Demonstrators protest over the death of George Floyd in Washington, DC, on May 31. | Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
As protesters demonstrate against police violence, here are eight ideas for reforming law enforcement in the US.
When former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pinned down George Floyd by kneeling on his neck, not letting up as the black man yelled that he couldn’t breathe, Floyd, who died, and Chauvin, who was charged with his murder, became part of a much bigger and tragic American story.
It’s a story that’s been going on for centuries in the US. After the founding of the country, police enforced explicitly racist laws on slavery and segregation. In more recent decades, law enforcement has been at the forefront of enforcing policies in the war on crime and drugs that have culminated in massive racial disparities — in police stops, use of force, arrests, incarceration, the death penalty, and just about every other aspect of the criminal justice system.
It’s this story that led the US Department of Justice under President Barack Obama to investigate police practices in Baltimore; Cleveland; New Orleans; Ferguson, Missouri; Chicago; and several other American cities, consistently finding massive problems. As the department wrote in its Baltimore report, racial disparities were “present at every stage of BPD’s enforcement actions, from the initial decision to stop individuals on Baltimore streets to searches, arrests, and uses of force” and that the disparities “erode the community trust that is critical to effective policing.”
It’s this story that has led black people to trust police at half the rate of their white counterparts.
It’s this story, too, that’s kept black communities less safe, suffering disproportionately not just from police violence but also crime that goes underpoliced. As Council on Criminal Justice senior fellow Thomas Abt previously told me, “In addition to all of these burdens that we’re placing on African-American communities in terms of aggressive policing, we’re fundamentally failing them at keeping them safe.”
It’s this story that, over the past week, has led thousands of Americans to protest in the streets against police violence and systemic racism.
But how, exactly, can America reform policing?
I interviewed nine criminal justice experts about this topic in 2016. In a testament to how little things have changed, all eight of their recommendations stand up today — and none have been implemented at a national scale.
The proposals focus on repairing the damage done by centuries of abusive policing practices in minority communities, from addressing racial biases to limiting use of force to holding police accountable. And in working to rebuild trust in police, the ideas could actually help cops do their jobs — enabling them to help keep minority communities safe, instead of terrorizing these communities.
President Donald Trump’s administration seems to have little appetite for such reforms, but that doesn’t have to be a huge roadblock: Almost all policing is done at the local and state, not federal, level; out of the nearly 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the US, a dozen or so are federal. It’s at the local and state level, then, where reforms can and should happen.
Here are those ideas. They aren’t in any specific order, but experts consistently said that nothing else will work if the first step isn’t fully embraced by law enforcement across the country.
1) Police need to apologize for centuries of abuse
Time and time again, I heard the same thing from several experts: Until police take responsibility for how they’re viewed in minority communities, they won’t be able to effectively police those communities.
Some police officers might feel many of the criticisms are unfair. Some might hear about the history of police being used on slave patrols, and feel that they are wrongly blamed for things long before they were born. Some might feel that they are good cops, and it’s only a few officers who are bad.
But that doesn’t matter. The reality is minority communities distrust police. That sentiment is based on a long history of flat-out racist policing in America, even if it doesn’t apply to every single officer or department today. Until the police acknowledge that, they will be perceived by many people as trying to cover up a long history of oppression.
David Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College, argued in 2016 that there will always be distrust between police and black communities until cops own up to historical abuses, mimicking what a police chief might say to a community: “We recognize these facts — whether we were there or not, whether we were around during slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, attacks on the civil rights movement, or whether it’s more recent things that we have done that you have found disrespectful and untoward, like zero-tolerance policing and high levels of stop and frisk.”
So how can police repair this? For one, experts said police need to undertake a big effort — through community meetings, going door to door, their daily patrols, and TV appearances — to get their communities aligned with how policing should be done.
“In order to overcome lack of trust and confidence, the police have to make contact — door-to-door, face-to-face contact — with members of their community,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis, in 2016. “The police will be rebuffed on occasion, but that’s the only way I see to, in the long run, rebuild trust or, really, build it for the first time in the police in members of these communities.”
