Change the Police

I often make an argument that we should be generous towards minor acts of professional misjudgment, particularly those caught on video, that no one deserves to have their professional future changed in an instant for a single miscalculation.

However, the more consequential the professional activity, the less we should extend that generosity. A brain surgeon who comes into the operating theater with two martinis in him is not saying the wrong thing to a student in a classroom or adding a sum incorrectly on a tax return. He’s holding another human life in the balance.

Of all the professions that came into their own in the 20th Century, none of them is as consequential as policing. A police officer is an agent of the state who is charged with using its most fearsome power: the power to take the freedom and life of individuals. If you believe in any sense that the state is enacting the collective will of its people, then the police are the people that we, all of us, have hired to do that work for us.

Even other professions with life-and-death responsibilities do not have that kind of authorization to take the freedom and life of people. Though we insist that most professions where a single error could cost the life or health of a person should involve extensive training and multiple systems of licensing and oversight, we do not consistently expect the same of police.

In the United States, black citizens stand in perpetual risk of being summarily executed by police officers who will rarely face criminal charges or even professional sanction for doing so. Anguish and anger and protest seem powerless to change that. What we need is a systematic change in policing itself, and we need a strong coalition of people in national, state and regional politics who will demand those changes. We need to treat policing like the most important, most dangerous, most sacred professional work in our society, work that needs more oversight and standards and consequences than anything else. More important than brain surgery by far. Because it’s not just that people die and justice fades. This is the heart of our freedom. None of us are free while some of us can be murdered with impunity for no reason other than race or sexuality.

Here’s some ideas about what we could demand to get us to something like genuinely professional policing.

1. Federal law should mandate that all police forces in this country must have a civilian review board that examines every incident of firearm discharge by police in the line of duty. Mandate that the review board’s business be 100% public and transparent. Failure to initiate public review of a discharge incident within seven days should be a prosecutable offense.

2. Disarm police who are on routine patrols, making traffic stops, and so on. Police should only carry firearms in response to specific, designated incident calls where firearms may be required. Firearms should be kept locked in the trunk of patrol cars.

3. Create stringent standards for appropriate use of firearms in police work that aim to limit firearm discharges to only the most extraordinary of circumstances. Violating standards should usually lead to immediate termination of employment.

4. Even a hint of evidence tampering of any kind by police officers, including losing body cameras or having missing dashcam footage during incidents involving firearm discharge, should immediately lead to being fired. Evidence tampering by police, district attorneys, judges or any other employees of the criminal justice system should be harshly criminalized and treated as one of the highest prosecutorial priorities at all levels of jurisdiction. Evidence tampering by officials with criminal justice responsibilities should be roughly as consequential as second-degree murder.

5. Law enforcement in communities with high crime rates or with histories of being racially harassed by police should be strictly focused on serious infractions. Arrests or interactions for minor offenses like “broken taillights” or selling untaxed cigarettes should lead to the arresting officer being disciplined for wasting precious resources.

6. Heads of police departments should review video of any shooting or alleged harassment involving their officers. If they are dissatisfied with the performance of their officers upon review in any way, all the way down to comportment or attitude, they should immediately make a public statement that specifically describes that dissatisfaction and begin disciplinary procedures or termination procedures in all but the most minor incidents. Police chiefs are leaders for the community, not leaders just for their employees, and they owe the community an acknowledgement of unprofessional misconduct first and foremost.

7. Being convicted of a criminal offense is not the standard that defines poor professionalism for police. Police departments should not wait for a conviction to decide whether an officer has engaged in unprofessional conduct. Termination and suspension for serious misconduct should be swift and should use an evidentiary standard that is far less stringent than criminal investigations.

8. Nothing should be private in the workings of the criminal justice system. There should be no private prisons, no private police officers. All services used at any level of the criminal justice system should be subject to continuous, unedited public disclosure, with all records freely accessible to all members of the public at the time of their creation. This includes footage from body cameras, DNA tests, etc. All technical or specialists services should be subject to regular audit by a neutral third party to ensure high standards of competency and functioning are being maintained.

9. No municipality, county, state or other government should depend upon revenue from fines, property seizures for its daily or routine operations. No official who is responsible for seizure of property or fee collection should ever have any direct access to such funds or property or benefit from the execution of those duties.

10. All police departments should undergo external review once every five years by teams of 20-30 randomly chosen community members (perhaps using the same mechanism as calling jury duty) who are embedded with officers on patrol, who spend time in stations and in holding facilities, and who conduct interviews with a random selection of officers and employees. At least five of the review team must be community members who have been arrested or cited by this department. The transcript of the review materials and the final summary report should be available to all members of the public.

