If you get a bad car, do you blame the workers who made the car? No; you understand that the workers simply implemented the design, using the manufacturing process, that they were handed. You understand that it’s the process, not the people, that’s to blame.
It’s the same with the problems in policing these days.
I came to police work as an adult in my mid-30s. Along with the decade-plus of life experience that that implied, it also meant I had a fully formed frontal cortex – the part of the brain that makes judgements and decisions. (The frontal cortex isn’t fully developed until at least 30, which explains why the words “young” and “stupid” are so often paired in a sentence.) And while I was raised in a blue-collar family, I was then in a white-collar profession, which added another unusual twist to my perspective. Later I spent some years in management consulting, adding a private-sector management perspective to my way of thinking. And finally, for years, I spent a lot of time at conferences and training events with some of the very best hearts and minds in the police business, giving me insight into the way the top 1% of the profession thinks and behaves.
I have come to believe that the police profession needs some significant reform. Now, when I say “significant”, I mean that some central things need to be re-thought; I do not mean that the system is FUBAR, needs to be blown-up, or that most cops on the job aren’t good people doing a darn good job within the constraints they face. I’ve worked with many such excellent officers locally, for example, and I’m proud both of them and the 20 years I spent doing the job. (For a complimentary perspective from one really good cop, see Greg Ellifritz’s piece: “Peace Officers vs. “Law Enforcement Officers”.)
But the very nature of policing is that “very good on average” isn’t good enough. The job is too important, and too central to a free society, to be done merely “very well”. You wouldn’t want your heart surgeon to be “pretty good on average”…because the job is too important. Likewise, policing.
Here’s the main symptoms of the problem that I’ve seen (my root cause analysis follows):
- I speak for anyone with some experience in the field when I say that we have too many “kid cops” on the job these days: immature, inexperienced, incompetent, cowardly, either lazy or over-zealous, and generally unsuited for the job
- Cops sometimes make serious serious mistakes, often tragic ones. In the context of the hundreds of millions of citizen contacts over the course of a year in the U.S., these are tiny in number — teeny tiny. But they get a lot of publicity and do far more damage to the reputation of the profession (and by extension to its effective practice) than their immediate tragic consequences. Almost all of these mistakes are completely avoidable. Yes, the law of large numbers says that mistakes will happen, but we have a way to go before we are at only that statistically inevitable number. Yes, many of these mistakes are “good faith” mistakes, but they’re mistakes nonetheless. That said, the reasons cops have to, say, shoot someone, aren’t always clear to someone uninitiated in the tactics of the situation; what appear to be bad decisions or even murders to a lay person (or politically motivated activist) are sometimes in fact good, even necessary, actions.
- For an anger-inducing compilation of some recent serious mistakes, see this guy’s list here. (I know nothing about this guy other that what I read on his website. I doubt I agree with him about much; he seems like a very angry person.) I can argue the cop’s side of things on some of these events — even as I argue that many shouldn’t have happened. But still, it’s a bad list.
- Cops are too often rude to the general public (I’m talking about the people they serve and the taxpayers that pay their salary — not the genuine BGs). Been guilty of that myself a couple times, and ever since I’ve kicked myself over them. Never should have happened. (OTOH I’ve had complaints about being concerned and polite, but that’s another story.)
OK, so far nothing new to anyone. Now here’s where my (probably unique, or close there to) perspective may come in. Here’s what I see as the root causes of these symptoms. And they aren’t the cops themselves:
- Policing is viewed as a blue-collar job, not a high-status profession. It’s viewed, for the most part, as a civil-service, union-protected, public-sector job, that almost anyone can do — not an inspired calling. (And for the wrong kind of person, a job that also comes with a badge and gun.)
- Policing is often boring. Boring jobs attract, or breed, some people happy to be not busy.
- Policing in the United States is Balkanized (fragmented). Every state, and most towns and cities, have their own selection criteria, training curriculum, performance standards, pay scale, and even laws to be enforced. There’s little to no standardization among agencies. This and civil service rules lead to…
- Lack or cross-pollination among agencies. In the private sector, a company pulls talent from anywhere in the world into whatever position that person can best contribute. But a cop that moves from one agency to another has to start at the bottom of the rank, pay, and seniority ladder (the chief’s position usually being the exception). So no agency can effectively pull in middle- or upper- management talent from another. Providence effectively can’t hire a great sergeant or captain from Boston, and so on. This leads to inbreeding of personnel, procedures, training, and internal politics. New, fresh, and good ideas don’t spread throughout the profession the way they should. In the private sector, a new CEO immediately staffs the company with fresh talent, at least a the top; not so in the government sector.
- Related to the 1, 3, and 4 above, most cops are local boys and girls. Policing is strictly a local job – yet another indication of its non-profession status. I had a young friend in Massachusetts who, upon deciding that he wanted to be a cop, interviewed at agencies all across the U.S.; at LAPD they were dumbfounded as to why he was there. Part of the problem is that in some states (like mine) you first have to be hired by a department, then you’re sent to the academy (while drawing a salary), and when you get out you have to go to work for that department. If you want to change agencies, you’re certification is only good within the state. Some states have a better process in which you, at your own expense, go to a community college to study law enforcement (a.k.a. criminal justice) and you get your certification there. Once graduated you can apply for open jobs anywhere in the state. But you’re still limited to the one state (with occasional reciprocity).