Walter Katz, now the vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures, likened the potential process in 2016 to South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Throughout those hearings, investigators spoke candidly with the victims and enforcers of apartheid about what happened. Much of the hearings were televised. In doing this, people not only got to air their grievances and see their concerns heard, but plans were also set in place — including reparations — to help undo the damage that had been done.
Above all, the point is to let communities know that police hear them, are taking what they say seriously, and are planning further steps to address their complaints.
2) Police should be trained to address their racial biases
Out of all the complaints leveled against the police, the biggest one in recent years — echoed by the Black Lives Matter movement — is that police are racially biased.
Sometimes the cause is explicit racism — such as in North Miami Beach, Florida, where police officers used mug shots of black people as target practice. But other times, such biases may occur at the implicit level, where people’s subconscious biases guide their choices even when they’re not fully aware of it (although there’s some criticism about this line of research).
Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor, tested police for racial biases through a shooting simulation. His initial findings showed officers generally did a good job of avoiding shooting unarmed targets of all races. But when shooting was warranted, officers pulled the trigger more quickly against black suspects than white ones. This suggests that officers exhibit some racial bias in shooting.
In the real world, this could lead police to shoot black people at disproportionate rates. Real policing situations, after all, are often much more complicated: Factors — such as a real threat to the officer’s life and the chance that a bullet will miss and accidentally hit a passerby — can make the situation much more confusing to officers.
“In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” Correll previously told me, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
That’s one of the reasons there are racial disparities in police use of force: According to the Guardian’s “The Counted” project, as of 2016 black people were more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white people, at a respective rate of 6.66 per 1 million people versus 2.9 per 1 million people.
It’s not just individual biases driving the disparities, but structural problems as well. As a result of years and years of racial segregation, economic and educational inequality among people of different races, concentrated poverty in minority communities, and the criminal justice system’s neglect of crimes against minorities, there tends to be much more crime in black neighborhoods. So police are deployed more often in these areas, where they’re then more likely to shoot and kill someone.
But higher crime in minority communities doesn’t fully explain the disparities. A 2015 study by researcher Cody Ross found “there is no relationship between county-level racial bias in police shootings and crime rates (even race-specific crime rates).” That suggests something else — such as, potentially, racial bias — is at work.
Phillip Atiba Goff, now the CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, told me in 2016 that this isn’t about whether officers are all evil racists. Instead, this is a bias that has been found time and time again in just about everyone. If you are a human being, chances are you have some level of bias — based on race, gender, religion, and so on. But American media and culture, with their constant depictions of black people as criminals, have shaped Americans’ biases into consistently associating black people with criminality.
“The issue of police bias starts with the thing law enforcement is hiring, which is that they hire humans,” Goff said. “They end up being at least as biased as the rest of the population. And in some instances, I suspect, it may be even slightly more in terms of racial bias.”
For police, the bias can be particularly bad: They are constantly put in situations where they have to think quickly. And that makes it much more likely that their biases will take over. As Goff told me, “If I could put you in the right situation, I could get that particular association to lend itself to certain kinds of behaviors.”
Officers can be trained to help combat their biases. Lorie Fridell, a University of South Florida criminologist who works with police to help them resist their biases, previously explained that they can be taught to force themselves to focus on factors that aren’t skin color — such as body language and what a person is holding. Still, other experts pointed out that the research on the effects of racial bias training is lacking.
To the extent it might help, such training is rarely emphasized by police departments.
A 2006 report from the Justice Department found that police officers typically receive about 111 hours on firearms skill and self-defense — but just 11 on cultural diversity and human relations, eight on community policing strategies, and eight on mediation and conflict management.
This doesn’t speak just to how little police are trained to handle racial biases, but also all sorts of other situations they take part in — mental health crises, interactions with the LGBTQ community, and domestic and sexual abuse cases, as a few examples. Police just aren’t well-trained to handle a wide variety of sensitive, difficult areas.
If police want to renew community trust, this needs to change. It likely wouldn’t solve all problems — racial bias, for one, is likely to be present to some degree no matter how well cops are trained. But it might help.
