Fixing American Policing
Adam J. McKee
CHAPTER 10: Principles
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.
As previously stated, officers are role models in the community, or at least they should be. Ethics should guide every aspect of departmental operations. This principle should begin with recruit selection and include a careful vetting process to determine the ethical nature of the recruit. Simple criminal history checks are insufficient. Thorough background investigations should be conducted on all police recruits. Ethics must become a shared cultural value of policing and not be limited to a few hours of academy training. At all levels of government, serious ethical misconduct should result in the decertification of police officers such that they are no longer allowed to serve as officers in any agency within the United States. We laud the President’s Task Force (2015) recommendation to establish a National Register of Decertified Officers, with the goal of covering all agencies within the United States and its territories.
Thus far, we have examined some of the core principles of community policing through an ethical lens. There are other principles which, while not widely acknowledged as moral principles per se, are nevertheless necessary to a successful transformation of a police department from the traditional model to a true community policing model. As the President’s task force (2015) suggests, transformation within a police department is developed by “establish[ing] a culture of transparency and accountability to build public trust and legitimacy” (p.1). The underlying logic is that trust develops when community members understand the purpose of police policies, procedures, and actions, and judge them to be legitimate. There will be no respect for police authority as long as disenfranchised sectors of American society are mistrustful and fearful of what is perceived to be illegitimate power.
This mistrust and fear have spawned anger and outrage in many communities. In a time of heightened racial tensions, it is common to frame police problems with equity and equality in terms of race. There are some shameful examples of all-white police departments serving communities of color, but these are becoming rare. The most prominent problem with diversity in American policing is the gender gap. Women are underrepresented in nearly every police department in the United States today. According to FBI (2013) statistics, women make up only about 12% of American police officers. We speculate that women are at once the victims of and part of the solution to the problematic machismo character of the traditional police culture. Most police departments are genuinely concerned with achieving ethnic diversity; we call upon all American police departments to demonstrate the same level of dedication to gender equality.
Dealing With Bias
While gender diversity problems remain largely “under the radar,” issues of bias towards particular ethnic and racial groups is still headline news. These issues are certainly not new, and a failure to address them accounts for the passion and anger with which they are currently being discussed. The president’s Task Force explored racial bias as a dichotomy. That is, they split it into two distinct categories. The first category is what they called “explicit bias,” which consists of attitudes and beliefs that exist on a conscious level and that control a person’s judgment and behavior toward certain people. I usually refer to this as overt racism. The phrase explicit bias almost seems like an attempt to sanitize something filthy. I believe that we are better off calling it what it is—racism. Obviously, police departments need to seek out evidence of implicit bias in a job applicant, and immediately disqualify racists. I am not aware of any departments that will hire overt racists, but I know plenty that don’t take the time or effort to evaluate this aspect of a person’s character.
Implicit bias, on the other hand, describes a more subtle form of racism where the person doesn’t believe them to be a racist but has a bias in judgment and behaviors that result from biases held below the level of conscious awareness. The individual doesn’t individually control these biases, so in a way, they are more insidious. In fact, my theory is that most excessive force complaints against officers are a result of implicit bias, not overt racism. Keep in mind the culture of policing when evaluating police behavior. Police recruits are taught that the public is out to kill them and that their only chance of survival is to be the better warrior. Also keep in mind basic human psychology: People are psychologically primed to fear the unknown. If we couple heightened arousal and hypervigilance with an encounter with someone we perceive as very different from us, we are likely to feel fear. This simple formula explains myriad shootings of unarmed black men by white officers. Those officers weren’t malicious racists out to harm black men, they were scared men who happened to have guns. That’s a recipe for homicide.
The problem is that we all—every single human being on the planet—have varying degrees of implicit bias. Again, this is basic human psychology. Our brains don’t have the processing power to figure out every new situation that we come across, so we quickly form patterns that explain how the world works. We social scientists call these patterns of relationships between things generalizations. I have a generalization about doorknobs. If I want to open a door, I turn the knob. The knob may be broken, or it may be locked.
