The blue wall, competency, fragmentation, the broken windows approach, and much more must all be addressed to make cultural change.
Our black community hurts, and finally, America is hurting with them. It seems as if everyone demands change. It’s simple to see that George Floyd shouldn’t have died, but reforming law enforcement across 18,000 jurisdictions is not simple and is not easy.
Minneapolis has decided to defund and abolish its police department, looking for a new model. They envision a massive divestment in policing, shifting resources to social services. Whatever replaces the Minneapolis Police Department will face the same dilemmas that face police departments today unless the new organization is carefully crafted.
Culture drives behavior; leadership, environment, and experience drive culture!
Whether reforming or reimagining, change won’t be sustained unless the culture changes too. Legislation alone will not change police culture; it’s a good start, but we run the risk of passing a few laws, congratulating ourselves, and returning to our old ways.
I have been trained in law enforcement, worked as a cop in the Air Force, associated with dozens of civilian law enforcement officers over the years, studied law enforcement as an academic, and teach graduate classes in Criminal Justice and Ethics. Each issue is related to the others, and all of them have to be recognized and addressed in a synchronized manner.
The blue wall
Cops cover for each other. The ‘blue wall’ is real. It’s nearly unavoidable. Humans are imperfect; they cut corners and make mistakes. Every workplace develops ‘thick relationships’ between co-workers.
We learn from our youngest years not to tattle. Maybe a coworker takes a long lunch one day. Then it happens again. Then everyone starts doing it. In an office, when long lunches get out of hand, the boss yells at everyone and they get back to work. In law enforcement, when the use of force gets out of hand, you stare at the bodies.
Citizen complaints and lawsuits are a fact of life for police officers. But some officers go years at a time between complaints, and some rack them up routinely. From 2013 to 2019, the 800 sworn officers of the Minneapolis police had 3,000 citizen complaints, and Chauvin earned twelve. Chauvin was an outlier with his dozen, plus involvement in several shootings. With this pattern, how many other incidents did his fellow officers witness? How many times was he extra rough on a suspect, and callous to victims? How many other times did he draw his pistol on teenagers with nerf guns?
A few years ago I had the honor to address a class of cops graduating from technical training in the US Air Force. I told them they had the same responsibility as surgeons, to be perfect every time because lives are at stake. Chris Rock put it better in Tamborine:
I know it’s hard being a cop. I know it’s hard. I know that shit’s dangerous. I know it is, ok? But some jobs can’t have bad apples. Ok Some jobs, everybody gotta be good. Like…pilots.
You know, American Airlines can’t be like, “Most of our pilots like to land. We just got a few bad apples…that like to crash into mountains. Please bear with us.
Creating outside review boards and similar measures to investigate are good ideas, but we have to start with the culture, the internal controls that make police want to behave well.
Creating a highly ethical culture where police can both depend on each other absolutely, yet hold each other rigidly accountable requires investment. It takes a combination of clear rules, training, and reinforcement.
Recruits must be formally taught, but more importantly, must be properly socialized. All the training in the world will not help if a rookie cop starts his first day on the job and hears “Forget about what you learned at the academy, this is how it’s really done.” Then, ethical guidelines must be sustained and reinforced throughout a police officer’s career.
Police competency: Were they drunk? Or stupid?
In the 1988 movie Tequila Sunrise, an older grizzled city cop counsels a young hotshot that just screwed up. The veteran explained that he recommends his men drink bourbon and scotch, rather than vodka because he wants people to know that his men were drunk, not stupid.
In Minneapolis in 2018, Justine Ruszczyk, a white Australian woman, called the police for help. As the patrol arrived, she approached the side door of the car. Officer Mohamed Noor, a black man whose parents had emigrated from Somalia, was startled and shot Ms. Ruszczyk, killing her. Officer Noor was tried, convicted, and sentenced to twelve years in prison.
Leaving aside the question of whether he would have been found at fault and tried so quickly if he had been a white officer shooting a black woman, what does this say about the police? Noor had been trained in a seven-month, fast-track, immersive program designed to get cops, particularly minority cops, out on the street quicker. He had just twenty-one months on the job, and his partner that night barely had a year of service.
Race played likely played no part in the incident. In the dark, in a split second, Officer Noor might not have been able to discern sex or race; Ruszczyk startled his partner, and Noor reacted. As we try to reform the police, how do we separate too quick on the trigger because of race from simply too quick on the trigger?
Competency is intertwined with the issue of police use of force and must be addressed along with the socialization process. No matter how critical a department perceives the need to have more cops on the street, to be out there doing the job, having fewer patrols is preferable to having poorly trained officers on the street.
The fragmented nature of policing
How do we drive cultural change in a few large organizations? How do we drive cultural change in thousands of small organizations? How do we do it all at once?
When we speak of police reform, we talk as if the policing were monolithic and uniform throughout the country. Instead, a vast and diverse landscape of police agencies faces the reformer. The New York Police Department weighs in at roughly 36K officers, followed by Chicago at just over 13K and Los Angeles with nearly 10K.
Midsize cities show a lot of variety in manning too. Savannah, Georgia, with two 210K citizens has eight hundred officers; Irvine, California has two hundred officers for 217K citizens. At the bottom end, small towns like Venus, Texas with 3K citizens might only have a dozen police. Smaller towns have even less.