3) Police should avoid situations that lead them to use force
Often, the error that leads to an unnecessary shooting — and perhaps bias as a driving factor of the excessive force — comes long before an officer pulls out his or her gun. It can happen when an officer decides to approach a scene in a certain way.
Think of the final moments before a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014. In that tragedy, officers suspected that Rice, who was black, had an actual firearm, when he was in fact playing with a toy gun. And officers drove right into the park where Rice was playing, shooting the boy within two seconds of getting out of their squad car.
What if officers had, instead of driving into the scene, parked further away, surveyed the area, and walked into the park more slowly, while giving warnings to Rice? It’s of course impossible to say what the outcome would be — but it certainly seems much more likely that Rice would be alive today.
“We talk about the split-second decisions that have to be made when deadly force is used, and it’s a red herring,” Goff said. “Most of the time, [police] are not ambushed in a corner and then they have to figure out what to do. Most of the time, what happens is there are a number of tactical decisions you’ve made up until that point that have compromised your safety.”
So if officers have racial biases, and you put them in an intense situation in which they have little to call on but their own biases, those biases are going to guide their actions. “We have to be able to acknowledge and identify the set of situations that are most likely to facilitate biased behavior,” Goff said. “And we want to be able to disarm or interrupt them.”
Goff gave an example from research work he did in Las Vegas. There, police established a foot pursuit policy that said the officer who was giving chase should not be the first person to put their hands on the suspect, with coordinated backup instead arriving on the scene and taking on that role. The idea is that foot pursuits often ended in excessive use of force — after all, they are high-adrenaline chases in which the officer and the suspect can get really angry, really fast. So by limiting, when possible, chasing officers from putting their hands on the suspect, Goff figured you could limit use of force.
The change appeared to work. There was a 23 percent reduction in total use of force and an 11 percent reduction in officer injury over several years, on top of reducing racial disparities, according to Goff. “Safer for the officer, safer for the suspects,” he said.
“I didn’t have to talk about race to reduce a disparity that has racial components to it,” he added. “I had to change the fundamental situation where police are chronically engaging with suspects. And that’s the kind of example that I’m talking about how you interrupt the biases of life.”
This is just one example. More broadly, police need to stop being deployed in a way that is particularly aggressive against minority communities — such as when cops in New York City effectively targeted people of color and their whole communities through “stop and frisk.” As Jonathan Blanks, now a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, told me in 2016, “So long as you have [racially disparate policing strategies], you can have all these ideas about how we’re going to measure how many black people we stop and reduce bias there, but I don’t think it’s really going to work.”
4) Officers must be held accountable in a very transparent way
With the above steps, police can avoid more unnecessary uses of force. But there’s another problem: When police do use excessive force or engage in other types of misconduct, there needs to be more transparency and accountability in the aftermath.
The lack of accountability is reflected in the statistics. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
Some of this is a result of laws and courts making it difficult to hold police accountable for excessive use of force. Some activists have called for the legal standards to be lowered, so cops can be held accountable for deadly force at a level closer to that of a civilian.
But part of it also has to do with public attitudes, which can drive juries to take a more sympathetic view toward police.
To that end, another accountability approach is to equip police with body cameras. The idea is that video footage can help eliminate the doubt for both police and civilians as to what happened in a shooting and whether use of force was warranted.
Take the 2015 police shooting of Walter Scott in North Charleston, South Carolina. An officer, Michael Slager, claimed that Scott had tried to take his stun gun and use it on him before fleeing. Video footage from a civilian at the scene, however, revealed that Scott had not tried to grab Slager’s stun gun, and Slager had shot at Scott’s back as the 50-year-old black man attempted to flee. After the shooting, Slager planted the stun gun near Scott’s dead body — presumably to give his story credibility.
If the cellphone video from the passerby didn’t exist, would Slager have been charged with murder and civil rights violations? Would he have been fired? Would he have gotten away with a totally unjustified shooting? After all, without video, witness testimony may have been limited to Slager’s own account.
Similarly, with Floyd’s death, the recorded actions of the officers involved have inspired widespread revulsion — even among other police officers. That’s possible thanks to the video.