So my generalizations are very useful, but they don’t always work. The problem with generalizations is that we tend to form them too quickly without sufficient evidence. I believe this is the origin of most superstitions and things we consider to be “lucky.” I won the big game wearing a certain pair of socks and determined that those socks are lucky. I refuse to play without wearing those socks. These generalizations that are based on evidence that is insufficient (or simply wrong) are known as overgeneralizations.
Stereotypes, then, are a species of overgeneralization. We find stereotypes offensive, even when they are positive. We may be proud of our group membership, but we don’t want to be defined as a person by that group membership. A key determinant of implicit bias is when a person uses absolute terms to describe a group. There are many errors in reasoning that can lead to such stereotypes. If I were to assert that “most serial killers are white men, so most white men are serial killers,” most people will immediately see the logical error. These logical errors are even more problematic when we internalize them but never think about them. This lack of introspection can cause us to believe something, and yet deny that we believe it. If we are in denial about our implicit biases, we can never correct them. We, as a society, need for many white officers to address their unexamined belief that black men are dangerous.
Because of the psychological origins of these biases, it is unrealistic to expect police departments to find any candidates who don’t have some negative ones. The idea that we can find enough bias-free individuals to staff an entire police department is just wishful thinking. The strategy must be, from a practical perspective, to weed out candidates that are overtly racist, and to help those that remain overcome their implicit biases. Diversity training can be helpful if it is properly done and officers go into the experience trying to get something out of it. All too often, bias training is viewed as a hoop to jump through, and no one (not even the person doing the training) sees any value in it. Perhaps the best inoculant against harmful implicit biases is simple exposure to diversity. This is one of the major reasons that I so strongly advocate higher education for law enforcement. Aside from the subject matter expertise that is gained by a quality university education, those future officers will spend four years interacting with many diverse people and diverse ways of thinking.
I am convinced that psychometrics—the science of measuring people’s psychological characteristics—can devise measures of both explicit and implicit bias. We are not yet there. There are some psychological inventories that assess things like “tolerance,” which represents a promising start. This work desperately needs to be done, and the results need to be validated and used in pre-employment psychological examinations of potential police officers. Most states require passing a psychological evaluation before an officer can be hired, but these are often cursory examinations, and what the tester is looking for is often a professional judgment call.
When we are developing national standards, we most assuredly need to include standards for psychological fitness in that mix. One of those standards needs to be the measurement of bias. This is so important, in fact, that I’d like to see the Department of Justice offer a $1M “X Prize” type of competition, with the purse going to the first team that develops a valid and reliable psychological test for bias (as determined by a panel of independent experts).
When it comes to detecting evidence of bias (absent a psychometric solution), good old fashion detective work can come into play. Overt racists don’t’ see a need to hide their racism, so they post inflammatory things on social media. They make comments and attack people. As time-consuming as it is, sifting through a person’s Facebook wall, their Twitter feed, and whatever other social media platforms are popular at the time can provide great insight. Of course, determining if a person is unacceptably biased should not end during the hiring process.
Nearly every department has a probationary period where new officers are closely supervised, and a plan needs to be put in place where training staff and supervising officers assess the person for evidence of bias in their behavior and in their words. The idea of a plan is critical. Telling Field Training Officers (FTOs) to “watch out for racism” doesn’t cut it. We need a formal, systematic assessment done on every officer. It is also important to note that there is a well-documented link between intolerance and bullying. Bullying behavior by officers is a clear sign of intolerance that FTOs can easily document.
The terms ethics and values are often used interchangeably, but they are really different things. Ethics has to do with what is right and what is wrong in a professional context. Many of the things that factor into officer performance have to do with ethics. There are other things that we think are important but that aren’t necessarily ethical considerations. It is critically important to select ethical men and women to become police officers, and to remove unethical people from the ranks of the police.
I’m sure by this point in this book, you are tired of the phrase “catching bad guys.” It is important to realize that the basic idea of removing criminals from society by means of arrest is an ethical obligation that police officers swear to undertake. Officers aren’t duplicitous when they claim that they are “just doing their jobs.” “Law enforcement” is implicit in the mandate, and implicit in the culture. To effect real change, we as a larger society have to change the mandate politically and force the police culture to change. I don’t suggest that individual officers with a singular focus on this aspect of policing are unethical, but I do question the values of their departments when this singular focus is promoted.