- Low standards. It’s no secret that recruit standards have fallen considerably over the last decades. Physically of course, but also as everyone knows, mentally (test scores), and also psychologically (Minneapolis, for example, has dropped almost all of its psychological screening because it was screening out too many minorities.) I’ve been on academy training grounds where barely a single recruit could hit the target with their pistol, but the instructors had to pass them anyway because…well, I think you know.
- Low pay. Yes, I know that some police jobs pay quite well – these are usually federal and some state police positions. But at the local level the pay can be pretty low – low enough that raising a family on it isn’t possible. This problem is worse in the South in my experience, where deputies make barely above the minimum wage in many places. Heck, I even know of state police commanders making not a lot more. You only get great people in low paying jobs because of altruism, there’s only so much of that to go around, and in any case it has a pretty short half-life. One of my pet peeves here is using cops for off-duty traffic details. These privately-paid gigs pay much better than their actual job, and cops soak them up. As a result they routinely work 16 hour days, boosting their income to a nice level, but at the cost of their health, marriages, alertness, and job effectiveness. This is not the way to raise cops’ pay.
- Lack of respect. I’ve had bad experiences with cops (even when I was one). I trust the reports of minorities that I know (or know of) who relate stories of undue hassle. But this does not reasonably translate into a wholesale condemnation of all one million cops (in the U.S.), or of the entire profession. A few vocal activists and their media accomplices have nonetheless done just that, and labeled routine, legal, effective, appreciated, community policing as racist. No one wants to go into a job where merely doing it gets you labeled as a racist, so naturally you get fewer good recruits as a result.
Here’s what I see as reform solutions (numbers correlated to the root causes above). In a nutshell: make police work prestigious, well-paying, difficult to get into, and demanding to stay in. (Why yes, I am familiar with the terms “pipe dream” and “pissing into the wind”.)
- Policing needs to be made into a true profession, complete with very high standards of selection, training, and ongoing performance. To include rigorous continuing education/training requirements, and national accrediting bodies. It should be hard to become a police officer, and easy to be fired for truly bad behavior or not meeting performance standards, but hard to be fired for actually doing your job.
- Much of the really boring administrative and paperwork stuff, and much of the non-dangerous activities (like office-based investigations) can be given over to non-sworn personnel. Keep the dangerous, street-based stuff for the guys and gals with the guns. This would lower overall costs (allowing the cops to be paid more), and by reducing the number of cops, reduce the pressures on inappropriate selection.
- Fragmentation leads to bad outcomes; total centralization leads to bad outcomes; we need to find the right balance. We are totally fragmented now and we could use a greater degree of national standards regarding selection, training, and performance evaluation. I’m told that countries like Norway with a significantly centralized selection and training process, have had good things come of it (although they naturally have problems, particularly the inevitable ones that come from any large-scale undertaking, especially a political one). I know that this is a balancing act; what I’m suggesting that we are not as balanced as we can or should be in this regard.
- This should be easy to solve. Chiefs should be able to hire the best people – into lateral positions or promotions – without loss of pay or benefits to the sought-after officer. Make policing part of a national civil service.
- If it pays well and has national career mobility, then the profession will attract good people from across the nation. If there are nationally-recognized certification programs in law enforcement, just as there are in medicine or engineering, officers can move about freely without loss of pay or grade, allowing their talents and experience to percolate throughout the profession, enriching it just as the free movement of, for example, engineers, enriches their profession.
- To be sure, police agencies had a racial, ethnic, and sex gap relative to their communities for a long time, which is bad – the entity that enforces the rules of society ought to reflect that society. The way to fix that, however, is to give preference once an appropriate standard has been met, not to lower the standard. Poorly selected officers only hurt the very segments of society that they were selected to represent.
- Implementing very high selection and retention standards allows us to demand high pay. In fact you can’t have the former without the latter. Paying well would diminish the allure of energy-draining law enforcement-related side-jobs. Public safety is one of the very few essential, foundational jobs of government. It (and the justice system) should be fully funded before we fund silly things like art centers…or almost anything else.
- I think that implementing the above reforms would go a long way towards reducing inappropriate police behavior and restoring respect for law enforcement. Ultimately this is a cultural issue, which is above my pay grade. But it is certainly as true as it is often derided, that “culture counts”. In fact, nothing counts more.
So today we have a totally fragmented profession, with poor entry standards, poor retention criteria, inbred procedures, poor pay, lack of mobility, that’s of fundamental importance to society, and that is difficult to understand from the outside. And we’re surprised that so many people mistrust or hate the police, and that whole police-hate movements can get traction?
I’ll end with a saying that anyone who’s taken Management 101 has heard: Every system is already perfectly designed…to achieve the results it’s getting.