A blueprint for 21st century policing

A blueprint for 21st century policing
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Fueled by numerous high-profile incidents of violence by police officers, American policing has become a topic of both concern and controversy in recent years.

Much of the public debate has encouraged better policing. Thanks to the work of outside activists and internal reformers, many police departments are taking a hard look at policing in this country and the ways that it has disadvantaged black Americans in particular. This is a healthy development. It should continue.

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After all, American policing does not begin with a clean slate. There is a long history of racially-biased policing, and there are good reasons why many black and Latino communities view police with skepticism.  

In our polarized climate, many Americans have gone beyond skepticism and have begun to see the police as actually contributing to crime and violence in cities. This is a recipe for danger. No one wins when communities view police as an occupying army, or worse, as agents of destruction.

A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine reviewed what the evidence actually says about current American policing practices, and in particular the move away from simply responding to calls for help after crime has occurred. The central takeaway from the report is that proactive policing can be part of the solution to crime in America. At the same time, the report suggests that police have to work more effectively and more creatively to achieve both crime control and community legitimacy.

Proactive policing encompasses a wide array of policing strategies. In the public debate, it is often associated with aggressive interventions such as stop, question and frisk, or “zero tolerance” policing. While some departments have embraced these ideas, many more have sought to focus policing on high-crime streets (hot spots policing), or high-rate violent offenders (focused deterrence policing), or on improving ties between the police and the community (community policing).

Do these strategies reduce crime? According to the National Academies report, many of them do.  Focusing police on crime hot spots, or targeting very high-rate violent crime offenders, shows particularly strong evidence of effectiveness. Solid evidence also is found for police using data to identify the underlying causes of crime problems. These findings amount to a powerful endorsement of the idea that the police can actually prevent crime.

The news is not all good, however. The report finds that aggressive programs that rely on police stops, especially of minority and young individuals, do lead to negative evaluations of the police among those stopped, and even negative health outcomes. The report acknowledges that an unintended consequence of targeted policing programs that focus on specific crime hot spots or high-rate offenders may be to contribute to racial disparities within the criminal justice system.  

In general, policing must be viewed, by the public and by the police, as an effort to help communities that are disproportionately affected by crime, not as an excuse for stigmatizing or labeling. This is one of the goals that many community policing programs seek to achieve.  Happily, the National Academies report documents that community policing does in fact improve relationships between the police and the community.

Where do we go from here? There are three clear policy implications from the National Academies report:

It would be wrong to abandon proactive policing programs. Many American communities are plagued by crime and violence. It would be a mistake not to take advantage of proactive approaches that have been documented to make a difference on the ground.

Police must recognize that community support is crucial to good policing. Given this reality, police departments should seek to limit their intrusion into the daily life of residents as much as possible. Police departments should be surgical in their approach, narrowly targeting proactive strategies to small groups of chronic offenders and specific street corners that are magnets for crime, rather than blanketing whole precincts or neighborhoods with a one-size-fits-all approach.

Crime-fighting strategies must be paired with community engagement and fairness. Local residents and nonprofit organizations must be included in the process of identifying local problems and formulating responses. Police should treat the public, including suspects and arrestees, with dignity and respect and an absence of bias.

The transformation of American policing won’t happen overnight. The United States has more than 17,000 independent police agencies. There undoubtedly is a need for more research, more discussion and more innovation. But thanks to the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine we have identified the first three steps towards effective, democratic policing in the 21st century: a commitment to proactive strategies, the surgical use of tactics, and active community collaboration rooted in treating people fairly.

David Weisburd is a distinguished professor at George Mason University and served as chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Proactive Policing.  

Greg Berman is director of the Center for Court Innovation and co-author of “Start Here: A Roadmap to Reducing Mass Incarceration” (The New Press). Follow him on Twitter @GregBerman50.