If we are to implement the new community policing, we must change the values of our police departments. This is simple enough to say, but it is, in practice, the most difficult aspect of the entire process. For that to happen, a large majority of the public will need to reach an accord, and massive social, political, and financial pressure will need to put on police departments, and that pressure must be maintained until the institutional memory of the department no longer recalls the “good ole days.” For this to happen, the righteous anger of today needs to coalesce into the iron resolve of tomorrow’s electorate.
When we use the term values to talk about an entire organization, we are really talking about the beliefs that guide the organization and the behavior of its employees as a collective. In a free society, we can have many different people with many different value systems. There are many different values that have nothing to do with the police job, and those can be safely ignored by the department. Some values, however, that an individual officer may hold may conflict with the values of the department. Those people simply don’t belong in that department.
The most important values of an organization are reflected in its ultimate purpose. Police departments need that purpose clearly defined. Traditionally, police departments will develop a mission statement that is supposed to reflect their ultimate purpose. Often this is nothing more than a nice-sounding collection of platitudes, and the public had no input into its creation. A real mission statement should be a long and very thoughtful process to create. All of the goals the department sets later should reflect back on that mission, and all of its objectives should be tied to those goals. Only in this government from general principles to specific action items can we hope to get many different people in many different roles working toward the same ends. Much to the chagrin of those that are responsible for writing the final draft of the mission statement and disseminating it far and wide, mission statements are dynamic. As communities morph and change over time, so too must the mission of the police department.
If an agency is truly dedicated to community policing, some form of “safety” and “quality of life” will find its way into the mission statement. It must also specify that members of the community are equally responsible for achieving these overarching goals. A big clue that the agency has not really adopted the community policing value system is when the organizational structure and management style of the department has not changed. It is important that the department articulate its values, but it is also critical that those values be linked clearly and unambiguously with behaviors. To use another tired cliché, “actions speak louder than words.” All the pretty platitudes in the world will have zero impact on public perceptions of the police if officer actions on the streets don’t reflect those values.
One of the best ways to clarify values, which are often subjective and vague, is to create performance evaluations to measure adherence to the stated value. Social scientists call the process of defining something abstract according to how we measure it as operationalization. This process isn’t just a nod to the scientific method; nothing forces you to think as clearly and precisely about what an abstract concept means as determining how to (validly and reliably) measure it. There is nothing wrong with officers saying they want to “protect” and “serve” the community. But we can’t stop there. What do you mean by protection? What actions taken by officers demonstrate protection? How many different types of protection are there? Are some types of protection more important than others? How do we give officers credit for protection in their performance evaluation? Commonly suggested guiding values central to community policing are trust, cooperation, ingenuity, integrity, discretion, leadership, responsibility, respect, and a broadened commitment to public safety and security.
If we broaden the scope of police responsibility to include “quality of life” issues, then several things that are closely linked to crime and disorder suddenly appear on the radar. No one would argue that crime doesn’t have an appreciable impact on American society. We seldom consider how much of an impact the fear of crime has on our national psyche and, as a result, our collective behavior. Survival is one of our most basic instincts, and that instinct manifests in a deep need to feel safe and secure in our environment. When we do not feel safe—consciously or unconsciously—we alter sour behaviors and change our environment. We choose where we socialize, where we shop, and where we live in part on our perceptions of relative safety. Of course, those decisions can be driven by necessity and the financial reality of our situation. No one chooses to live in a “bad neighborhood.” Our perceptions of safety not only govern our personal behaviors, but it also helps determine the behaviors over those we love. The behaviors we allow our children to engage in are largely determined by how safe we think those things they want to do are, and we consider the place as part of that safety equation.
Fear of crime drives behavior, and people often modify their behavior to avoid the perceived threat even when those perceptions are not objectively reasonable. As professor Felson points out in his amazing little book Crime in Everyday Life, most Americans have a view of the crime picture that is completely wrong. We worry about a lot of things that aren’t very likely to happen to our loved ones or us, and we don’t worry at all about very real threats. Despite the fact that many worries are based on fictional fears, the narrative causes a powerful psychological reaction that can cause real social declines in neighborhoods. The fear of crime–real or imagined–often drives local politics, and on rare occasions, it drives national politics. Since the 1990s, crime in America has been pretty much on a downward trend. There is less and less crime in most places in America, but the fear hasn’t subsided.
