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Real solutions to the policing culture problem

In this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 27, 2023, Tyre Nichols leans against a car after a brutal attack by five Memphis Police officers on Jan. 7, in Memphis. Officer Demetrius Haley, who is standing bent over in front of Nichols, is seen taking photographs of Nichols, which he sent to other officers and a female acquaintance. The new revelation about Haley’s actions were released Tuesday, Feb. 7, in documents that provide a scathing account of what authorities called the “blatantly unprofessional” conduct of the officers involved in the fatal beating of Nichols. (City of Memphis via AP)

The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols after a stop by Memphis police officers shines a bright light, once again, on the deep cultural defects of too many police forces. The persistence of unjustifiable police violence has understandably sown deep doubt about whether policing can ever be fixed.

Fortunately, local and state-led solutions to policing’s culture problem do exist, and some reforms have had a positive impact. They should not be tossed aside even as we feel outrage over yet another senseless police killing.

To fix police culture today, it is important to understand its history.

At the turn of the last century, police culture was largely shaped by local political bosses, patronage, and corruption before police were “professionalized” in their training, qualifications, and command structure. Police chief-led departments replaced the fractured localized forces of the early 20th century, and police officers received specialized training to mold them into objective law enforcers. With these changes, local political bosses and their culture of corruption lost their influence and policing experienced perhaps its greatest single cultural and identity shift.

However, by the 1970s, public outrage over abusive policing began to rise, spurring a national push toward “community policing” in which police were meant to be public servants of their communities. This movement emphasized greater racial and gender diversity within department ranks, improved civilian oversight of policing, and better accountability against bad officers, reforms that departments across the country adopted in some form or another, albeit with differing levels of commitment.

Although data on these reforms is hard to come by, there are signs that, in at least some places, they have had a significant impact. An in-depth study of Chicago’s police department between 2012-2015, for example, revealed that Black officers and female officers used force and made discretionary arrests at a significantly lower rate than white male officers, even when controlling for patrol area and shift. Additionally, some studies indicate a correlation between effective civilian oversight and reduced racial disparity and police-involved killings, and others link reduced police accountability with greater rates of abuse of power and police violence.

So, although we can and should criticize police reform policies to date for their largely incrementalistic approaches and slow pace, we should not dismiss them entirely. Just as early 20th century policing demanded a fundamental change in how we train, manage, and oversee our police, so, too, does early 21st century policing. Three critical remedies stand out.

First, much like it took a centralized approach to eradicate the early patronage system of policing, states—and not just cities—must administer policing through a centralized regulatory body that is up to the task of setting and enforcing minimum standards of conduct and practice among officers. Every state already has some version of this kind of body, but they vary substantially in their mandate and authority. Some are largely advisoryothers perform their functions in perfunctory fashion, and others still are undermined by inadequate funding and resources. But all have the potential to become meaningful agents for cultural change through the establishment and enforcement of universal standards, officer certification and decertification, and minimum training requirements for both veteran officers and new recruits.

Second, although recent years have seen an increase in training mandates for officers on techniques like de-escalation and alternatives to uses of force, police training still largely relies on a deeply-flawed approach to instruction founded upon outdated, war story-based curricula that are divorced from modern instructional best practices. The more effective scenario-based training approach focuses on the development of evidence-based skills and techniques for handling policing’s most difficult challenges. This approach instructs officers not just on policy and procedure, but also on how to effectively implement them in the real world through controlled simulations that accurately reproduce both the situations officers encounter and the stress responses they experience in the field. It  gives recruits and instructors an opportunity to identify and correct deficiencies in both technique and psychology that, left unchecked, increase the likelihood of excessive and unjustifiable force. When officers lack this type of scenario-based training, we see more of the uncoordinated, frenzied, and violent actions like those of the officers charged in the killing of Tyre Nichols.

Finally, departments must prioritize the hiring and—crucially—the promotion of officers that embody the perspectives and leadership qualities necessary to achieve and sustain positive culture change. This means that employment and advancement is not only based on an officer’s ability to meet conventional metrics—like arrests and contraband recoveries—or to memorize and regurgitate departmental protocol via standardized testing, but also to meet the expectations of community-accountable policing in the modern era.

Using the tenets of legitimacy-based policing, in which officers build trust through fair treatment, neutral decision making, and honest motives with the citizens they serve, we can train and reward a new type of cop—one  who  promotes healthier and safer communities by focusing less on outdated norms of coercive crime control and more on supporting broad community safety.

Some of these changes will require statewide leadership, while others can be achieved only through local initiative. However, they all require a continued and unwavering federal commitment to police culture change and an understanding that, far from a hopeless endeavor, it is possible, and worthy of our nation’s greatest effort. 

Jorge X. Camacho is a Clinical Lecturer in Law and the Policing, Law, and Policy Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School. Caroline Nobo is a Research Scholar in Law and Executive Director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School and coauthor of Legitimacy-Based Policing and the Promotion of Community Vitality.

Tags police reform

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