Beyond video, police records could also be made more transparent — making it easier to, for example, find out if a police officer has been disciplined in the past. That could show if an officer has a history of complaints or other problems, potentially making it easier to hold bad cops accountable.
But police records are often mired in secrecy. In a 2015 investigation, Robert Lewis, Noah Veltman, and Xander Landen of the New York public radio station WNYC talked to attorneys and experts in all 50 states and Washington, DC, and reviewed laws and court cases to find out which states restrict police disciplinary records. They found that 23 states and DC make the records confidential. And 15 other states limit access to records by, for example, only letting the public see examples of severe discipline, such as suspension or termination. The remaining 12 states generally open police disciplinary records to the public.
This secrecy is also reflected in police culture. The “blue wall of silence” tells cops to stay quiet about other officers’ misconduct. This code is enforced both formally and informally. In Baltimore, for example, the Justice Department found a black sergeant was told to “stay in your lane” when he tried to flag misconduct within the police:
In 2014, a BPD lieutenant placed several signs next to the desk of an African-American sergeant with a reputation for speaking out about alleged misconduct in the Department. Among the signs were warnings to “stay in your lane,” “worry about yourself,” “mind your own business!!” and “don’t spread rumors!!!” After the sergeant filed a complaint about the signs, the lieutenant admitted to creating them and placing them next to the sergeant’s desk. Yet BPD took no meaningful corrective action. Though the complaint was sustained, the lieutenant received no suspension, fine, or loss of benefits.
To fix this, some experts argue that a fundamental shift in leadership is needed.
“The work that needs to be done certainly involves progressive leadership,” said Thomas Nolan, now a criminologist at Emmanuel College and a former Boston police lieutenant, in 2016. “We’ve seen, unfortunately, too little of that. We seem to see the same types of people — and there are exceptions — being put in chief executive positions in police departments across the country.”
Policing in America, particularly at the leadership level, tends to be quite insular. For example, William Bratton served as the police commissioner in Boston in the early 1990s, commissioner in New York City in the mid-1990s, chief in Los Angeles in the 2000s, and finally as commissioner again in New York City from 2014 to 2016. Anthony Batts similarly served as police chief in Oakland and Long Beach, California, before moving to the Baltimore Police Department from 2012 to 2015. There are many more similar examples in big and medium-size cities’ police departments.
Nolan’s argument is simple: If the same people tend to be in charge of police agencies, how can we expect them to change to be more accountable and transparent?
5) On-the-job incentives for police officers need to change
As part of changing the culture of transparency and accountability, several experts also argued that the incentives many police departments across the country impose on their officers need to change.
The most commonly cited example comes from Ferguson, Missouri — where Michael Brown’s death by police in 2014 effectively launched the modern Black Lives Matter protests.
The Justice Department investigated the Ferguson Police Department as a result of the protests. It found that police were encouraged to ticket as many people as possible with the explicit goal of raising as much revenue as possible from fines and fees. But to do this, police targeted the most vulnerable — mainly, black residents — with frivolous charges.
The Justice Department cited one example:
Officers frequently arrest individuals under Section 29-16(1) on facts that do not meet the provision’s elements. Section 29-16(1) makes it unlawful to “[f]ail to comply with the lawful order or request of a police officer in the discharge of the officer’s official duties where such failure interfered with, obstructed or hindered the officer in the performance of such duties.” Many cases initiated under this provision begin with an officer ordering an individual to stop despite lacking objective indicia that the individual is engaged in wrongdoing. The order to stop is not a “lawful order” under those circumstances because the officer lacks reasonable suspicion that criminal activity is afoot. … Nonetheless, when individuals do not stop in those situations, FPD officers treat that conduct as a failure to comply with a lawful order, and make arrests.
This is not exclusive to Ferguson. In New York City, a group of police officers tried to sue the city and police department over a “quota” to stop and arrest as many people as possible. Some officers acknowledged that officers met this incentive by targeting low-income black neighborhoods with little political power.
