When you see a police officer, what are your initial thoughts? Across America, police officers have become a Rorschach Test of sorts. From New York to New Orleans to Chicago to Minneapolis and west to Los Angeles, to mention the subject is to court controversy.
On one side of the divide, there are those who want, quite literally, to abolish the police. On the other end, there are those who go to great lengths to defend the police. They write detailed articles (see here and here) outlining the ways in which the “war on cops” is harming the country.
Then, there are those who want to “defund” the police.
Only, what — precisely — does “defund” mean?
Well, one is never quite sure.
As CBS notes, when it comes to the matter of defunding the police, advocates “are split on the question of how far it should go: whether to reduce funding and reform some aspects of policing, or completely abolish police forces as we know them.”
There is more certainty over what the debate isn’t about: Whether to reform police departments and police culture.
The question is: How?
There are general human problems that police officers face, though the problems manifest themselves in particular and even peculiar ways within police forces. Accounting for those will be a necessary part of any successful reform effort, and could well be a good place to start.
A big part of the problem with police culture is that forces are over-tasked.
Allowing trained social workers and psychologists to deal with non-policing activities, for example, could be a start. Creating more community support groups, which in turn would reduce the need for police intervention, is another possible avenue.
How, exactly, would it work?
A more nuanced approach to law enforcement
At least 20% of 911 calls involve a mental health or substance abuse issue. With close to a quarter of a billion 911 calls made each year, and mental health issues on the rise, more cities are turning to mental health professionals for assistance. In Phoenix, Arizona, as researchers at the Vera Institute note, there now exists a “comprehensive crisis response” unit as well as a Crisis Intervention Team.
“911 call-takers and dispatchers,” we’re told, “can refer crisis-related calls to a crisis line specialist who manages crises and makes referrals over the phone or deploys mobile crisis teams as needed, instead of police.”
These sorts of steps are not universally popular – not even within police departments or among officers – but the fact is that the average police officer is not as well-equipped to deal with mental health crises as are other professionals. That’s not a knock against police officers who are neither psychologists, nor social workers, though they are often expected to perform tasks proper to mental health and social welfare experts.
This is not fair on the public, and it’s certainly not fair on police officers.
As the Vera Institute researchers write, police officers “have been saying for years that they are asked to do too much. Why do we continue to ask them to respond to crisis calls that health professionals could address more safely and effectively?”
Discussions surrounding the police often lack one necessary ingredient, and that ingredient is nuance. In this age of extreme partisanship, polarization, and absolutism, nuance is often omitted from the conversation. Instead of making dangerous, generalized statements about the police, we must ask the following question: what can we as a society do to help officers perform more effectively?
To be more accurate, what policies can be introduced to ensure more effective policing? The symbiotic relationship between mental health experts and law enforcement in Phoenix is a welcome step – but it’s not enough. Other, more deep-rooted issues within the police force need to be addressed.
Take employee burnout, for example, a very real problem that affects a growing number of police officers. With support for law enforcement at an all-time low, 12-hour shifts the norm, and lack of support from politicians, the difficulties of being a police officer in America are clear for all to see.
Three steps to improvement
Leave aside, for just a moment, the cultural issues: for example, the perversion of the idea of a “blue brotherhood” – in its essence a beautiful and noble vision – which too frequently makes officers less than perfectly willing to call out their own; or, the related structural impediments to real police accountability.
Being a police officer is a dangerous, stressful job. It pretty much always has been. “Civilians” are occasionally given to say that people who aren’t interested in the work shouldn’t sign themselves up to do it — and they’re not exactly wrong — but they’re not exactly helpful, either.
Here are three things communities can do to make things better.
Hire more officers. This would have two effects, in reasonably short order. It would make it possible for officers to work less — shorter hours, fewer weekends and holidays on the job — and take time when they need it. It would offer a chance for departments to introduce changes to police culture “organically” through recruitment of a new generation of officers, who could learn from their seniors without being uncritically committed to the current cultural climate within forces. (A recent ruling by a judge in Minneapolis, for example, appears to recognize the problem.)
Increase officers’ pay. This is a trickier business, because there are lots of different reasons for the disparities between, e.g., Sunnydale, California – the “safest” city in the United States – and Detroit, Michigan – frequently called the most dangerous. Better compensation will make it possible to implement reforms to culture – will act as a spoonful of sugar, as it were – while allowing municipalities to be more discriminating in their hiring policies and more rigorous in applying discipline and oversight.
Coming up with the money for such measures will be difficult everywhere, but the need to meet the policy cost could also induce towns and cities to eschew the brandished military surplus that has contributed to the militarization of police forces. (Not a recent phenomenon. Think: Ferguson, Missouri, ca. 2014.)
All of this is little more than a back-of-a-napkin sketch — an exercise in thinking out loud — but one that’s premised on the twofold idea that police reform is (1) possible and (2) not a zero-sum game.
Finally, both measures would be fair. They would give officers things they need (and want) in order to get communities things they want (and need).
John Mac Ghlionn is a researcher and writer, whose work has appeared in leading publications including the South China Morning Post, Global Policy, The NY Post, The American Conservative, The Sydney Morning Herald, inter alia. He writes from Hong Kong.
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