What Do Police Say about Police Reform?

I tried to find out what police say is the way to reform police. Didn’t find anything.

Did find a report from the National Institute of Justice circa 2000 that showed at least some police in some departments were aware of the problems. See National Criminal Justice Reference Service: National Institute of Justice: May 2000: PDF: “Police Attitudes Toward Abuse of Authority”. It’s based on a National Police Foundation survey.

At least moderately surprised it wasn’t completely one-sided. But would still be interested in hearing what police think is the way to reform, given lots of reporting that they’ve often viewed retraining with derision.

At that time, for example, majorities thought police were permitted to use as much force as needed, that going beyond allowable force was unacceptable. A fifth acknowledged officers in their department at least sometimes used more force than necessary. About half acknowledged the omertà followed by some law enforcement officers.

They also asked about controlling abuse. While about 93% said their departments already took a strong anti-abuse stance, about 85% thought a chief taking a hard-line against abuse would help prevent it. About 90% also said immediate supervisors were important in that effort. But only 55% thought changes in methods of supervision would be effective.

Worse, supermajorities answered that training in ethics, interpersonal skills, and in cultural awareness could reduce abuse—but these are the very sorts of training that are often dismissed as wastes of time or as jokes or unrepresentative of the real world by police.

There is a racial breakdown of results, which shows an expected divergence in views between white officers and Black officers. That divide is muted but still apparent on questions around methods like community-oriented policing and citizen review boards.

But these are 20-year-old results, and they don’t tell us too much about what police think reform should look like. They do tell us, at least then, many saw problems that justify reform. More importantly: lots did not. That is an obvious place to begin efforts of reform: it’s a lot easier to make a system better if more of those involved aren’t in denial about the problems.

This also fits the general pattern that those in the best position to make reforms are silent or in denial of the need, which will ultimately mean a longer road to reform, and reforms that aren’t as well-tailored to the problems as they could be.

Police have a lot of problems. Their profession has the highest suicide rate. The problems policing causes to society, particularly minority communities, is well-documented. Part of the issue is the sort of HAL 9000 effect—that their primary directives are often contradictory, which makes them do a job that often fails to have a full-on successful outcome.

That is, if you have to protect people and punish people, that’s not workable. If you’re protecting them, then the criminals aren’t punished. If you’re punishing the criminals, then they’re not protected. Part of that is due to the system of prisons and jails, which is built to be punitive rather than rehabilitative. Police know that punishment is part of the job, but unlike nurses and doctors, they almost never get to see positive outcomes of arrests. They typically aren’t getting thank-you cards from past arrestees.

Anyway. Point is mainly that I’d be interested to see more data about how police think their jobs can change for the better.

The election comes in fifteen weeks.


Analogies: Better Pocket Protectors

This is a general analogy. It can apply to police reform, but it’s generally applicable.

The basic analogy is that people used to wear shirts with breast pockets and keep pens in them. Those pens would leak, and it would ruin the shirts. So some people took to wearing pocket protectors—small containers that would be inserted into the pocket and if a pen leaked, it would catch the ink and keep the shirt safe.

The analogy is is for a policy deficiency, where rather than fixing the problem of the leaky pens, there’s a call by some for better pocket protectors. That is, the source of the problem, leaky pens, is not addressed. What are the conditions that lead to leaks in pens? Shoddy manufacturing, poor storage conditions, whatever. But these things, prevention of the conditions that lead to ink being spilled, are left alone. The focus is placed on better pocket protectors.

So, for climate change, for example, the pocket protector might be things like doing geographic surveys to figure out what land will be inhabitable and arable in the future and relocating people, but otherwise not doing anything about carbon pollution.

Or, for police and justice reform, it’s calling for more police and police militarization, rather than redevelopment of distressed areas, better social policies, etc.

Or for wildfire policy, it’s moving mountains to fight fires rather than doing controlled burns and groundfuel management.

For immigration policy, the wall is a very expensive and mostly useless pocket protector. Lacking policies that both encourage orderly immigration and economic stability in other parts of the world is a good way to find out exactly how useless a pocket protector it is.

