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What's Needed to Achieve Real Policing Reform

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After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about why only a small fraction of America’s 18,000 police agencies -- and particularly their rank-and-file officers -- are defiantly hostile to progressive police reform. It’s a critical issue made especially urgent this past year by the stunning, caught-on-camera police killings of unarmed black men and the explosive retaliatory assassinations of random cops.

Then November brought us “tough-on-crime” Donald Trump as America’s president-elect.

Supported during his campaign by the powerful, reform-resistant 330,000-member Fraternal Order of Police, Trump nominated the Old South, law-and-order Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) as his attorney general, who not only has been a forceful advocate of enhanced police spying and surveillance, but has a history of racist views  compelling enough for the U.S. Senate to deny him a federal judgeship.

All of which appears to make the coming Trump era a triumphant one for the hundreds of thousands of street cops, supervisors and middle managers who cling hard to the old policing order -- and a very perilous one for policing reform and efforts to get cops to embrace that reform.

How to gain their support is the essential question. Without their buy-in, policing reform could well drag out for decades, or perhaps simply be abandoned, despite the fact that reform can improve their lives (and protect them).

How can reformers and senior police executives convince cops that they stand to gain as much as the communities they serve from real reform?  What kind of training could advance reform goals?

Los Angeles Cops Speak Out

Last January, I was asked to speak to a group of about 25 officers from the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).  I immediately accepted because the cops in question were exactly the people I hoped could provide some answers to these questions.

All had volunteered for training as Community Service Officers (CSOs). As such, they were in the vanguard of LAPD Chief Charlie Beck’s almost eight-year quest to reform a department whose hostile approach to poor and largely African-American residents had been a central factor in provoking the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.

I’d been critically covering the LAPD for a quarter-century and written two books about the department. Consequently, the officers’ trainers wanted me to tell these CSOs about the department’s bad old days.

Once inside the classroom, however, the cops quickly let me know that they were having none of it. So I suggested instead that they tell me what was on their minds.

Which they did.

They described their deep frustration at being in the middle of the high-voltage controversies ignited by the massive protests against officer-involved shootings in 2014, which in turn fueled a national movement for change. Just as strongly, they believed they weren’t being listened to, that a great deal of responsibility and blame has been foisted on them, and that they are allowed little leeway when they made a mistake.

I’d often heard far worse from other cops -- particularly about reform -- and found it in sharp contrast to a different message I’ve been receiving from senior police managers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice where, as the associate director of the Center on Media, Crime, and Justice my colleagues and I have been organizing training seminars for criminal justice journalists for the past decade.

What I found in those seminars was an emerging acknowledgment from chiefs and other high-ranking police officials, mayors, district attorneys and criminologists that police reform was both justified and necessary for keeping the peace between cops and poor communities of color.

A consensus, in fact, had developed among them about what “reform” at its most basic contains:

  • De-escalation training and a tightening of use-of-force polices to avoid increasing tension during police stops, and to avoid when possible the use of lethal force. Indictments for officer- involved-shootings are extremely rare. But convictions are even rarer: almost none of the officers accused have been convicted, partly because the legal definition to convict is so high, it’s near impossible to meet. But this is a crucial demand of African Americans, who are often the victims of those shootings.
  • A community-service policing culture in which police officers are integrated into local communities in a way that strengthens police legitimacy, trust and transparency.
  • Better education for serving officers, and informed training and broader recruitment policies for new ones that can achieve the goals above.

So why is there such a gap between what police managers and experts concede is necessary -- and what their rank-and-file officers believe?
One explanation is that the values of the conservative police culture have been cemented in place over the past 30 years, and are hard to dislodge. During that time, America’s militarized “warrior cops” have been fighting ‘wars’ on drugs and crime at the behest of policymakers and politicians -- wars in which aggressive arrests have been the principal, and often the only, strategy.

Those wars have “defined the [current] police culture -- its strategies, operations, training and recruitment,” says Frank Straub, an ex-police chief who is now the Director of Strategic Studies at the Police Foundation. “Community engagement and programs -- to the extent that they exist -- are [regarded as] the work of specialized officers and/or units that are typically viewed as distracting from the core mission [of] law enforcement.”

