based on my experience, I know that none of the commonly discussed reforms can solve the problem alone.
We can’t legislate our way out of the “police problem.” New crimes for police misconduct will add nothing to our current options. The crimes we can prosecute now are more than adequate. They simply aren’t applied. It’s hard to get a district attorney to prosecute an officer, hard to get a grand jury to indict, and really hard to get a jury to convict. We want to believe “our” police are the good guys and most of them are. We know they do a lot of hard, sometimes dangerous things that need to be done.
Laws aren’t everything, but they’re also not nothing. We can modify our use-of-force laws to limit deadly force to self-defense and defense of others, and to require minimal force. We can remove inconsistencies in the laws that justify use of force. Legislation just can’t force society to enforce the laws we have.
Chokeholds were a staple of police work 30 years ago, a (usually) nonlethal way of subduing someone. But serious injury or death can result from doing them wrong. Let’s ban them. But we can’t kid ourselves that eliminating chokeholds will solve the problem. If we really want to prevent deaths, we could disarm the police. That may work in a society where gun ownership is a rarity — but we don’t live in that society.
We can’t train our way out of the problem. Racial sensitivity or implicit bias training is essential, but not sufficient. Truly racist officers are impervious to lectures and training exercises. Officers who grew up afraid of Black men may be entirely unaware of the bias that infects their judgment. It’s hard to “fix” a problem that an officer doesn’t realize exists. So, let’s add the most effective training we can. It has substantial symbolic importance, but don’t expect it to cure the problem.
We can’t hire our way out of the problem. We should absolutely hire minority officers and better integrate our police departments. Will that solve the problem? No, for two reasons. First, why would minority candidates want to participate in policing as they perceive it to be? When minority officers join the force, they are more likely to be pressured to become part of the existing culture than to change it.
We can’t fire our way out of the problem. Accountability is required if we are going to get a handle on policing issues. Too often, however, officers aren’t disciplined, held civilly liable, or prosecuted for wrongdoing. Qualified immunity shields officers from paying damages to victims of abusive policing. Most officers are also indemnified by the City, County, or State for judgments against them. They do not suffer the loss. Civil service laws and collective bargaining contracts make it very hard to fire “bad apples.” There is a code of silence within policing that means most wrongs are not reported. We must fix all this, but the culture of policing won’t change overnight even if we do.
We won’t defund our way out of the problem. Modern policing is hard because it is so complex. Officers must do things they don’t want to, weren’t trained to, and aren’t good at. There’s simply no one else to call. We could divert money from policing and incarceration to improve prevention and address social issues, but we’ve shown no willingness to invest in the “soft” cost-saving means of dealing with these problems that don’t require an armed response.
All of these things and more can improve policing in America, but none of them will do it alone.
The real problem we confront is one of a self-perpetuating police culture that too often and too readily accepts and acts on assumptions about crime, criminals and minority citizens. The “fix” for that problem is to change the culture. That is a slow and difficult job requiring persistence. It will happen by finding more people with the “right stuff” — not athletic ability, muscle mass or marksmanship. It’s good judgment, compassion, a willingness to listen, intelligence, honesty, humility and humanity.
I know a lot of good police officers, exactly the kind of people you’d want to be representing you. Most have never pulled a pistol outside of target practice. They listen and talk to people. If someone didn’t “comply,” they persuade rather than shoot. They accept personal risk. Those officers want to go home to their families every night with a clear conscience, knowing they had served all of the community.
Find and train those people and weed out the rest. We’ll be better protected with a small force of the right kind of officers than by a legion of warm bodies. Demand better, don’t tolerate less, and be as persistent in these demands as the problem itself has been.