American policing is infected with a cynicism towards the very people it is supposed to protect. State and federal law enforcement see the dark, ugly and dangerous side of humanity on a daily basis. They are also trained from a militarized perspective to overwhelm and control. These realities create a mindset to control, not to protect, the very public they are sworn to serve. That law enforcement instinct to control inevitably evolves into an assumed right to control by any means necessary.
From 2015 through 2022, police in America killed more than 8,000 people, averaging more than 1,000 each year. Most of those killings were labeled justifiable homicides, given the circumstances of each case. But each year, increasing numbers of police killings are not justified from either a legal or practical perspective. A hamburger or a cell phone mistaken for a gun by ill-trained or shoot-to-kill-minded officers has taken the lives of too many innocent people.
It is both the sheer volume and the nature of police killings that has eroded public confidence and trust in the nation’s law enforcement systems. In many communities, police are now seen as a danger, not a protector. Parents, especially those of color, must give their children a crash course on protecting themselves in police encounters.
What can be done to change this increasing social crisis?
Concerned public safety groups, like the People For The American Way Foundation (“PFAW”), have identified “four key areas” that, if implemented by state and local governments, would not only improve the professionalism of policing but would enhance public safety as well. Those key areas are:
- Restructuring public safety by eliminating over-reliance on armed response to address a range of public safety issues.
- Holding officers who engage in misconduct accountable by ensuring that unfit officers can be identified and disciplined.
- Removing officers found unfit for duty by establishing reliable processes to permanently remove unprofessional or dangerous officers.
- Recruiting better officers, changing recruitment to focus on positive traits, and enhancing pre-employment screening.
These four critical strategies aimed at public safety and accountability, along with a holistic focus on community development, could significantly improve public safety and effective policing.
In addition, state and local governments should invest more in public health and human services, adopt comprehensive mental health programs, create and find affordable housing and employment opportunities for the vulnerable, and utilize alternatives to mass incarceration for non-dangerous property and drug offenses.
None of these governmental efforts, either standing alone or collectively, would endanger public safety. In fact, it would free police from being “first responders” in mental health crises and non-violent domestic disputes and better allow them to protect public safety from dangerous criminal activity.
Police are not equipped, either through training or temperament, to be mental health experts, substance abuse counselors, or referees in neighbor disputes that make up most of 911 emergency calls. Only 1 percent of 911 calls in major cities are to report violent crimes in progress, and less than a third involve life-threatening situations, according to the Vera Institute.
Crisis response teams for mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence intervention, strengthened through training and funding, could handle an overwhelming majority of 911 emergency calls. These strategic changes would remove law enforcement from these social problems and allow the police to build greater public trust by protecting society from violent or life-threatening criminal activity.
Social crises, not dangerous criminal activity, create the focal point of most unnecessary police conflict each day. Decades of inappropriate law enforcement responses to these crises have not only eroded public confidence in policing but have changed the very concept of policing in this country. The Opportunity Agenda explains:
“Police officers should be accountable public servants who work collaboratively, transparently, and fairly with all of the communities they serve. Too often, police departments and officers violate their role in the community and abuse their power by engaging in acts of excessive force; acting in an increasingly militarized capacity; abusing asset forfeiture policies; and routinely stopping and frisking entire communities, among other practices that treat individuals as Justice Sotomayor decried, ‘not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.’”
To save America from militarized guardians bent on controlling society and beginning the process of restoring public confidence in legitimate policing, PFAW identifies areas of concern that need reform:
- Over-policing is often encouraged by the emphasis on meeting quotas in evaluating police performance.
- Quotas foster harassment by police within marginalized communities that have little political capital; for example, they contributed to disproportionately high ticketing and arrests of Black residents in Ferguson, Missouri.
- Anti-quota legislation is an important start toward removing incentives for racially-based policing.
- Decertification—revoking a law enforcement officer’s police license—can be an effective tool in removing officers involved in wrongdoing.
- Decertification laws vary significantly by state.
- Many state laws, and union contracts, make it challenging to remove offenders from the police force permanently; twenty states require a criminal conviction before an officer can be decertified.
- In many instances, state certifying commissions are unaware of decertifiable conduct. Only half of states require police departments to report to their state Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST), or another comparable state agency, any conduct that could lead to decertification.
- While state decertification prevents intrastate rehiring of officers whose licenses have been revoked, hiring those officers in other states remains a possibility.
- In 1999, the nonprofit International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (“IADLEST”) created the National Decertification Index (NDI) to solve this interstate rehiring problem.NDI is a private national database of officers who have been decertified.
- The NDI needs to be more utilized. Only around 3,500 of the 18,000 local law enforcement agencies in the United States regularly query the NDI when they are considering hiring new officers.
- Federal pressure—such as withholding grant money—would effectively incentivize states to query the NDI when making hiring decisions.
Changing the mindset of police departments and holding bad officers accountable for unprofessional conduct is imperative. These are not burdensome corrective steps for law enforcement agencies committed to “protect and serve” communities. The key is for law enforcement agencies to recognize the need for change and implement fundamental changes spelled out by PFAW and other groups.
The willingness to change is the first step toward meaningful reform.