Fixing American Policing
Adam J. McKee
CHAPTER 8: Professionalism
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.
By the nature of the public trust given to police, officers are natural role models. Departments must strive for a high degree of professionalism at all times, and this goal must be achieved not only through the development of policy but by embedding professionalism into the very culture of the department. It must be acknowledged by governments, citizens, and police themselves that policing is not merely a “job” or “trade.” Policing is a profession. Cox (2010) defines a profession as follows: “a profession is defined by: (1) a body of knowledge, (2) ethical guidelines, and (3) a professional organization with a growing set of published papers and best practices” (p. 7). This definition suggests that quality police training is necessary and prudent and that America should allocate more resources to that noble cause. It also suggests a broad swath of knowledge and skills that are not amenable to the training environment. Both training and education are required for the demanding profession of policing.
University education for police should include appreciation for diversity, a well-developed set of written and verbal communication skills (including conflict resolution), and in-depth knowledge of criminal and procedural law. Most Americans would be appalled at the suggestion that nurses be allowed to practice without formal education; the stakes are too high, and doing the job incorrectly can result in pain, misery, and death. That same society is inexplicably comfortable with giving a staggering amount of authority and power (along with firearms and other weapons) to police officers without the benefit of a college education. We call for a heightened standard of police education that would ultimately require that all police officers be college-educated. By “college-educated,” we mean a broad-based liberal education, not a technical education that focuses on traditional law enforcement procedures and tactics. In addition, we also call upon the criminal justice higher education community to revise the curriculum to achieve uniform standards that include cognate areas of study outside of what has traditionally been considered “criminal justice courses.”
We are not so bold as to suggest a model curriculum but will identify communication, diversity, social welfare, technology, data analysis, systems thinking, and second languages as areas in which police officers would benefit greatly. Academics have asked police officers to “think outside of the box” for decades; it is time some educators think outside of their course offerings and expand their “box” to cognate areas that will make officers safer and more competent on the street. Many criminal justice programs are already doing much in this arena. However, there remains a large swath of police programs that focus on tactical and procedural applications without due concern for the cognate areas identified above. To this end, we suggest that a national body, such as the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, develop best practices that expand university criminal justice curricula beyond the criminal justice core.
Why Training Fails
Often, police training fails because of the simple fact that no one takes it seriously. We must remember that any training is viewed through the lens of culture, and any training that is not considered congruent with “real policing” by officers will be ignored as much as possible. Further, most police training is conducted by senior officers or retired cops. They tend to view the training through that same cultural lens, and training standards for things like racial profiling prevention are quite low.
Another problem is that because of the cultural lens through which police view training, they tend to focus on what has been described as “tacti-cool.” That is, high-action training that involves fighting and shooting is well received by officers, and that in turn tends to be the type of training that departments focus on. Nobody wants to attend training on the “boring stuff,” and nobody wants to teach those classes. This, however, is problematic. As The Atlantic journalist, Seth W. Stoughton (2014) observed,
“There have been too many lives lost to police killings. Too many phone calls telling families that their loved ones, particularly young black men, won’t be coming home. But in most cases, it isn’t because individual police officers are consciously racist or think black lives don’t matter. It is because officers perform the way they are trained to perform.”
Rethinking Police Culture
As Shawn Vestal (2020) of the Spokesman-Review so eloquently put it,
“Culture is stronger than training. It’s stronger than policy and rhetoric. It’s stronger than leadership. It’s stronger than public displays of virtue, more powerful than lip service, and line-dancing in the park. Inside our stubborn, systemic national crisis of race and policing lie deep patterns of culture, against which reforms may simply crash and fall away.”
Vestal goes on to say that the problem is resistance to change in the culture and a current satisfaction with prior reforms. Specifically, he states, “the particular problem with the culture of police accountability in Spokane leadership, from the top of the police department to the mayor’s office and beyond into county law enforcement, is that it is now self-satisfied, complacent and defensive, filled with a sense of accomplishment and a clearly expressed fatigue with anyone who questions that record.” His comments were directed at the Spokane, Washington police department, but these observations hold much truth across America’s major urban police departments.
