Lots of non-random thoughts about improving policing

My new favorite person, Patrick Skinner, now has an Op-Ed in the Post.  Unsurprisingly, it’s great stuff:

When I left the CIA, I no longer wanted to fight our “war on terror.” For seven years after the 9/11 attacks, I served as an operations officer in the CIA counterterrorism center. My role in our efforts overseas was small but left a large impression on me: We were creating more tensions and threats than we countered or mitigated. By approaching the issue as a “war,” we fought it as one, and this was a categorical mistake. There were significant tactical achievements, but overall it has been a strategic defeat, costing lives, money and opportunities. We focused on who and what we were fighting against instead of who and what we were fighting for, and in the shade of that difference, a rot grew. So I came to worry about what we were doing. And then I came home.

I’m now a cop in my hometown, Savannah, Ga., and I don’t want to fight another war — our “war on crime.” But I’m not going anywhere. I’m just speaking up, to propose that we end what never was a war to begin with. We need to change our mind-set about what it means to “police” in America. At this moment of maximal national tension and outrage, when national leaders are calling the streets of America a “battlespace,” with police officers as warriors who should “dominate” and give “no quarter,” I am telling whoever will listen: Police are not warriors — because we are not and must not be at war with our neighbors.

For decades, the United States has funded and created police departments that resemble occupying military forces, unable to protect and serve. [emphases mine] We armed ourselves literally and spiritually for a war on crime, and to quote Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, “And the war came.” What we now see deployed in many cities and towns is anti-policing. It’s the death of true community police work and, too often, the death of our neighbors. The well-documented militarization of American police departments has inevitably produced officers who see themselves and their roles as “warriors” or “punishers” or “sheepdogs.” Much of what our society finds so distressing and unacceptable in police interactions with their neighbors — disrespect, anger, frustration and violence — is not a result of “flawed” training; it’s a result of training for war.

And a great piece from Nancy LeTourneau on why police reform efforts have failed:

Police departments all over the country are demonstrating this kind of warrior mentality in response to protests. But as Maggie Koerth and Jamiles Lartey document, we’ve known for decades now that it doesn’t work.

Researchers have spent 50 years studying the way crowds of protesters and crowds of police behave — and what happens when the two interact. One thing they will tell you is that when the police respond by escalating force — wearing riot gear from the start, or using tear gas on protesters — it doesn’t work. In fact, disproportionate police force is one of the things that can make a peaceful protest not so peaceful.

Back in the early 80s, I worked at a shelter for runaway and homeless teens. It wasn’t unusual for a man to show up (usually a father or a pimp) threatening to get physical if the young person they were looking for wasn’t turned over to them. The woman who worked as our receptionist had once been employed as part of Prince’s security detail and, at the time, held a similar position at the nightclub in downtown Minneapolis where he launched his career.

When confronted with a threat, this woman made it clear that she did not want any of the men who worked at the shelter to come to her aid as a show of muscle. She explained that she could deal with men like that by using her brain and her words to de-escalate the situation. A show of muscle was simply an invitation for a physical confrontation. That is basically what these researchers have found when police departments respond with escalating force in an attempt to dominate a group of protesters.

But if security services and researchers have known for decades that a show of force doesn’t work, why do police departments continue to respond that way? Koerth and Lartey get to the heart of the matter when they talk about the difficulty of changing police culture, which can take decades. Even when the leadership of a police department is committed to reform, data shows that police chiefs rarely last more than three years. Having a sustained commitment to change is therefore uncommon.

The first step in the process of changing a warrior culture is for leadership to envision a different model. Former police officer Seth Stoughton wrote about the alternative of viewing police as community guardians here at the Washington Monthly back in 2015…

Newport Beach is going to recruit people who are drawn to police work because they want to be warriors.

On the other hand, Decatur will attract people who want to work in partnership with the community to solve problems—which is pretty much the definition of community policing.

While they haven’t gotten as much attention, there are police officers and departments that have been putting the guardian approach into action with the protests that have occurred over the last week.

Here’s the linked videos:

OMG– imagine being a citizen in Newport Beach when this is what your police department is looking for.  Sooooo wrong.  But it absolutely can be done right, as Decatur shows (and as my hometown Cary PD does, too).

Drum also asks why policing hasn’t gotten better.  He raises the specter that, maybe it really has (and I think so), but that doesn’t make the news.