“When you put any type of numbers on a police officer to perform, we are going to go to the most vulnerable,” Adhyl Polanco, one of the New York City police officers, told WNBC. “We’re going to [the] LGBT community, we’re going to the black community, we’re going to go to those people that have no boat, that have no power.”
Experts said that police can still be incentivized for productivity, but that can be done without focusing so much on specific numbers of arrests or traffic tickets. It can be done in a more subjective manner through direct supervision. It can also be coupled with other types of data, such as the number of complaints leveled at an officer and how many times a particular cop used force.
But the bottom line is police need to be aware of how strict quotas and incentives can lead officers astray — and take steps to correct any of those unwanted side effects.
6) We need higher standards — and better pay — for police
Who becomes a police officer likely needs to change, as well — by setting a higher bar for who can qualify for the job.
There are no federal standards for police officers. Federal lawmakers could establish such guidelines, allowing states to treat them as the bare minimum or even expand on them.
States could also individually up their licensing requirements for police. For example, barbers in Florida as of 2016 were required under state law to have more training than police: Barbers need to log 1,200 hours, while cops need 770. It’s just one state, but it exemplifies how poor the standards can be for police licensing across the US.
Then there are other considerations, such as whether cities and states should require a college degree for police — something that isn’t required in much of the country right now.
But generally, experts say there should be strong requirements in place that can check for the skills and characteristics we expect of police before they’re put in a live situation.
“We want to recruit people who have the capacity for emotional regulation — so they don’t get angry, they don’t see authority challenges as personal challenges, they don’t fall on use of force as the first response to a challenge to their authority,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist at Columbia University, in 2016. “We want people who are good at planning and thinking ahead. We want people who have a capacity to reflect on their own work and update their own work — in other words, learn from their mistakes.”
But, Fagan added, “In order to do that, we need to think seriously about paying these guys better.”
This is the rub: Higher standards will almost certainly lead to a need to pay police more. Otherwise, why would someone with, say, a college degree take a job as a police officer when he or she can get far more pay at a private security firm?
John Roman, a criminal justice expert at NORC at the University of Chicago, agreed: “I think we should have higher standards. And if you’re going to have higher standards, you’re going to have to pay them better to attract better-quality people. That’s just the way the free market works.”
7) Police need to focus on the few people in communities causing chaos and violence
Along with all these changes, police can also take steps that explicitly go after crime while limiting who’s impacted by policing actions.
The vast majority of crime in communities is perpetrated by just a few people in a few specific parts of the city. As Abt wrote for Vox, “In most cities across the nation, 3 to 5 percent of city blocks account for 50 to 75 percent of all shootings and killings, with 1 percent of a city’s population responsible for 50 to 60 percent of all homicides.”
If police focus on just these few blocks and, specifically, individuals — through policing strategies known as “hot-spot policing” and “focused deterrence” — they can stop and deter a lot of crimes in their cities.
Focused deterrence in particular has been hugely successful: Study after study backs it up, and the method got much of the credit for the “Boston miracle” that saw the city’s violent crime rate drop by 79 percent in the 1990s. Abt covered the success of this strategy in his 2019 book Bleeding Out — highlighting the evidence in a call to take urban violence more seriously as a policy problem.
Rosenfeld explained the two prongs of focused deterrence: “We clearly know who you are, where you live, and we’re going to do everything we can to stop the violence in this community — and if that means that we arrest and charge you with a serious violent crime, we’re going to do that. If you want out of this life, then, secondly, here are services and support that you might find useful to set a different direction of your life.”
The social services can be costly, but they’re needed for the strategy to work. For one, they offer a way out to someone caught in a bad place in life — people often get trapped in violent situations due to desperate economic situations. And when cops offer these services, they also signal that they’re not just there to enforce the law, but also to try to help people out of dire circumstances.
“That lends a certain legitimacy to the police,” Rosenfeld said. “They’re not there to just serve warrants or warn people about what’s going to happen to them if they commit another crime, but also conveys a certain degree of concern for those individuals and their lives.”
