In a survey released in 2016, 70% of Americans expressed a favorable attitude towards police. At the same time, almost half of Americans expressed the belief that “most” police officers think they are above the law. With the more recent tragedies involving police shooting, and the deaths of unarmed black citizens like George Floyd, many communities, especially communities of color are calling for the defunding of police agencies. And it’s not just people of color who are being killed by police. The New York Times recently had an article about how, in rural communities, which are populated mostly by whites, excessive police force has led to a high number of police-involved shootings and deaths.
Is this a reasonable solution to the problem of excessive force by the police, given that evidence is accumulating that people are unnecessarily dying as a result of aggressive police tactics?
First, some facts. Though violent crime has significantly decreased since the early 1990s when it became a crisis, especially in the cities, there’s been a recent uptick in crime that researchers associate with the Covid-19 pandemic and with related high unemployment and underemployment. Still some scholars attribute crime reductions to increased police presence. Others attribute it to the 1994 Crime Bill that ushered the COPS program with an increased number of prisons. In turn, we’ve witnessed an increased militarization of the police with, for example, the use of para-military SWAT teams and no-knock drugs enforcement raids. There has been an increase in the overall level of police use of command-and-control tactics in the fight against crime (stop and frisk, e.g.). Over the last several decades, these approaches may be related to the overall reduction of crimes, but they are also likely associated in the increased number of officer-involved killings. So, what to do?
Three Remedies to Consider
1. Provide adequate training, to include de-escalation strategies
“We have one of the worst police-training academies in comparison to other democratic countries,” claims Maria Haberfeld, a police-science professor at John Jay College. In many European nations, for instance, police training requires up to three or four years to complete, whereas in the United States, only months of training are required. And among the 18,000 police departments in the U.S., the amount of training varies widely. In rural communities with limited financial resources, training is especially truncated.
American police training is like military training, with an emphasis on the paramount importance of hierarchy and following the chain of command, and forcefully taking charge of all situations.
Clearly sometimes this is what’s required, if for instance, police are in the throes of conducting a dangerous assignment such as a drug bust with potentially violent dealers. But, as Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum noted, in many situations, officers need to step back, assess the lay of the land and the level of risk. This perspective runs counter to training that values absolute obedience to authority, as one must in military-like contents. But in police work, the context is different: the individual that the officer is encountering is not an enemy combatant, but a fellow citizen. Mr. Wexler believes that unnecessary violence occurs because officers incorrectly perceive lethal threats. Police, he told the Atlantic, “should be trained to be sympathetic, to be guardians, rather than warriors.” Or at least they should have the wherewithal to assess which stance is called for. True, decisions in the field require a quick assessment, but that’s why comprehensive training and adequate supervision of new officers are crucial.
And finally, as a dimension of office training, most experts agree that their curriculum should be broadened. David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh advocates that police academies educate about the history of policing and the role of police in a democratic society. This kind of education would go a long way towards developing a broader and deeper understanding in the budding officer of his or her role in society, and the problems faced by its citizens.
2. Address officer wellness and stress
In anonymous surveys, about 80 percent of officers report that they suffer from chronic stress, depression or anxiety. Many struggle with relationship problems and anger control. This, in a culture that fosters a machismo persona and views emotional pain as a sign of weakness. Instead of seeking psychological assistance, many choose alcohol as a remedy. Indeed, one out of six officers report problems with alcohol abuse.
Some researchers have proposed that quarterly mental health consultation be mandatory for officers. Unless there’s a shift in the culture of policing, mental health care will still be associated with a stigma. A change in attitude would need to begin at the academy, when officers-in-training are acculturated into an awareness of the emotional hazards of police work and the acceptance of mental health treatment as a resource.
3. Community policing
Community policing would occur organically if officers lived in the cities they were policing. Then officers would experience the community not simply as an officer on duty, but as a neighbor or at least as someone from the surrounding locale who has an appreciation of and an identification with the broader community. This would more likely happen naturally if officers shopped at the same malls where they patrolled, ate at the restaurants, sent their kids to the local schools, etc. One problem with this kind of community policing is that many officers, especially in urban –city areas, tend to live a distance from where they work because of the prohibitive cost of living in urban areas
Police Funding: What Should Be Done?
Given the above set of considerations, the answer to the question seems clear: To address the problem of police violence and misconduct, we must positively impact police culture by providing training that is comprehensive in depth and breadth; we must improve officer wellness; and we must foster a closer identity between officers and the members of the community they serve.
Such a transformation requires funding for police departments to be increased.
Ekins, Emily E. “Policing in America: Understanding public attitudes toward the police. Results from a national survey.” Results from a National Survey (December 7, 2016).
Lettieri, Richard (2021) Decoding Madness: A Forensic psychologist explores the criminal mind. Prometheus Books. (See chapter 12.)