Later in the interview Robinson says she thinks many police departments have made tremendous progress in the five years since the report was issued. Maybe so. But in every city that I see on TV, the cops are in full body armor and helmets; they’re put on the front lines as if daring the protesters to make a move; tear gas and rubber bullets appear to be on a hair trigger; and the streets are full of armored vehicles. This is the same approach used in Ferguson six years ago, and judging by the television coverage it’s still the unanimous choice of big-city police chiefs for dealing with the George Floyd protests.

I’d love to see some reporting about that: Are there cities that have dealt effectively with large protests? Are they using different approaches? It’s still early days, but are there any conclusions to be drawn from how different cities have responded to the protests?

I do think that’s definitely part of the story.  Locally, the violent protests in Raleigh got way, way more coverage than the non-violent, peaceful protests in Durham.

Also, loved this terrific piece from Eric Levitz (whom, I think, has become my favorite writer who is clearly to the left of me), “Cops Get Away With Murder Because They’re Popular”

Cops are legally unaccountable because they’re politically powerful.

Police officers in the United States kill about 1,000 people in the line of duty each year (only four other nations allow their security forces to take so many civilian lives annually — Brazil, Venezuela, the Philippines, and Syria — all of which have much higher crime rates than our country does). According to research from Philip Stinson of Bowling Green State University, between 2005 and April 2017, a grand total of 80 American cops were charged with murder or manslaughter for killing someone on the job. Less than 30 were convicted. In other words: Over that 12-year period, American cops who killed people in a professional capacity faced legal sanction in 0.25 percent of instances. Maybe only one in 400 police killings in the United States are unjustified. But given the myriad indefensible, unpunished police killings that have come to light in recent years, this seems unlikely. And uses of excessive force that result in a person’s death are the exception. Lesser forms of needless physical abuse are ubiquitous and even less likely to result in disciplinary action.

A wide range of fortifications protect abusive police officers from legal accountability. In many cities, police unions’ collective-bargaining agreements are full of provisions impeding oversight and abetting cover-ups. An anti-snitching culture (a.k.a. the “blue wall of silence”) further inhibits investigations. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court’s “qualified-immunity” doctrine has neutered the capacity of citizens to deter abuse through civil lawsuits (more on this point in a moment).

But all of these barriers between criminal cops and justice rest on the same foundation: The immense political power of police officers in the United States.

It is true that police unions shield their members from public accountability through collective-bargaining agreements. And Campaign Zero, an anti-police-violence organization, has proposed many worthy restrictions on what cops can bargain over in contract negotiations. But there are already five U.S. states where police officers have no collective-bargaining rights whatsoever — Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia — and none of them are bastions of police accountability. In New York, meanwhile, state law restricts the rights of police unions to negotiate over disciplinary issues. This did not prevent Eric Garner’s killer, Daniel Pantaleo, from retaining his job for five years after the former’s death. (Pantaleo is appealing his dismissal.)

The fact that unaccountable policing persists even where unions are constrained reflects the primary importance of cops’ political power. You can prohibit police from neutering oversight in collective-bargaining agreements. But you can’t bar them from voting as a bloc, donating to campaigns, or lobbying the legislature. And what can’t be won in a contract can often be secured via statute; in Virginia, cops lack bargaining rights but boast their very own bill of rights.

This is not to say that strong police unions don’t enhance their members’ political clout. But unionization is not the cornerstone of their influence. In addition to the power police officers derive from their capacity to vote as a bloc and pool campaign donations, cops boast two sources of nigh-unique political strength:

1) The police are one of the only popular, widely trusted institutions in the United States. There are only three institutions that perennially command a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence from Americans in Gallup’s polling: The military, small business, and the police. Cops command more than twice as much trust in these surveys as newspapers do and about five times more than Congress.

Short version: We can do better.  We know what to do.  Change is hard.  Especially when you are changing a culture.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to Lots of non-random thoughts about improving policing

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Anyone doing policing should be easy to identify by a badge with an individual number on, patches that say what group the officer works for. That person must be identifiable to be able to be held accountable.
    TV showed me lines of men (didn’t see any women) in military style uniforms and other gear with no identifying badges of any kind. Anonymous solders looking like the soldier robots seen in futuristic films. When asked, these men said they were with the Dept. of Justice and would say no more. One could speculate that this might be the beginning of a secret police in the United States of America.
    Attorneys – is there no law that requires people engaged in policing to be fully identifiable?

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