What's behind our police problem? Our society

What's behind our police problem? Our society
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Given recent events, people are right to protest — peacefully — against the treatment of black people by some police officers. The case in Minneapolis, as well as others, are clear examples of extreme police misconduct. 

It must be pointed out, however, that to anyone who has studied policing issues, one thing is clear: There are no easy answers on how to change police behavior, especially if we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg.

Police and community relations are incredibly complicated. Everyone should recognize that being a cop is nearly an impossible job; we ask too much from them. A cop is expected to be a soldier and a saint, a power symbol and a social worker, an enforcer and a conciliator. The job involves hours of boredom followed by life-threatening encounters out of nowhere, compounded by bureaucratic encumbrances. They are told to crack down on looters but show restraint and not use excessive force, something that is easier said than done. And police always worry about who will stand behind them if something goes wrong. 

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Most cops join the force for all the right reasons, most often the well-intentioned desire to serve the public. But if anyone walked a day in a cop’s shoes, they quickly would see how easy it is to become jaded. Past surveys showed that a vast majority of the public likes their police officers, but most police believe the public hates them. The messages they get are confusing, from complete adoration, after 9/11 or during COVID-19’s spread, to absolute hatred, as seen today. Most cops want to be seen as heroes not bad guys.

Good police chiefs have tried to figure out how to solve this problem for decades. For progressive police leaders, controlling their cops is as much of a concern as controlling crime. The problem of getting every cop to behave properly all the time may be insurmountable, just as every corporate executive worries that one employee’s behavior can damage a firm’s image. 

Recent protests probably didn’t help change cops’ mental images, unfortunately. The typical level of paranoia in police agencies can be fairly described as high and, with these protests, many police likely will develop a bunker mentality — or worse, reinforce their need to show gang-like “strength” when a few protesters throw rocks or bottles at them. 

It takes immense effort to change even the most obvious tactics. Regarding the use of deadly force, some progress actually has been achieved in New York City, for example. Fifty years ago, when crime was rising, Mayor John Lindsay’s legendary police commissioner, Pat Murphy, instituted long-lasting reforms which advanced police professionalism. As a result, the number of police shootings in NYC dropped from around several thousand annually to several hundred — still too many, but clearly progress has been made. 

In 1977, while lecturing at the National Police Academy in Quantico, Va., I saw the first police street simulator. Remember the scene in the movie, “Men in Black,” when Will Smith was being considered as an MIB agent? He and other candidates went into a dark room, weapons in hand; once inside, a night street scene appeared and they began shooting. That police simulator in Quantico was essentially the same thing. The best police officials were put in the simulator and a street scene appeared, with a teenager pointing something that looked like a gun. What do you do, with a split second to decide? What if you shoot the kid, then find out it was a toy? What if the kid had a gun and you don’t shoot, and he then kills your partner? 

In the case above, 50 percent of the best police officials in the country got it wrong. Do you want a job where you might have to make that decision? Which mistake would you want to live with the rest of your life?

Because of reforms and simulations such as the one above, professional police agencies approach such situations strategically, with one officer trying to quell and calm things while another watches to see if force is necessary. As a result, shootings today are far fewer in most places than 50 years ago. But such progress is rare. 

To solve any “problem,” it must be defined and the causes understood. Are people protesting about a series of horrible isolated incidents by individual cops, or about a systemic problem? It is both, of course. While virtually everyone can see there are some very bad cops, the public seems to have more difficulty on the larger issue. Most see it exclusively as a leadership issue: Fire the chief, and things will change. That might have to be done in some cases but, in most, that might not make any difference at all — or, worse, slow progress if the chief is progressive. 

The organizational issue runs deep. In Minneapolis, lack of action by the other three officers on the scene may be as bad as that of the accused cop, indicating a systematic rather than an individual problem. The piling-on of police in the Rodney King case made the organizational problem even clearer. 

Part of the problem is the self-image of police as a “paramilitary” organization. The core competency of the army, stated crudely, is “kill people and destroy property to achieve a political objective.” Many people — including some cops — believe they are like the military, since they have a military-like command structure, a code of honor and military-type uniforms. But the job of the police is the exact opposite: Their job is to prevent the killing of people and the loss of property. The problem is that the public, even more so than police, doesn’t understand the difference.

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The “bad cop” problem is an organizational, human resources (HR) concern — who is hired, how they are trained, supervised, reviewed, disciplined and, if needed, fired. It does seem recent events have created a tipping point, that police all over the country recognize their profession is so damaged by this type of behavior that even police unions find it hard to protect bad cops. 

Some of the barriers to what police chiefs can do were explained in a speech nearly 50 years ago by the head of the highly respected New Scotland Yard, the U.K.’s national police service. Sir Robert Mark told a law enforcement audience in Washington that police are the perfect reflection of the society in which cops grow up, live and police. If you have a violent society, he said, you’ll have a violent police force. The U.K.’s “bobbies” famously were unarmed — until the rise of terrorism — because British society overwhelmingly was unarmed. But an unarmed American police force would be ineffectual because America is an armed camp, although the percent of gun ownership is down significantly over several decades.

Mark also said that if you have a racist society, you’ll have a racist police force. Racism is an American curse and can be found in many places. Yet it is interesting to note that, even with the addition of black and minority police officers, bad behaviors persist; in Baltimore, three of six officers charged with the killing of Freddie Gray were black. As long as we have a racist society, we will have racist police forces. It starts with us. 

Of course, since we give police great powers, including weapons, we have the right to hold them to a higher standard than the rest of society. But what Mark said remains true: They will always reflect their society.

To change behaviors, we have to change the discussion. We have to look at ourselves first, our own behaviors first. Don’t expect the police to change overnight if society doesn’t. Peaceful protestors are good, but angry, violent protesters do not reduce the anger and violence of cops.

That doesn’t mean nothing can be done, particularly regarding the “bad cop” problem. As for the organizational problem, it can be corrected, but it likely will take a generation of new police officers and leaders. The American auto industry changed its approach to quality to meet the Japanese and German challenges, and absolutely accomplished a complete turnaround. Making autos is not the same as keeping the peace, of course, but it shows that large organizational change is possible. It just takes time, money and extraordinary leadership. A good place to start is the implementation of basic principles behind the community policing approach. (And perhaps some of the protestors should take the police entrance exam.)

New HR procedures probably will help. New laws about transparency and accountability may help, too. But those will do little if we still have a violent, racist society. We need major changes in our whole society. People want simple answers, but this problem is far more complicated than most people realize.

Lucius J. Riccio, Ph.D., is a lecturer in discipline at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in New York, concentrating on analytics, decision-modeling and operations management. He is executive vice president of Gedeon GRC Consulting, an engineering and consulting firm, and previously was commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, an assistant director of research at the Police Foundation in Washington, and a consultant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Federal Judicial Center and to the Department of Justice.