Fixing American Policing
Adam J. McKee
This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.
My singular objective was to get something out there as fast as possible (within a calendar month) to help guide a conversation that America is already starting to have. Rage abounds, and some of the calls for police reform don’t make sense from a calmer vantage point of objectively seeking what works, and identifying what doesn’t work.
I sympathize with those calling for “defunding the police,” but this is a judgment clouded by anguish and righteous indignation. A racist criminal justice system is a grotesque thing, but total anarchy would be worse. The simple fact is that society needs police; we just need good ones. This book is not a revelation but rather a survey of what we already know but have failed to synthesize into a cohesive set of policy prescriptions and implement them.
The genesis of this book was a theoretical paper that I wrote with my colleague Dr. Andre Lewis. I use the pronoun “we” (in violation of the norms of formal academic writing) to acknowledge his contributions to the Partnership Perspective that is woven throughout this book. The original idea of applying that theoretical perspective to the world of policing was his, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude. He is, of course, blameless for the flaws contained in this presentation.
My goal in writing this book was to provide a survey of what experts know needs to be done to fix the American criminal justice system or at least the law enforcement end of it. As June 2020 draws to a close, the nation is in crisis. People of color are facing what USA Today writer Rick Jervis hailed as a “perfect storm of civil unrest.” Since mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a crushing blow to the American economy. To prevent the medical system (which was not at all prepared to deal with an epidemic) from collapsing under the sheer numbers of sick and dying Americans, America’s economy shut down.
Wall Street has since recovered (at least for a time), but Main Street is still struggling mightily. The bulk of the lost jobs reflected in the highest unemployment numbers since the Great Depression have fallen on the low-wage earners that could least afford it. This is a book on policing and injustice. Still, we must acknowledge the fact that persons of color are at a staggering economic disadvantage as they have always been in America. Mentioning these facts may seem unrelated to the purposes of this book, but most criminologists recognize that economic disparity and crime are intertwined. You cannot talk about criminal justice reform meaningfully without mentioning poverty.
It was against this backdrop of increasing poverty and desperation that America witnessed (via high-resolution video on social media) the life literally squeezed out of an African American man by a white police officer while other officers did nothing to stop the murderous assault, except threaten onlookers with pepper spray. A Minneapolis police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for over 8 minutes, with Mr. Floyd becoming unresponsive during the last few minutes of that terrible incident. He was later pronounced dead at the hospital.
Over the next few days, the streets of urban America erupted in protests that quickly morphed into riots and looting. Municipal officials across the country were taken aback by the visceral response of the protesters. The reaction was indeed different from other similar incidents. Three other high-profile cases of African Americans being killed by police raised voices of protest within the space of a year, but nothing with this degree of widespread outrage. The protests and rioting spilled over into many major cities and several smaller ones. Few of the peaceful demonstrations managed to stay that way for long.
Pleas from well-meaning civic leaders fell on deaf ears. Other leaders exacerbated the problem by making threats of yet more violence, even to the extent of illegally using federal troops to suppress the protesters. It seems that in this instance, sadness and grief have turned to bitter anger and resentment. This bitterness and resentment are not limited to the black community. People of all stripes are echoing an “enough is enough” sentiment.
Some (mostly privileged white people with no firsthand knowledge of America’s urban poor) choose to focus on the loss of property and perceived incivility of these “thugs.” Most people, it seems, are focusing on a criminal justice system that holds no justice for people of color, even unto death. It is this broad-based support—atypical solidarity—that gives many people hope for positive change in the way we police America.
My perspective on these issues is different than most. I’ve studied community policing and advocated it since the early 1990s. I served as an auxiliary deputy sheriff for nearly a decade. I’ve worked with university police departments and rural sheriff’s departments and done “ride-alongs” with cops in several U.S. cities, as well as London and Montreal. After I earned my Ph.D., I took a position teaching criminal justice, specializing in law enforcement topics. The insights that I’ve gained from these experiences have been very valuable in framing what needs to be done to fix our policing problems.
I’ve encountered a few racists that thought racial profiling represented “good police work,” but for the most part, cops are regular people that started out wanting to do some good in their local communities. There are some that gravitate toward the field because they are adrenaline junkies or bullies looking for a “power trip,” but those usually don’t last very long. Most of the problems in law enforcement have to do with systematic, structural problems and the culture that those problems have created. With over 18,000 police agencies in the United States, not all of these problems will apply to every agency.
I’ve found that rural sheriff’s departments in the Deep South (counterintuitively) are somewhat immune from many of these problems because county sheriffs are elected, and people of color really matter in election outcomes. What I say in this book may or may not apply to your local department, and that should be up to individual communities to decide. I will make one big generalization about this: The farther removed an agency is from the court of public opinion, the more likely it is that residents will hate their police. In our major urban centers, police tend to be protected by labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy and powerful unions. There are many mechanisms whereby communities can be given a voice, but without that voice, we see a massive chasm between communities and the police.