I agree with many community policing advocates when they state that fear reduction (i.e., making people feel safer) needs to be an explicit component of community policing. Fear may be “just a feeling,” but it has a real impact on individual quality of life, neighborhood social dynamics, and the economy of entire cities. There is a lot of literature out there on public fear of crime, and we’ve shown repeatedly that police departments can do much to alleviate the fear of crime. Again, specificity is the key to success. It isn’t good enough to state generally that fear reduction is a goal of the department. Specific, targeted strategies need to be developed and implemented.
As with most things that police need to tackle, the first step is assessment. It isn’t good enough to say that we’re tackling fear in the community. We need to know specifics. Who, exactly, is afraid, and what are they afraid of? Many departments have used “crime analysis” techniques to target crime, and those same analytical strategies can be used to target fear of crime as well. The most common method of assessing levels of fear in communities is to conduct surveys. In the past, this was expensive and time-consuming. Today, departments can use free software to assess citizens on many different facets of their life. The trick is to encourage participation from a representative cross-section of the community. The elderly and the very poor among us may not have access to computers, and we must take steps to make sure the process is inclusive. Once information is available, trends and patterns can be identified and mapped. Interventions can then be devised. This data-driven process should be very familiar to crime analysis who do essentially the same type of analysis with reported crimes.
Once target areas and populations have been identified, a strategy must be developed to actually reduce the fear people in the area are experiencing. Since the exact circumstances that gave rise to these fears will vary from place to place and across time, solutions will require a degree of customization. That isn’t to say that fixing the problems is necessarily difficult, but there isn’t going to be a one size fits all solution to the problem. The nature and cause of fear must be considered. The application of a “magic bullet” approach will result in a lot of wasted time by police.
It is important to note that when community policing is implemented and officers spend more time interacting with community members in positive ways, the fear of crime tends to go down. That is, officers don’t have to do any particular tasks targeted at fear reduction to reduce fear much of the time. When the police do anything expecting a particular result, the intervention needs to be evaluated. Whatever method of fear reduction is chosen, the department needs to go back and assess fear again to see if it is going down, staying the same, or rising.
If we can agree that fear reduction should be a part of community policing, then we can agree that the goal needs to be incorporated into the department’s mission statement, and that needs to flow through to specific goals and objectives. I recommend that a part of that is to implement an ongoing program of assessing people’s fear of crime. Further, officers need to be accountable for the levels of fear in their beat areas. Community policing depends on the mantra “what you measure is what you get.” That is only true, however, when the information is incorporated into the reward system for officers.
For every 1,000 citizens in the United States, there are about 2.5 cops. Given that those cops need to sleep and have time off once in a while, at any given time, we can conclude that for every couple of thousand people, there is a single officer working. That fact underscores the idea that the formal criminal justice system doesn’t do a whole lot to control human behavior. No one person can monitor and correct the behavior of 1,000. (Ask any teacher what a good ratio of control is). That goes to show that sociologists are onto something with the idea of informal social controls. The basic idea of informal social controls is that most people act the way society expects them to act most of the time. Humans are social creatures, and we want to fit into society (as we know it). The idea that a neighborhood can, by its collective action toward people that aren’t acting according to social norms, change antisocial behavior is known as collective efficacy.
Collective efficacy helps explain why some neighborhoods fight crime and disorder while others don’t. In some communities, strangers doing stupid things will be quickly confronted by citizens asking questions and demanding answers. If those answers aren’t satisfactory, the police are quickly summoned. In neighborhoods where such collective efficacy exists, we find that residents have a vested interest in the community. In other words, they have a sense of ownership and that ownership has a protective quality to it. That protective quality extends beyond crime in disorder. They are concerned with the health and welfare of their neighbors, the look and feel of the neighborhood, and the actions of local governments that impact the neighborhood. In short, they care.