This leaves out the dozens of different varieties of other local, state, and federal agencies. The Veterans Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, and numerous other federal agencies maintain their own police departments. At the local level, major universities have police departments, as do school districts, transit authorities, and even hospitals.
In this scattered landscape, fifty states plus territories set minimum standards for hiring and training, which each agency then tailors. It is inaccurate and unfair to say that policing has not changed, improved, and evolved in the last decades, but this landscape precludes uniform progress.
To truly reform policing, we may need to set national standards for training, to include on-the-job training and apprenticeship. Meaningful change in other standards, like the use of force, must also be driven from the top. At the very, the federal government should provide a blueprint, and states should adopt and enforce the blueprint, with audits and monitoring of every agency in their state.
Some states require no formal law enforcement training for sheriffs (though they typically do for deputies). Consider an elected sheriff in a rural county, with less than a dozen employees. Even with the best of intentions, understanding and keeping up with the intricacy of law and best practices is daunting. Some sheriffs departments will be models of modern, citizen-oriented policing and some sheriffs departments will miss the mark by a wide margin.
Broken Windows policing
In 1982, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduced the ‘broken windows’ theory to the world. They illustrated the example with a broken window; seeing a building with one window pane broken, people may believe that it is acceptable to throw another rock and break another window. Soon, all the windows are broken, the doors are kicked in, and the building is covered in graffiti. Kelling & Wilson postulated that fixing the first window sends the message that buildings are expected to be in repair and dissuades further vandalism.
New York was the prototypical adopter. The extension to this was to crack down on problems like loitering, vagrancy, marijuana possession, vandalism, and other minor crimes. At the same time, zero-tolerance policies for weapons contraband were implemented. A key tool in the toolbox was the Terry Stop, also known as stop-and-frisk. The relevant law generally allows police to handcuff and search people for reasonable suspicion that they may be involved in a crime, not the much higher standard of probable cause required for a formal search or arrest.
In the first years of this century, New York City made hundreds of thousands of Terry stops, peaking at 684K per year in 2011. The police did not distribute these searches evenly across the cities eight million residents; they concentrated the searches among people most likely to have been involved in crimes. If you were a black male teen during these years, your experience is more likely than not of being stopped by the police on ‘suspicion,’ placed in handcuffs, and searched.
Supporters of broken windows efforts point to New York City’s crime drop. Crime in the city today sits at around a third of the early 1990s peak year. The murder rate is down eighty percent from its peak. But crime in other major cities also dropped dramatically over the last thirty years, and crime in New York City had further to fall than most.
Regardless of whether Broken Windows works in the form implemented around the country, professionals and citizens believe that it works. What will happen if families again become afraid to go to parks because of large rowdy crowds and drug use? What happens when store owners become frustrated with removing graffiti for the hundredth time?
The crime drop improved the quality of life for everyone except those who were pulled over every week because they drove a car that fit a profile. If minor crime resurges, the public will demand enforcement of quality of life offenses. Ending broken windows would be easy, except for the fact that quality of life enforcement is not a trick dreamed up by the police in order to be more repressive, but rather a response to public demands.
The balance will be to enforce laws against vandalism, urinating in public, and the like without putting a million people per year into handcuffs on ‘reasonable suspicion’ and then searching them for officer safety. There is no reason that this problem requires a binary, either/or solution.
Even if released after they typical twenty minutes, that piece of routine business for the police leaves an undeniable imprint on the mind of the one detained. If it happens a dozen times, it will scar the soul.
The truths listed are just the first four. There are many more challenges facing an effective, end to end reform of the criminal justice system.
- Prison reform-Not just reducing incarceration but reforming the function of jails and prisons themselves, many of which are plagued by low morale and pay on the staff and violence among the inmates
- Sentencing reform- The First Step Act, a bipartisan effort supported by President Trump, made a start in sentencing reform, but room for improvement exists
- Reintegration-How do we bring former criminals back into society? Can we restore Pell Grants to prisoners to reduce recidivism? How do we incentivize companies to hire felons into appropriate positions?
Perhaps the thorniest problem of all for a just policing regime is crime reduction. Legend has it that when asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton replied “Because that’s where the money is.” Our policing methods need improvement but do not cause larceny, robbery, assault, and murder. As long as minority neighborhoods in the urban core experience more crime, then minorities will experience more contact with police.
We cannot ignore persistent urban problems like poor schools, lack of jobs, lack of access to grocery stores, poorly designed neighborhoods, lack of transit, and many more.
Addressing the problems laid out here will require the sustained and systematic implementation of best practices. Pockets of policing have solved some of the problems, but we must collect those solutions and implement them at scale across eighteen thousand agencies. Further, we cannot disregard fiscal realities because they are, well…realities.
On the other hand, there are organizations like Campaign Zero which propose an integrated set of solutions for reform. Some of their solutions may be unworkable and some of their proposals will have a deleterious effect on enforcement without providing much reduction in violence. Regardless, there is a coherent vision out there, and debating which specifics to implement beats posturing and willful ignorance.
In the near term, the #8CANTWAIT proposals from 8cantwait.org are a good place to start.
Ban chokehold and strangleholds
Require warning before shooting
Require exhausting all alternative before shooting
Duty to intervene
Ban shooting at moving vehicles
Require use of force continuum
Require comprehensive reporting
Implemented as guiding principles and applied with discretion and common sense, these simple rules will reduce near term harm while we develop internal and external controls and reimagine the future.
Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.