We already know how to reform the police

We already know how to reform the police
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Having done some of the early work in developing and implementing community policing, I have a strong sense of déjà vu. Nearly half a century later, the same issues reverberate in the headlines. Neither the status quo nor “defunding” the police is the answer.

The big myth about police work is that it’s comprised primarily of crime-busting. In fact, 70 percent – 80 percent of police time is spent on order maintenance and social service.

The "defunders" argue that mix needs to be changed. But there's a prior challenge to address: The man-of-action image that permeates police culture.

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I was first brought into the New York Police Department as a member of the Women’s Advocacy Committee to address the issue of women as victims, criminals and colleagues. I helped train the first women to go on patrol. But it was impossible to address women’s issues without first addressing the masculine ethic that drove police to excess in their dealings with the public.

Police culture is dominated by an “us versus them” mentality in which they can see their clients as the enemy. Then there's the “cynicism curve” that peaks at about 10 years on the job. Cynicism, induced by daily exposure to the worst that humanity has to offer, accounts for the insensitivity police often display.

Our answer in the 1970s was to shift the basis of police authority from militarism, authoritarianism and force to social service, professionalism and human relations skill.

This meant upgrading the use of psychological techniques in resolving conflict. Today, this is called “de-escalation.” This requires a total systems approach to reforming policing — implementing a consistent set of values from the day of recruitment to the day of retirement. We revamped civil service height requirements, which made it possible for more women and Hispanics to become police officers.

We revamped training, evaluation and reward systems. Instead of rewarding officers for arrest and summons activity, we rewarded them for crime prevention and community relations skills. We put in place an early warning system to detect violence-prone officers and send them to a psychologist before they went over the edge. The early warning system took into account civilian complaints – whether substantiated or not – increases in debt, domestic problems, behavioral changes, slippage in personal hygiene, a pattern of sick days taken around days off and other signals that a time bomb in blue was about to blow.

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The typical shift for a patrol officer is made up of hours of boredom punctuated by unpredictable, adrenaline-pumping moments of terror. To prepare for making split-second decisions that can go wrong, we focused on non-lethal use of force, drew on sensitivity training, verbal de-escalation techniques and family crisis intervention skills. This was not universally welcome among police. I overheard a group of officers complaining, “It’s a pinko commie plot to undermine law enforcement and turn cops into a bunch of fag social workers.”

The “defunders” argue for moving domestic violence calls to social workers, but those calls are among the most dangerous ones that police receive. The same is true for EDPs – Emotionally Disturbed Persons.

Defunding – I prefer the term “right-sizing” – has its place. We learned in the 1970s, when the crime rate was at its peak, that it’s not the number of police officers that impacts crime; it’s how they’re deployed. The Kansas City Patrol Experiment, funded by the Police Foundation, taught us that riding around in police cars has no impact on the crime rate, the public perception of crime or a sense of safety. It highlighted the critical role of citizens’ willingness to report crimes and provide information. Then came community policing, which focused on building trust in the community. That meant getting police out of their patrol cars so they could mingle with the locals, build relationships and get to know their beats from the ground up.

The idea of smart deployment was given a huge boost by CompStat in the 1990s. CompStat uses statistical analysis to identify geographical areas and types of crimes to determine where and how police should be deployed. CompStat is an ideal vehicle for making smart deployment decisions that enable police management to maximize use of limited resources.

Thanks to advances in technology and analysis, we need fewer police than we did in the past. Anthony Bouza, former chief of the Minneapolis Police Department, once observed: “The rarely acknowledged reality is that most departments have too many cops rather than too few, and the difficulty lies in our ability to manage resources effectively.” Effective resource management means maximum prevention, detection and apprehension with minimum danger to police and the public.

Like the worst cops, calls for “defunding” feel like shooting from the hip. There is a proven body of work to guide the police reforms that can address systemic racism and excess violence.

Georgette F. Bennett, PhD. is the author of “Crimewarps: The Future of Crime in America." she worked at the NYPD as a personal consultant to the police commissioner. She has also worked with police departments in Atlanta, Houston and Boston, among others. Together with Ellen Mintz, Ph.D., she designed the Full Service Neighborhood Team Policing Model, which was adopted as a National Training and Demonstration Project by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.