11. Elected officials should routinely dismiss top-level police department appointees who make no progress in implementing these and other changes in policing. This is what executive hierarchy is good for: demanding change from the top and holding the next level of the hierarchy responsible for implementation.

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10 Responses to Change the Police

  1. troupial says:

    Hi! Long-time reader, first time commenter.

    I agree that most of these would be very welcome interventions, but there’s something I’ve struggled with when pondering this issue in the past is: how do we elevate the status/respect/prestige of policing as a profession, such that the increased scrutiny seems worth it?

    I think we’re caught in a hard place where, police work is looked down upon by a great portion of the populace (often reasonably so, as in cases of police violence), it’s not paid on par with other life-or-death professions like advanced engineering or doctoring, a great deal of the work is unglamorous and possibly dangerous, and yet we’d like to be able to demand very high standards from this group. I suspect you’d start to run into a recruitment problem, where prospective officers will look at the combination of intense public scrutiny vs prestige, and decide it’s not worth that cost. I don’t have a great answer for this problem myself; I’m not sure if you have any insight.

  2. Useful suggestions: but it is not only black citizens who are at risk — the evidence suggests they may be somewhat disproportionately at risk, but there is a wider risk to US citizens. Constantly talking as if it is specifically a black-police problem actually undermines building a wider coalition for action about a more general problem.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t think it undermines a practical coalition, unless you think white citizens (or other non-black citizens) are so satisfied with the proposition that this is focused on black citizens that they’ll fall prey to thinking it will never go beyond them. When, of course, as you suggest, it already has–but not in such a way that we should parrot “all lives matter”, because there is also no doubt that the focus on blackness is special and intense in contemporary policing in the US.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Police work has a social class connection to it, and that is part of the problem–elites essentially step back and allow themselves to think that what is done by police to people other than elites is a kind of intramural class struggle between groups that the elites don’t care about. But I’m not sure that either increasing the perceived social prestige of policing or even more money is the answer. Police work may not be compensated like engineering or doctoring, but it still claims a level of pension support in major cities and some states that is as unlike the rest of the economy as tenure is, in its way.

    I think the pressing problem is that contemporary police in at least some major forces would not welcome a fresh intake of people who aren’t like them. There are wonderful exemptions to this–forces that have worked hard to recruit a diverse range of officers, and we should celebrate the leadership in those forces.

  5. Jim says:

    12. All police officers should be required to wear PDRDs (portable digital recording devices) while on duty, and all citizen interactions should be recorded. This is as easy as flipping a switch. Failure to do so should be a sanctionable offense. Failure to document a use of force that is otherwise digitally recorded should result in termination.
    Note: PDRDs are in everybody’s interest. Recorded video/audio can exonerate officers who are falsely accused of misconduct. There is no reason for police unions to drag their feet on this.

    Re: point 2, I think it’s a great goal. But it’s not practicable right now. There is a reason patrol officers are taught to approach a stopped vehicle from behind, with their hand over their service weapon: There are 300 million guns in America, and one can’t predetermine whether a driver/passenger has one his lap or waistband. The life of an American cop is scary and dangerous. Most people get that, even in this moment when attitudes about policing are changing dramatically. Imagine the outrage the first time an unarmed patrol officer or traffic cop is executed? (Or maybe not, our collective outrage about the murder of six-year-olds in Newton petered-out quickly…)

  6. Fred Bush says:

    You share a number of your suggestions with Campaign Zero.

    How many of these things are true of the Swarthmore police force? It is under local control, and changing it is something that you could realistically be involved with.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I have been thinking about the Swarthmore PD in these terms in the last few days, yes. I’d love to see the college, the town, the Swarthmore PD and the college’s Public Safety work together to make a strong statement both about their own commitments to professional practice and their condemnation of bad practices elsewhere.

  8. Barry says:

    Troupial: ” I suspect you’d start to run into a recruitment problem, where prospective officers will look at the combination of intense public scrutiny vs prestige, and decide it’s not worth that cost. I don’t have a great answer for this problem myself; I’m not sure if you have any insight.”

    When police departments actually have trouble recruiting, we can worry about that. Until then, no.

  9. Gabriel Martindale says:

    But you can do better!

    I have an alternative suggestion, which would solve the real problem of too man cops in the USA shooting people. New policeman should undergo rigorous screening tests for impulse control, IQ and time preference. I’ll leave you to guess why that won’t be adopted.

  10. Well, I do declare. You are getting dangerously close to invading my territory. You are beginning to design systems. And you are doing a good job.

    One of the things you omitted is a plan for making the changes you suggest. That is always the problem, but nothing happens until one finds a way to make it happen.

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