I was in public safety for thirty years. During that time I saw abusive behavior from some officers and extraordinary heroism from many others. We call the police for assistance between 650,000 and a million times a day—every day—in this country, and the vast majority of those incidents work out just fine. Officers, by-and-large, do their job to protect and serve well, and most try their best to treat everyone they encounter in a firm-but-fair manner day in and day out.
Some, however, dishonor our code of ethics, and episodes of abusive violence, corruption, and racism have come to distort and smother every act of good. Subsequently, many Americans no longer recognize police officers as having any legitimate authority or value because they’ve lost all faith in the fairness and effectiveness of our criminal justice system. We’re seeing open combat between officers and citizens from extreme left and right factions, a rise in federal lawsuits against officers and departments, blatantly excessive force by officers on members of the public, increasing assaults and homicides against officers, and calls for the removal of funding from entire police departments.
Like everything else nowadays, how change will occur is mired in political sewage, which generally means stagnation instead of reform. Stagnation, however, will result in more death and chaos. Action and tough decision-making are imperative…now.
I spent a lot of time in graduate school thinking about, researching, and writing papers on how we might re-visualize and restructure police departments and the American criminal justice system. My focus was on how we can organize police agencies in a way that makes citizens and officers safer, heightens efficiency, streamlines services, raises professionalism among the ranks, and restores faith. To that end, I’ve compiled a list of fifteen steps we as a nation could adopt if we’re willing to honestly seek solutions and to expend the time, dollars, and resources to make this nation stronger and safer than it has ever been.
1. Remove and replace the title of “Law Enforcement Officer” from all certifications and training programs. Law enforcement is but one aspect of public safety, but this title essentially positions it as a priority. Enforcement of the law is a tool officers may use to keep communities safe, but it should be seen more as a tool of later or last resort instead of the front-and-center role it now plays. Preferable options could include Public Safety Officer and/or Peace Officer
2. Reduce or eliminate physical arrests for non-violent/non-dangerous crimes, allowing officers to issue a citation at the scene to appear in court for most offenses.
3. Institute major prison reform that includes no prison time for nearly all offenses and a creative and open-minded approach to more restorative justice models. Akin to this: abolishment of all private prisons, a particularly egregious blight on our society.
4. Structure dispatch responses so that officers work in teams with para-professionals from disciplines including mental health, victim advocacy, child abuse and neglect experts, addiction services, and homeless advocates. Officers would be responsible for keeping the other professionals safe at the scene, and potentially to make arrests if violence has occurred. This could free officers to go back on patrol as soon as the professionals felt safe and could take the ball from there.
5. End the "war on drugs" as it relates to individuals in possession of contraband, and instead, have officers working with teams to funnel addicts away from jail and toward drug court and rehabilitation centers.
6. Increase new officer training from the current 12-15 weeks (depending on which state) to 20 weeks to match the basic training of federal officers. Additional training time should focus on communication skills, de-escalation techniques, Constitutional law, the history of policing, sensitivity training, and restorative justice models.
7. Professional development for 100% of all veteran officers to deal more effectively and humanely with the mentally ill. Currently, only a small cadre of Crisis Intervention Team or Hostage Negotiation team members are trained in these skills. However, we’ve proven that such training can be significantly pared down to essential elements so that ALL officers can participate. This training should be re-delivered annually.
8. Train all officers on simulated "shoot/don't shoot" video scenarios. Currently, this is only done once or twice in most officers’ careers, but it should be administered monthly. Artificial intelligence programs combined with high-tech 360-degree video displays immerse officers in close-to-real scenarios and force each to confront life and death decisions in fractions of seconds. This is the only way I know to counterbalance the academy training of stimulus-response (i.e., danger means shoot). Stimulus-response has its place, but we know it can't stand alone when we're talking about chaotic situations where real life and death decisions happen in milliseconds.
9. Institute a true (and fully funded) commitment to community-oriented policing, and not just the puny effort we have now. Officers should be biking, walking, and horse-back-riding on every street where the data shows they're needed. Officers working their beats this way have a much better chance of learning, listening, and effectively responding to community concerns in positive and effective ways.
10. Implement a concerted effort to recruit officers from diverse backgrounds with an emphasis on recruits who have earned a bachelor's degree.
11. Consider a complete retooling of current police uniforms. I am no fashion designer, but the time has come to move away from a military-style uniform to one more appropriate for professionals dedicated to domestic public safety.
12. Institute a mandatory, nationwide reporting process to “red-flag” abusive, racist, and/or corrupt officers, preventing such cancers from being hired in new jurisdictions.
13. Implement national standards (such as IACP and/or CALEA) for all police agencies relative to policies and procedures (with emphasis on mental illness, sexual assault, and domestic violence), training, use-of-force, and reporting.
14. Implement a national Peace Officer certification level requiring a minimum of an Associate’s Degree and a robust testing regimen similar to those given to paramedics, nurses, and firefighters. This would likely necessitate offering incentives such as hiring bonuses, merit pay, and promotion prioritization.
15. Hire more quality officers. I know this is counter-intuitive during calls for “defunding,” but hiring more officers will allow smaller communities the leeway to implement more training. Such communities simply can’t release officers to participate in training sessions if they’re already worn to the nub. This, of course, means supporting recruiting measures, hiking salaries and incentives, and re-branding police work once again as an honorable and coveted career.
I went back and forth about this post because I tend to steer clear of political missives. However, given my experience, training, and education, I came to realize I had a duty to try and help. I know I’ll be condemned by some, and that others will see my ideas as naïve or unreachable. Attack if you must (I’ll ignore you if you’re rude), but always feel free to share these ideas, offer additional suggestions, and engage in constructive dialogue. We are being offered a historical opportunity to propel this nation ever closer toward the dream that is America. Seize it and our best days lie ahead.