The core issue is that the police and the public are at cross purposes when it comes to reform. The police want to tweak policies and practices and feel like they have done so in good faith, while the public (a plurality anyway) wants to see radical changes in the way policing is done. The problem with this is that when the problem of police reform is viewed from two such disparate vantage points, common solutions cannot be found. Often, departments are acting in good faith in their attempts to satisfy public criticism. Vestal is a notable exception in identifying the dominant police culture as the real culprit. Viewed from that lens, real change that will satisfy the public is possible, but not easy.
Change from the Inside
By this point, it may have become obvious that incremental changes in the police culture from the “inside” will not happen because it cannot happen. The structure of policing will not allow it because that structure reinforces a toxic culture. Rigid, militaristic command structures keep well-meaning officers “in their place.” Systems that reward officers for making arrests—whether or not there is a social benefit to making the arrest—preserve the status quo. Part of the police culture is secrecy and closing the ranks to outsiders.
I recall my early days as an auxiliary deputy before many local officers knew me. When the deputy I was on patrol with and I approached a group of officers, the conversation abruptly stopped. After the deputy I was with explained that I was “one of us,” the conversation resumed. There wasn’t anything insidious in that conversation; it was just the cultural norm that “police business” wasn’t to be discussed with outsiders. That was the first time I realized there was a distinct police subculture, and that it was a closed culture.
A major part of the indoctrination process is how training is done. Police academies are run largely by retired cops. Policing is a physically demanding profession, and officers tend to retire much earlier than other professions, so many of these instructors are in their early to mid-50s. They are run essentially like military “boot camps.” There is a rigid command structure, and you learn quickly to do what you are told without hesitation. A large percentage of your academy time is spent doing aggressive physical training and watching videos of cops being murdered.
The mantra “It’s better to be judged by twelve than carried by six” is pounded into your head over and over again. This, of course, refers to the twelve jurors you may face from being overly aggressive versus the six pallbearers that carry your coffin if you allow a bad guy to get the upper hand. This attitude is exacerbated by the legal idea of qualified immunity that we treat more in-depth elsewhere. This legal doctrine essentially says that officers can’t be held personally liable for conduct in an official capacity. This puts the burden of the wrongful deaths of citizens on the taxpayer, not the officer responsible.
One of the most important thought leaders in the arena of “force science” is Col. Dave Grossman. Grossman developed a metaphor for the roles of citizens, police, and criminal predators in our society. In this metaphor, the predators are the wolves. They are ravenous and dangerous and prey on the people, which are the sheep. The only safety for the sheep comes from the sheepdogs, which are the police. This way of thinking, while appropriate in situations where deadly force is an imminent danger, can have unintended consequences when it is carried so far as to become a philosophy of policing. The problem is that if criminals are generically wolves, they can’t also be sheep. Under this dichotomy, all criminals are something besides normal people and are unworthy of the protections of the justice system. Their inherent criminality makes them less than human, even when their crimes are mere code violations that do not involve violence.
As mentioned repeatedly in this little book, violence is a cornerstone of traditional policing and police culture. Officers are trained to regard their force monopoly as a point of fierce pride. This element is such an important part of the culture that officers often wish for a deadly encounter so that they can test their mettle. Police training must teach officers to use violence effectively and how to legally employ that violence. Our society cannot reasonably exist if someone does not take on that role. When there is an active shooter in an elementary school, we need someone who has the courage and training to shoot back. In an ideal world, we would have less-than-lethal weapons capable of instantaneously neutralizing a treat, such as “phasers set to stun” from Star Trek lore.
The state of the art today, however, dictates that the best way to immediately stop a deadly threat is the massive trauma caused by a bullet. When the government takes on the monopoly of the lawful use of force, then someone—a flesh and blood person—has to see that work done. Yet, in more departments and training rooms than not, the culture has gone far beyond that. Many officers are trained to seek out violence as a test of manhood, and inadvertently taught to suppress empathy. When your conscious and subconscious drives are to seek out bad guys, then you tend to find them everywhere. The ingrained narrative of the police culture then is one of warrior heroes that live to protect the ignorant, unappreciative sheep from being eviscerated by the wolves. Such a powerful narrative, once internalized, cannot be removed by those individuals that have internalized it. To effectively change policing in America today, the change must come from the outside.