This culture is the heart of the problem.

It represents, Norm Stamper, the former police chief of Seattle told me, “the paramilitary, bureaucratic organizational arrangement of American policing -- one that is notoriously resistant to reform through community policing, de-escalation, providing advanced education for officers and handling the mentally ill.”

In Stamper’s view, there’s always been a deep division between progressive reform chiefs, and rank-and-file officers; but that divide has turned particularly intense “because of the socio-political climate, police shootings and police assassinations.”

Trying to improve community-police relations and to reduce racism and acts of excessive force,” adds Stamper, are thus “viewed by most in the rank and file as traitorous -- an abandonment [of them] by their bosses.”

Changing that attitude in the current climate of fear is difficult -- but possible.

Some of the fear felt by officers in high-risk neighborhoods is certainly justified.  But it’s also important to recognize that cops are trained to be fearful -- to watch their backs.

Breaking through this attitude while reducing officer-involved shootings is possible through “de-escalation” training -- which teaches cops to avoid both being confrontational during stops, and placing themselves in situations where they feel compelled to use their weapons.

Teaching de-escalation to academy recruits from the get-go, as the way the department polices, is essential to quickly getting buy-in from new cops when they hit the street.

But “you can’t teach it when the officer is facing a real deadly threat,” says Frank Straup, “You have to balance the presentation with real-life exercises so that an officer can weigh his options. It is not just a different focus on training, but explaining to them [and constantly to the entire agency] how they’ll be safer by using de-escalation strategies.”

Another concrete way to reduce both police fear and police shootings is to cut down the number of routine stops based solely on fishing expeditions.

The New York City Police Department, which was notorious as late as 2013 for its stunning number of stop-and-frisks, has since dramatically decreased them. Crime in New York has, nevertheless continued its decades-long decline without putting officers during hundreds of thousands of potentially dangerous situations.

In fact, despite the very real, extremely worrisome advent of sniper killings of police, officers are generally safer today.  According to Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of Southern Carolina and former police officer, “FBI data on police officers ‘feloniously killed’ -- killed as a result of a criminal act – indicates that the numbers have been falling.”

Also making reform more difficult for police managers is the fact that they can give orders, but there’s no guarantee that they’ll be carried out. Cops aren’t soldiers trained in organizations where taking orders is a given. Police agencies are half civilian, half para-military.

“That’s a major difference, says Ron Noblet, the dean of L.A. gang intervention professionals and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran. “Cops are simply not as strongly bound by orders as the military, and many have unions to protect them. So they push back.”


The Union Issue

To counter this pushback, police managers must first use the carrot of encouragement, constantly explaining why reform will be good for them and the department, while reminding them that reform -- while a long-term, on-going transformation project -- is happening now.

A key is vigorously targeting middle-management -- and particularly lieutenants and sergeants in the field -- to insure that they’re carrying out reform policies; rewarding those who are doing so, and sanctioning those that aren’t.

In short, when necessary, reform chiefs must be hard on these members of the police bureaucracy negative to change. Because they’re the hub around which the department spins and resistance festers.

You can’t lecture [a reform] attitude into police officers -- or [just] do it through policy and procedures and improved training -- and expect reform to really become integrated into the culture and the structure of law enforcement,” explained Stamper.

“Police chiefs are also going to have to say “if you want to be a cop in this city, these are the standards you must meet; failing to meet them means that you cannot be a cop in this city.”

Concurrently, reform chiefs must define the mission, and continuously model the desired behavior, by treating officers with the same respect and fairness they want their officers to apply in their interactions with community residents.

And political support, as noted above, is essential. You can find examples all over the country -- from Indianapolis to Washington DC -- where an “outsider” chief without a strong political base of support was defeated in his or her reform efforts by local police unions welding far more political support.

Reform chiefs should also work cooperatively with official police oversight agencies.  In many cities they have been major players in achieving changes in police culture. Police managers should see them as critical allies.