For pandemic policy, containment was supposed to be the strategy to get control over the caseload while alternatives became available, including testing and tracing. That’s right—sometimes, and usually for a limited time, a pocket protector does make sense. We put a hardcore pocket protector in place to give time to work on tracking leaky pens. But many of the governors and president never actually worked on tracking leaky pens. They removed the pocket protector anyway, and now we see ink running over much of the nation.

We’re also not too picky when it comes to pandemic pocket protectors—we would love to cease every case and be free of this plague, but honestly if a combinations of masks and scheduling and tracing, or a vaccine, or whatever reasonable and practicable policy combination can simply lower the rate of transmission so that it is stopped, that’s what any reasonable government should be working toward.

Or consider the problem of nuclear waste. It is currently stored in what was intended as temporary storage at the power facilities, and a permanent storage was planned, but has never opened. Given the nature and longevity of that particular sort of pen, a pocket protector might be the only viable solution for long-term protection.

The main purpose of this post is to highlight the connection between disparate policy areas. That the same patterns exist in various policies is worth understanding. When possible, common principles should be brought to bear in policy matters and therefore more consistency can be had in regulation and governance.

The particular choice of a pocket protector, instead of, say, tupperware or antimatter containment units, is not particularly important. Depending on the policy area, a different container might be more appropriate.

The characteristics of a containment policy are necessary for the application of the analogy. Taxes and spending policies are seldom meant to be outright containment, and so are ill suited to this analogy.

On an unrelated note, the term reopened early is incorrect. The timing of their opening is not at issue, but the condition in which they did so. Reopened unready would be more apt. The main point here is that these places delaying their opening wasn’t going to magically prepare them any more than they were, and their lack of preparation is the flaw, not how soon or late they took an unprepared action.


Realignment of Police Responsibilities

What passes for defund is really a mixture of policies around policing and other responsibilities. If the police have to be ready for a dozen different calls, they can’t be very prepared for any one of them. They have to be versatile, and that means giving up on specialization.

If you don’t know if the weather tomorrow will be rainy, snowy, or hot and sunny, when you go out you’ll need three different hats. Knowing the weather and dressing for it is a luxury that the police currently do not have, due to overloading them with too many different tasks.

Instead, realigning policing means:

  1. Police aren’t the first responder for as many situations.
  2. Police will often take on a supporting role, rather than lead.
  3. The police can specialize more as other organizations take over some of their current responsibilities. This should make the job of police safer and steadier.

The recent Black Lives Matter protests give a good working example for how policing should be reworked. Instead of having the police be the front-line response to protesting, communities could have folks employed specifically to coordinate and work with protests. The new function would be able to observe and listen to protesters without being the face of violence or force, and so that already would reduce tension.

Throughout the opioid crisis, police have had to administer anti-narcotic-shock drugs to revive people (though, many other community servants have also been put in that position). There needs to be a dedicated civic health response, which is something that requires healthcare reforms. Involving the police complicates the health response, because they have a duty to enforce the broken drug laws, and the drug users have good reasons to seek to avoid interacting with police.

The reimagining of policing is often about shifting the social landscape around policing so that the community is safer—and the police are part of the community that is made safer through changes.

These changes will go hand-in-hand with reducing criminalization, which will lead to lower institutionalized populations. Overpopulation of prisons and jails makes the job of guards harder, as density, per se, endangers the orderly operation of those facilities.

A longstanding hope of mine has been for self-driving cars to become a reality, so that police wouldn’t have to write traffic tickets. Black folks wouldn’t be pulled over as much, and policing would shift as a result. With self-driving cars, there will still be stops, but they will be nonpretextual. They will be situations where authorities get a call that something wrong happened. If the problem fits in the narrowed police jurisdiction, they would still respond. If it fits in to a different jurisdiction, then the other authority would respond. It’s among many reasons that government should be investing more heavily in accelerating self-driving.

That’s the kind of innovation that we need. The average duty of police is very much a rollercoaster of adrenaline and downtime. It’s not a healthy way to live—jumping from all-out to tumbleweeds and back. One of my hopes is that as policing is realigned, part of that shift will involve the police workers themselves gaining new light-duty roles for half of their work hours. Giving them more opportunities to experience the community in an engaged, non-aggressive task would do a lot to help heal their own traumas and smooth out that rollercoaster.

The election is in 20 weeks. Please do enroll to vote if you haven’t yet.