I Agree: Reform the Police, But the Devil’s in the Details

June 25, 2020

The push from many quarters of this country (both the sane and insane) is that law enforcement as we know it needs to be reformed.

I agree.

I’m not kidding, I totally agree.

And no, I’m not capitulating to the hysterical throngs who have no idea about the realities of law enforcement and the statistical truths regarding use-of-force incidents.

I was on the job for over 29 years and have been in the law enforcement business for a little over 40 now. I’ve been traveling, teaching, and consulting all around the country for 25 years. I wrote a book on law enforcement and coauthored another.

So, I have an opinion.

Here it is.

I agree that we should consider reforming (not abolishing) the law enforcement profession.

But oh, those devilish details. What should we reform?

The problem with screaming for massive changes—if not all-out abolishment—is that the idea is both shortsighted and ridiculous.

Eliminating the police is beyond impractical and won’t be allowed in 99.9% of the country. The few places that may try it will see housing markets plummet, a mass flight of noncriminal citizens, and an increase in anarchy, crime, and deaths. We can see the beginning stages now in a few major cities.

So, why am I endorsing the examination and consideration of an overhaul?

Well, since so many are apparently in favor of it, let’s examine. It’s way overdue anyway. Policing has evolved. It may have lost its way.   

But let’s start with facts and get into those devilish details.

By the Numbers

88% of local police agencies in the United States are staffed with fewer than 100 officers. Most of the agencies with the biggest perceived problems are actually in the 1.2% category of departments which have 250 or more officers (and work under the mind-boggling quagmire of a bureaucracy).

That’s less than one and a half percent of all agencies in the country. 

47.7% of the local police agencies in the country have fewer than ten officers. Fewer than ten! What do they have in common with the 1.2% behemoth departments? 

Very little.

27.4% of local agencies have 10-24 officers. 12.9% have 25-49 officers, and 6.9% have 50-99 officers.

I won’t even talk about the over 3,100 counties that have their own law enforcement entities, the townships, all 50 states, and the federal government.

Let’s just stick with local.

Consider the geographical realities, population figures, resident demographics, crime rates, expectations of law enforcement, and the relationships they currently enjoy or don’t enjoy within their communities.

In other words: Each community is different!

So, what needs reforming and what we can we consider as being somewhat universal no matter the size of the agency?

Societal Problems and Expectations

The police are called for virtually everything. They aren’t just the last line of defense—they have become the first-line solution for every issue, failing, and concern by anyone with a phone that has the numbers 9 and 1 on them.

I want to write a book titled “Dumbass 911 Calls” because I’ve experienced so many and have heard of many more.

Leaves blowing in my yard because my neighbor didn’t rake his lawn? Call the cops.

Blowing snow onto my driveway? Call the cops.

Branches are hanging over my property. There are garbage cans blowing into the street. My kid won’t get out of bed for school. My husband called me a name. Someone called my daughter a name on social media. My neighbor is walking around his house naked. There’s an unusual tapping on my phone. I hear a noise in my attic. I think I just saw a spaceship. Stray cat, my cat has a funky smell, barking dog, my dog just died, dead bird in my driveway, snake in the garden. My dog just got skunked, my kid just got skunked, my pet skunk just got skunked, the neighbor’s mutt dog just had sex with my purebred shiatzu. I can’t find my keys, someone stole my bike sometime in the last year, kids are hanging around on the corner laughing, I think I just saw a drug deal—shall I go on?

The police respond to all of those calls. Should they?

We also have the slightly more serious calls which are not necessarily criminal in nature but still fall to the police.

A homeless woman is talking to herself on the corner. A homeless man is sleeping in front of my store/on the street/in the park. My brother is depressed and won’t come out of his room, and no, he doesn’t have a weapon. My husband is yelling, he won’t leave, and my children are scared. My husband threatened to kill me, but I don’t want that on record—I just want him out of the house. There is a man sleeping in his car in the drive-through lane of our Wendy’s and I think he’s drunk. The guy I’ve let stay in my apartment for the last month won’t leave. My adult son won’t come out of his room because I told him to get a job and find an apartment. I think the gardener who works for my mom is taking advantage of her financially. Someone is sitting in my coffee shop, won’t buy anything, and is taking up an entire table. Homeless people are camping out in my coffee shop’s bathroom. People are urinating on my building. This schizophrenic I know is talking gibberish and calling me night and day. The people next door are letting their kids run around barefoot and naked while the parents are openly high (and I think they are selling drugs off of the back porch, but I don’t want that on the record). Jaywalkers are all over the place and it’s causing problems.