So these strategies can limit who’s directly impacted by policing — by targeting a few people in a few areas, instead of sweeping whole neighborhoods with aggressive stops. They can also signal to the community that the police get it: Most people in these communities are innocent, and police are going to focus only on those who aren’t.
As Abt told me, “If you get very specific, you are better at fighting crime and reducing violence. But you also improve legitimacy by showing the community that you’re not occupying them like a military, but that you’re serving them by trying to help them address a small number of people in places that really are hurting the community.”
One big hurdle to these strategies is that they can involve a big initial investment — and police departments, used to fighting crime in a certain way, may be resistant to new ideas, especially if they cost more money upfront. And their implementation can be difficult — requiring actors all across government, from the mayor to police to social workers, to come together in a single strategy and stick to it through ups and downs.
But if these strategies work to save and improve lives, there’s a moral imperative for all levels of government to take them more seriously.
8) We need better data to evaluate police and crime
As it stands, the federal government does a terrible job collecting data on crime and police actions. Nationwide crime reports tend to come out with a lag period of a year or more. And virtually every expert agreed this data very likely undercounts crime, since it misses crimes that aren’t reported to the police.
“We know virtually nothing about crime in America other than murder, kidnapping, and arson,” Roman said. “Rape, robbery, assault, motor vehicle theft, gangs, drugs — we don’t report data back to the federal government that allows the federal government to tell law enforcement how to behave more efficiently or helps researchers understand how crime is created and evolves.”
But more comprehensive, current data could be very useful for fighting crime, several experts argued.
“You need that comparative information so you can determine whether that problem you’re experiencing in your own community is relatively distinctive or specific to local community conditions or it’s a common problem in many, many other communities,” Rosenfeld said. “If it’s the latter, you want to consult with those other communities to see how they’re addressing it. If it’s the former, then you know you have to devise strategies that respond to the specifics of the problems in your own community.”
It’s not just crime. Goff pointed out that there’s little to no data on what police do — stops, arrests, use of force, and so on. A 2015 study found that the federal agencies’ police killing data misses as many as half of all people killed by police in America. And the federal government doesn’t try to track more typical police actions, from stops to arrests.
As long as the US fails to collect this data, it’s going to be impossible to evaluate what works to address virtually any of the issues people have with police, from racial bias to crime-fighting. It may cost more money to collect this data properly, but every expert I talked to brought it up as a major issue that needs to be addressed.
If police get this right, they can boost faith in cops and their legitimacy in crime-fighting
There’s an underlying point in all these strategies: More effective and transparent policing really can solve the two big problems — racial bias and higher crime — pegged to police in America today.
Whenever another police shooting of a black person hits the news, opponents of Black Lives Matter tend to fall back on a question: “But what about black-on-black crime?” The suggestion is that far more black people are murdered by black civilians, so that’s really what someone worried about black lives should worry about.
What these critics miss is that distrust in the police — the key driver behind Black Lives Matter — is also a key driver of crime in minority neighborhoods. “When communities don’t trust the police and are afraid of the police, then they will not and cannot work with police and within the law around issues in their own community,” Kennedy said. “Then those issues within the community become issues the community needs to deal with on their own — and that leads to violence.”
Better policing can’t stop all crime. There are many other issues, from jobs to housing, that also have an impact. But police, if they are trusted by the community, can have a sizable effect.
To some degree, this should be common sense. Journalist Jill Leovy captured it well in her brilliant book Ghettoside: Noting that homicides are much less likely to be solved in black neighborhoods, she argued that some people in black communities have concluded that police don’t value black lives — and so they need to settle interpersonal conflicts on their own.
“Take a bunch of teenage boys from the whitest, safest suburb in America and plunk them down in a place where their friends are murdered and they are constantly attacked and threatened. Signal that no one cares, and fail to solve murders. Limit their options for escape. Then see what happens,” Leovy wrote.
That’s why transparency, accountability, and community cooperation, described as part of the “procedural justice” model of policing, are all so important: They signal that the justice system does care. And if the police do it right — by stopping overly aggressive practices and preventing crime and violence in black neighborhoods — they can signal that black lives really do matter to them.
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