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Can policing be reformed?

Can policing be reformed?
© Washington Post/Pool

The question of police legitimacy was brought to the forefront of American society in 1991 when the brutal beating of Rodney King, an unarmed black man, was caught on video tape. The officers were acquitted of the charges, and Los Angeles erupted in riots. People were demanding changes in policing that seemingly never came.  

Three decades later we are still fighting the same fight. The movement calling for police reform was reignited by a police officer killing an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, in 2014. Ever since then we have witnessed an increasing number of unarmed black men and women dying at the hands of police officers, most recently Daunte Wright, whose death caused Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) to say that policing in the U.S. “can’t be reformed.”

But policing can be reformed, and must be. The organizational structures and practices of policing need to be altered to sustain any long-term solutions to the crisis of police legitimacy. We must focus on changing the culture of policing and its organizational dynamics by concentrating on the people we recruit and how they are trained.

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Requiring a college education, particularly a four-year degree, is one way to initiate change. College-educated police officers are significantly less likely to use forcefire their weaponsreceive citizen complaints or support abuse of authority by police officers. They are less likely to have authoritarian beliefs and are more likely to use reasonable force and communicate better with the community

But research finds that agencies that require college education have high screening standards and greater training opportunities, which correlate with a reduction in use of force. Therefore, mandatory college education should be coupled with higher standards and training practices to improve policing and police-community relations.

As for police training practices, the focus should shift from predominantly physical skills, such as using weapons, to de-escalation, crisis intervention and communication, such as responding to mental health crises, domestic violence incidents and drug addiction. Moving towards a crisis intervention training model (i.e., crisis intervention team) would provide more opportunities to learn how to respond to incidents that are more commonplace like mental health crises, thus reducing the need for physical force

Police training is heavily lecture-oriented, but police officers need “hands-on” experiences outside of the classroom and before their brief period of field training. During the academy and in-service training, departments should mandate scenario-based training, for example role-playing, that goes beyond, but does not replace, officer survival training. Police officers state that role-playing scenarios are beneficial to their training, increase their satisfaction of the training experience, and the knowledge and skills learned from role-playing is implemented in their everyday duties.  

Additionally, requiring that a certain number of in-service training hours be devoted to scenario-based training focused on de-escalation, communication, mental health crisis, addiction issues and domestic violence would provide a consistent reminder of how to interact with the public and intervene in a variety of situations, and why this is important.

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Police department policies are, at times, written vaguely because they are based on state and federal policies that are also occasionally ambiguous. It is impossible to foresee every situation an officer will encounter. Therefore, those who write the polices allow for some leeway so an officer can use his or her discretion to apply department policies to specific situations that are encountered in the field. An unfortunate downside to this is that it leaves room for an officer to use excessive force in an array of situations. To remedy this, we need clear policies, procedures and standards of behaviors, along with clear and consistent enforcement and consequences for rule violations.  

Early intervention with problem officers, remedial training opportunities and consistent and timely discipline across officers and the department would ultimately reform problem officers or remove them from the department. We are failing to hold police accountable for their actions — to adequately discipline the small number of officers who are the source of most of the complaints within the department. Clear policies (federal, state, local and departmental) and consistent enforcement and consequences would promote the replacement of problem officers with more qualified officers. But we need strong leadership and supervisors who are committed to this and will implement an effective reporting and discipline system.

Brooke E. Mathna is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Longwood University, where she specializes in policing.