The police go on each of these calls all the time. Should they?

The Social Worker Theory of Response

The sometimes well-meaning solution currently being offered by many is that more money should go towards social services and less should go to the police.

They say we should hire unarmed social workers or unarmed code enforcement officers to handle most of the above.

And I agree. Seriously, I do.

But again, there are those devilish details—the ones ignored by most activists and politicians screaming for reform.

There are some things we’ve got to consider.

What are these social workers going to drive? Marked vehicles? Where can they park? Will they have any sort of emergency lights on their vehicles? What will the communication system be? Just their cell phones? Will they have a direct line to the police when—and this is inevitable—the noncriminal call they respond to turns criminal and dangerous?

I can absolutely guarantee that an MSW (master’s in social work) isn’t sufficient for such a role—not in the slightest. An MSW is theoretical, and I’m not saying that in a disparaging way. How much training do they have dealing with intoxicated schizophrenics off of their meds out on the street?  They have no experience dealing with acutely emotional human beings in close-quarter environments such as kitchens.

What type of training will they get when it comes to self-defense (never mind the controlling of others)? Will the social workers have any nonlethal weapons at all?   

Will they go through any training on the Constitution such as search and seizure or use of force?

You may be asking why they would need that.

Well, when you respond to many of the calls listed above, you’ll encounter people who will be, let’s say, uncooperative. Sometimes they’ll refuse to engage with you, and those people will certainly refuse your entry into the house.

If it’s a domestic dispute, the husband (let’s say it’s the same one the woman called about who is scaring her kids) will probably answer the door. And it’s just as likely that he won’t invite the social workers in to talk about Freudian philosophy or the abandonment issues which have manifested into his controlling and abusive behavior towards women.

And while he may take the card offered to him, he most likely won’t go to counseling.

This abusive miscreant may also call the well-intentioned social service professionals some names which were never uttered in the classroom—despicable, disgusting words that become increasingly personal in nature and are protected under the First Amendment.

Trespassers to stores will immediately recognize that the code enforcement officers won’t have the power to arrest. They (in many cases, I would predict) will refuse to cooperate. And, again, they will probably use vile language whilst expressing their dissatisfaction with the well-meaning interlopers.

The jaywalkers, or those erecting tents, or those urinating on sidewalks? Well, code enforcement officers can write tickets, sure, but many of the lawbreakers will refuse to give up an identification card or stop when they are told to stop. If they do take the citation, multitudes won’t show up in court, which will require warrants to be issued.

Who is going to serve the warrants?

Refusing to go on the “blowing leaves” calls will probably lead to nothing. But a lack of intervention may cause the dispute to escalate, especially if one party is a bully, aggressive, emotional, or drunk. If social worker-type responders handle such calls, then they better be prepared to walk into something that may have become much bigger than leaves, snow, or other such trivial nonsense.

Who will respond to traffic accidents? Most fender benders don’t need the police. They are usually a waste of time, and most reports are used for nothing more than collecting statistics. Tickets are unnecessary for minor accidents. Code enforcement can get those calls, but what will they be driving? Will they have emergency lights? If they do, what happens if they are mistaken for the police? Will they be trained on positioning to protect themselves and others on a busy highway?

911 can tell the involved drivers to go to a special location that will record the necessary statistical information. However, many at-fault motorists will refuse to cooperate with the other party and simply drive away if they know that they won’t have to deal with the police. Who will do the follow up then?

How about the accidents that involve fisticuffs? How about the ones that involve blood, screaming, pain, and even death? Who gets those? Just the emergency medical and fire services?

There is a little-known reality about our brothers and sisters in the fire service: When conscious people start causing problems, making threats, or acting violently, fire service personnel call the cops. They don’t handle such situations—and they shouldn’t.