Impediments to Change
As we have already mentioned, many rank-and-file police officers don’t like the community policing idea because it is inconsistent with what they believe is the police job. Resistance does not just come from the bottom of police organizations, however. The friction created by mid-level managers has thwarted community-policing projects in several cities. The problem for these managers inherent in community policing is to flatten the management hierarchy and empower officers on the street to solve community problems. Managers near the middle of the organizational hierarchy view this as authority being taken from them. Possibilities for promotion for middle managers are limited by decreasing management layers. To achieve buy-in from middle managers, it is necessary to provide incentives for them to embrace community policing.
There is a general sense among mid-level managers that their job is keeping the rank-and-file officers in line. As Wesley Skogan reflects, “This also makes senior managers very nervous. They worry about laziness, corruption, racial profiling, and excessive force, and they do not trust rank-and-file officers on any of those dimensions.” It must be remembered that most police officers work alone, and managers have very little knowledge of what those officers are doing on the street. There seems to be a consensus on the police management literature that police managers don’t trust police officers to do the right thing without direct oversight. These managers view increases in officer autonomy and discretion as a threat to their careers, so they remain risk-averse.
A major problem with many community policing programs is that they were programs, not departmental paradigm shifts. Various strategies have met with limited success because the preexisting culture within the department resented community policing officers who seemed to be given favor, yet didn’t do “real police work.” In some cities, that resistance was so strong that complete parallel command structures had to be implemented. The new community policing advocated in this book cannot exist as a specialized program or a specialized unit within the traditional command structure. The entire department must adopt the new philosophy, and those that cannot adjust to the new reality must seek work elsewhere. There is no place in a police department for officers that cannot let go of the authoritarian, militaristic command structures of the past.
From the above discussion, it is apparent that community policing often failed in the past because it was resisted at every level of the police department. Often, change was forced on the department from the outside, and members of the department viewed it as a political storm that would pass. In many cases, that assessment was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If no one truly accepted the community policing philosophy and retained the old goal of “catching bad guys” as the prime function of police, then community policing was doomed from the very beginning. A major impediment to adoption at all levels is that individual officers, no matter their place in the department’s hierarchy, felt like they were being asked to do things that were outside of their training and their expertise and that community policing consisted of lots of extra stuff that was layered on top of their traditional roles. Careful planning and execution can do much to eliminate much of this resistance.
The degree to which opposition to community policing by police unions is an issue that varies widely from city to city in America. States vary widely in the extent to which police officers can be represented by unions and the degree to which those unions can threaten job action. Nevertheless, as Wesley Skogan noted, “in many big cities, they are a force to be reckoned with.” In some urban centers, unions actually backed the move toward community policing and retained a voice on wages, benefits, working conditions, and officer safety. This was by no means the universal response. In other cities, unions decided to attack the program and protested strongly against it. Many argued that community policing was just “social work,” and that the community policing training was intended to instill “political correctness” in officers.
Unions that stood against community policing went so far as to threaten to keep officers from appearing at community policing training events. In a particular instance (as described by Wesley Skogan) as “a compromise, they agreed to tolerate one day of training, in place of the three-day training sessions that had been planned. At the time, they were hoping to move to a four-day workweek, which they later achieved.”
The knee-jerk reaction is often for reformers to say, “Get rid of the unions!” This sounds good but isn’t so easy to accomplish in practice. Many cities have contracts with police unions, and those contracts are often complex documents that stipulate work rules, performance standards, and personnel policies that can and often do run afoul of the organizational change that the transformation to a community policing organization requires. These contracts tie the hands of managers to make necessary decisions about staffing. Often, contracts require that officers be granted assignments according to seniority. Community policing requires continuity of neighborhood officers and is impossible to achieve when officers can move beats on a whim, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the public’s best interest.
Elsewhere in this book, I have attempted to make clear that much of the community enhancement work that police can do is as service brokers rather than directly providing services. When a public entity already exists to deal with a problem, the police must cooperate with that entity to alleviate the problem once it is identified. While “community government” is beyond the scope of this book, it is necessary to mention that the police can’t do community policing alone. The entirety of the city government must back the effort, and functional cooperative relationships between all municipal agencies must be established.
In the past, community policing efforts have been derailed because city leaders allowed the movement to stall in the police department, and didn’t force community policing to become the responsibility of the entire city. Bureaucratic organizations are resistant to change, and even more resistant to having their duties expanded. This resistance to forming problem-solving partnerships can be one of the biggest impediments to community policing. If community policing is envisioned as a police program that the police alone must execute, is will ultimately fail.