The use of the word “neighborhood” usually summons up images of particular geographic locations. From the perspective of policing (and sociology), a neighborhood is best thought of as a social network. In other words, neighborhoods are not defined by streets and buildings; they are defined by the people that live there. Even among people that don’t particularly like each other, strong associations with the social network can form strong alliances when it comes to the health and safety of the neighborhood. Neighborhoods can go beyond residential real estate to include “anchors” where people can meet and socialize. Schools, churches, stores, and parks are all examples of potentially positive anchor points. Some neighborhood establishments can, however, cause much more harm than good.
If we keep the idea of a neighborhood being a social network in mind, anything that brings strangers into the mix can be problematic. Bars, liquor stores, and pawnshops have all been associated with crime, and aren’t very surprising sources of disorder. But shopping centers, malls, and fast-food restaurants can cause problems as well. Some types of areas can be either good or bad, depending on the tolerated use of the space. Parks can be places for children to play and for parents to socialize with neighbors, or they can be outdoor drug markets. Obviously, police have an important role to play in keeping the use of public spaces legitimate, but so do neighborhood residents.
Another way of looking at these ideas is to consider social cohesion. Social cohesion speaks to the idea that neighborhood residents know each other and care about each other. Because of this, they are willing to cooperate for the common good. Social cohesion is the “social glue” that holds neighborhoods together as neighborhoods. We know that there are some characteristics that increase social cohesion. High levels of homeownership is a good predictor because people that own their homes tend to stay put and form close friendships among neighbors. They also tend to make use of neighborhood social amenities, such as schools, libraries, churches, and parks. Social cohesion, then, can be viewed as the foundation of collective efficacy, which can be viewed as the extent to which people are willing to go to improve their neighborhood. When social cohesion and collective efficacy are absent, the usual result is a “bad neighborhood.”
Interestingly, researchers have found that people’s perceptions of social cohesion depend a lot on who they are. Homeowners, older residents, people who volunteer, and people who attend community meetings are much more likely to say that there is a high level of community cohesion in their neighborhood. Researchers have also found that renters, younger residents, women, and people who depend on income assistance are less likely to perceive collective efficacy in their neighborhoods.
Those that indicated a high level of collective efficacy in their neighborhoods believed that they had a responsibility to protect the neighborhood, and they also rated the quality of police services higher. This line of research also showed that people who perceived a higher level of social cohesion had less fear of crime. All of this taken together suggests that building up neighborhoods and improving quality of life can have an important impact on crime and fear of crime.
Serving Diverse Communities
It should be obvious that community policing cannot possibly work if officers are unable to engage community members in a fair and efficient way. For much of the nation’s history, white officers policed predominantly white communities, and minorities got along as best they could and frequently suffered in silence. As the 21st century dawned, that uneasy status quo was changing. As of the 2010 census, 37% of Americans indicated that they weren’t white. People of color are still collectively a minority, but, as the Census Bureau has long noted, that too is rapidly changing. They estimate that by 2060, people of color will comprise 60% of the total population of America. This data tells us that in the very near future, we will have to stop using the term majority as a synonym for white people.
The changing demographics of America suggest that police departments everywhere must come to grips with the fact that we are a multicultural society, and officers have to learn to deal with people of different cultures that may speak different languages. It has never been right, but maintaining a culture of trust and respect with a white majority alone is no longer even possible. If policing is to survive this cultural shift, police departments must learn to forge trust and cooperation with all Americans. We’ve known this shift needed to happen for many years, and we have a wealth of policy recommendations across the decades to prove that point. The President’s Task Force wasn’t innovative in many respects; we’ve had the necessary prescriptions since the police commissions that followed the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. What we have lacked is the will to adopt the spirit of those changes on our streets.
One of the most obvious ways in which police departments can improve relationships within diverse communities is to diversify the department. We’ve made great strides in this arena in recent decades, but as the Ferguson debacle painfully illustrated, there are pockets of white elitism that still need to be rooted out. Still, diversity among the police ranks is no longer sufficient in many areas. American diversity is becoming even more diverse across time. Whereas in the past most police conflicts that centered on race and ethnicity centered on Black versus White issues, many communities are truly multicultural with people of many national origins and cultures living and working in our urban centers.