More Devilish Details

So, was I being sarcastic when I agreed with the call to reform the way we view and utilize police services in this country?

No. I think those agencies—the 1.2% that have hundreds or thousands of police officers and work for cities with budgets which would allow for diversifying response services—should absolutely try to make changes which would result in fewer armed officers dealing with the public. 

The ones that are able should make the financial and time commitment to restructure, hire, and train a new breed of first responders. 

I’m not kidding!

There are two more of those devilish details, however.

First, recruiting. Who will willingly take these social worker jobs? How much will they be paid? Because they will quickly discover that whatever it is, it isn’t enough. Will they get the same or more pay than the police?

Second, failure. Be aware that this new structure is going to have serious learning curve issues. An alarmingly high failure rate for a significant period of time should be expected. People—the workers and the citizens—will be injured. Some will die.

Will fewer die compared to the number of deaths we’d have if cops were still responding to every single call?

We’ll see.

Moving Forward: The Police

There will be fewer police officers in those agencies that totally reorganize. Much, much fewer.

This will happen for three reasons:

  1. These cities will reallocate resources to the unarmed branch of first responders, resulting in the need for fewer armed police officers.
  2. No doubt about it—cops in those organizations will quit in droves. They have no faith in the political class and currently have a serious lack of trust in their leadership.
  3. Recruitment will suffer significantly. It will be even harder to recruit officers than it is now, and recruitment has already plummeted by more than 50% over the last four years.

Administrators should do four things for the police officers who do stay on and are utilized in a more limited capacity:

  1. Define their role and purpose
  2. Pay them more and reestablish responsibilities
  3. Train them in areas of need and vulnerability
  4. Provide true leadership

Let’s go over each one of these individually.

1. Role and Purpose: Many (if not most) law enforcement agencies are bureaucracies. They’re legislated monopolies which too often wind up worrying more about following bureaucratic rules than focusing on their true purpose.

Cops should be considered peace officers. Their identity as peace officers should be part of the agency’s lexicon and organizational psyche.

Reestablish the reality that they are members of a community who have been given considerable power and responsibility. They aren’t hired mercenaries; they are, essentially, part of a relationship with their communities. Teach them that. Talk about that. Involve them in that purpose.

2. Pay and responsibilities: The spectrum of responsibilities that officers have is immense. They have to be more than proficient at dealing with all types of people (in all types of mental states) while balancing countless, ever-changing laws and understanding the oft-complex Constitutional rights applying to each type of situation. Pay should reflect all of that.

3. Training: Make a commitment to training officers in areas where mistakes are most likely to happen; where they and the agency are most vulnerable to failure. Focus on the use of force, decision-making under stress, the psychology and biology of the sudden onset of acute stress, control tactics (to the point of obtaining a level of procedural memory), and, finally, true communication skills which involve an understanding of deescalation, intervention, and the opportunity to mitigate force.

4. Leadership: Law enforcement desperately needs involved leaders who walk the walk and lead by example. It needs leaders who communicate openly and put an emphasis not merely on enforcement, but the importance of relationships within the agency and with those they serve in the community.

There is no reason that the 88% of agencies with fewer than 100 officers can’t accomplish all of this. My agency of 70 was great at it—still is. Most of the 30 others in my county are the same.

A Conclusion About Reform

I want to reiterate my general agreement with police reform where it is possible, necessary, and, most importantly, wanted. 

With that, I offer this last opinion to those in power (an opinion which will of course be ignored).

Listen to your community—not just the loudest voices. Don’t make changes that don’t need to be made. For the 99% who won’t make significant structural changes to your police departments, evaluate what you are doing right and identify what is a waste of time and energy.

You’ll need to include the line-level officers if you want an accurate assessment. 

Then, invest in them. Commit to body cameras, leadership, and essential training—training that will actually result in them actually getting better at what it is you are asking them to do.

Failing to train and lead these people and then discarding them when they make a mistake is not only unethical; it is completely counterproductive to both public service and safety.

They will literally walk off the job. That is happening today.

It is time for serious evaluation and investment.

Might as well start now.

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