This is precisely what occurred when the Los Angeles Police Commission pushed LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to cut down on officer-involved-shootings by significantly revising the department’s shooting policy; and also by requiring both body and dashboard cameras be used by officers in the field.

These cameras proved to be an enormous help in better adjudicating use-of-force disputes.  Beck got pushback from the department’s union, but those key reforms were big gets, and are now, or soon will be, facts of life in the LAPD.

Community Matters

The wars on drugs and crime have made what can inherently be a dirty job even dirtier; making cops in the process absolutely hated by many of the people most in need of their protection. That’s a terrible thing to experience day-after-day when a cop goes to work.

Community Service Policing (CSP) will benefit police officers.  In many cities, residents of low-income communities of color simply refuse to even talk to the cops patrolling their neighborhoods. That’s a recipe for constant tension.

Once CSP has been established, police managers must avoid the temptation of changing or diluting the strategy when an uptick in crime brings calls for tougher policing. CSP is a long-term, transformative process. It must be carefully nurtured and expanded and sold throughout the department.

It is at the heart of culture change, and officers have to recognize that.

Moreover, if police managers make clear that success in CSP is one of the factors taken into account for promotions and recognition, officers will learn to value it.

Making CSP officers the “elite” unit of a policing organization is another way to encourage police buy-in. Typically, cops want to be in elite units because these have long been an avenue for promotion. The LAPD is rewarding officers who agree to become CSP officers for five years, with a promotion of two ranks.

“Stipends should also be paid, for community engagement, problem-solving, and being in specialized training like crisis intervention,” says Frank Straub, who adds that assignments to specialized community-based activities should be …considered in performance appraisals, promotion and assignments.”

Reducing the disdain and contempt many cops feel towards reform will be an extremely difficult task -- and for those cops who are already “battle-scarred” and cynical veterans, may be almost impossible.

No amount of telling them that reform is the only way to avoid racialized and class-based animosity (and potential violence) between them and poor people is going to change their minds.

What Outside Reformers Need to Do

Nevertheless, outside reformers can do their part by understanding that the changes they’re advocating could, in the eyes of many cops, negatively affect their lives and their livelihoods. They could start by dialing back the rhetoric that blames cops for what many officers regard as sins of the past, like the wars on drugs and crime; and by not assuming, ipso facto that most, if not all white cops are racist.

“Psychologists may be right that (bias) exists in all of us,” says Richard Aborn, the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City. “But to police officers implicit-bias testing is loaded with blame, and the implication is that they’re racist, and at a time when [racial] tensions have skyrocketed.”

Second,  these same reformers need to start naming, championing, supporting and working with reform chiefs and commissioners like those in cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Boston and New York -- as well as other parts of the police establishment -- who have taken upon themselves the enormous task of transforming a strictly repressive, resistant police culture.

Finally, the real hope for transformative change in policing lies in recruiting and training. Police recruits who want to be cops because they have controlling personalities are the wrong fit for community policing.They are not likely to buy into de-escalation training, and far more likely to start a series of actions that lead to violence.

Instead, empathy, compassion and problem-solving skills should be the key to recruiting for change. First responders -- EMTs -- might present a good model.

The new, 21st century police officer must also be a highly paid professional open to change and different perspectives, multi-dimensional in his or her ability to do the complex jobs community policing and community building; and, as Straub put it, “be able to enforce the law with legitimacy and empathy, even while protecting the community and themselves from truly violent and dangerous persons.”

For decades America’s police have wrapped themselves in what former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has called a “Blue Cocoon” -- where “all your friends are cops, all your talk is cop talk, and all you hear are cop ideas.”

Inside that cocoon is a strictly punitive view of their jobs, and contempt for much of the public. It hasn’t served them well. They’re doing a tough and necessary job, often with great dedication. Yet they know they’re more than just not appreciated: they’re actively despised by millions of millennials and poor people of color.

Policing as envisioned by reformers in and out of policing isn’t a threat to cops but an opportunity to be part of what can and should an ennobling profession.

Shouldn’t all cops want that?

Top Image: Antonio Villaraigosa/Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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