Every officer needs to learn to appreciate diversity and work within a tapestry cultural framework. The idea of a “melting pot” is wrongheaded. For a long time, the dominant theory of “American culture” was essentially one of amalgamation. That is, we expected everyone who came to America from a different background to adopt “American” culture and social norms. I argue that the idea of an “American culture” is a myth. We’ve always had a wide array of cultural differences based on region, religious affiliation, and so forth.
The spirit of community policing and the spirit of the American constitution converge within the idea of equity. The essence of equity in America is the idea that all citizens should have a say in how they are governed. It is perhaps for this reason that community policing has been called “democracy in action.” In the community policing context, equity can be thought of as having several major facets. The first is equal access to services. This means that all citizens, regardless of race, religion, or personal characteristics, must have equal access to police services. This underscores the requirement of community policing that officers have respect for citizens and sensitivity to their needs. This requires that lines of communication must remain open with all partners in the policing effort. This means that those lines of communication must be established where they have not previously existed. The principle of equity dictates that favoritism cannot be tolerated and that departments have an obligation to monitor for it and root it out when it is found. Groups that are very vocal or politically powerful cannot be allowed to dominate the police agenda at the expense of other groups.
Equal treatment under the law is a Constitutional principle, and it also falls under the community policing principle of equity. Officers must treat every person according to the constitutional rules that every one of them has sworn to uphold. Careful attention to the constitutional rights of every person is critical in establishing trust and legitimacy within our communities. The principle of equity often goes further than the Bill of Rights. It requires officers to treat every person with dignity, respect, and impartiality.
This includes many people that have not always enjoyed that sort of treatment from police. The poor, the homeless, people of color, and the mentally ill have a long history of inequitable treatment by police. The principle means that police need to use communication skills, reason, and persuasion rather than coercion and force whenever possible. A basic understanding of human nature suggests that inequitable and harsh treatment leads to frustration, hostility, and violence. This sort of unethical behavior is antithetical to community policing and undermines its very core.
Every cop has been trained to understand that lying on the job is okay. The Supreme Court has affirmed that sometimes, in the course of a criminal investigation, “substantial trickery” may need to be employed. While deception may be a necessary evil in some types of criminal investigations, the practice should be avoided in everyday police work. The reason for this is obvious: building trust and legitimacy is a foundational principle of community policing, and nobody rational trusts a liar. Common sense and empirical support back up the thesis that people are more likely to comply with the law and police requests when they believe that the person asking has the legitimate authority to ask. Most cops tend to think that the law is somehow sacred, and the fact that something is part of a legal code means that people should find that to be sufficient reason to comply. The problem is that very few people actually think that way. Much stronger than legal codes is our personal sense of what is fair and just. When people perceive that a “lawful order” isn’t fair and just, they are much more likely to resist it. Even if they do comply with an order to avoid legal trouble, they resent it and hold a grudge if they don’t believe that it’s fair.
While the Supreme Court may allow officers to lie to the public to catch bad guys, it is a critical mistake to allow it without a very good justification. People need to have a sense that police are in their communities to protect them, not to occupy their communities and suppress them. Officers guided by the warrior ethos of the traditional model of policing are frequently regarded as occupying forces that people seek to be liberated from. The president’s Task Force suggests that police need to abandon the warrior ethos in favor of a “guardian” mindset. To effect this change, the Task Force recommends that agencies adopt procedural justice as the guiding principle for policies regarding police-citizen interactions. To my way of thinking, procedural justice is a bare minimum standard, but ensuring it is indeed a good start.
What I suggest is a 180-degree turn from the tradition of police lying to catch bad guys to a culture of what famed investor Ray Dalio calls “radical transparency.” Without transparency, the motives of the police can never be determined by the public, and there will always be a perception that police aren’t accountable to the public. Certain things—such as the details of an ongoing investigation—should remain secret in the best interest of justice, but very few things beyond that should be hidden behind the blue curtain. The public has a need to know exactly what police policies are, and departments need to admit it when officers violate the policy, and what is being done about the violation.
Another hallmark of community policing is an emphasis on community interactions with police. Of course, not all interactions are created equal. Police need to focus on positive interactions rather than the negative ones that are the norm with traditional policing. As with everything else related to police interactions with communities, levels of trust need to be measured and tracked across time and between neighborhoods.