Opinion: Reimagining our police forces: What is it we need?
Bill Bratton has been the police commissioner of three major cities: Boston, Los Angeles and New York. When asked recently about the value of cops, Bratton, 73, said: “They are the glue that literally holds society together. They are an essential element of a successful democracy.” I agree.
But we have come to a place now where we need to decide if police are our guardians or our warriors. The latter is defined as “a person engaged or experienced in warfare, a solider.”
In 1990, Congress allowed the Department of Defense to pass on surplus military equipment, including armored vehicles, high-caliber weapons and flash-bang grenades, to individual police departments. Some 11,500 local agencies have gotten over $7.4 billion worth of military gear. President Joe Biden ended the practice, but our police are now quasi-military-ready, which gives some the impression that they are more of an invading force than public safety officers.
Maybe it is time to try something different?
For many decades, American police officers have been trained as warriors, instructed to shoot a perpetrator’s center-mass torso area if they perceive a danger to the citizenry or themselves. Today, many cops, especially those serving in crime-riddled major cities, could rightfully describe their work as life-or-death and their workplace as a battlefield. But are they inadvertently adding to the tension?
We should all appreciate that police officers today are asked to be so many things — a guardian, a warrior, a first responder and a mediator between domestic partners, warring gang members, drug addicts and citizens suffering all sorts of mental health issues. Is your job description that vast?
Besieged and underappreciated cops are resigning or taking early retirement in record numbers. Violent crime is up in almost every major city. Yet there are still foolish calls to defund the police. Something has to change to break this cycle — but what exactly?
Currently, new officers go through an average of six months of police academy training before they can be sworn in. That time likely needs to increase, and courses should be added to better train recruits as to when to choose de-escalation before resorting to deadly force.
Some might snicker at that suggestion, but research shows de-escalation techniques work. Police in Newark, New Jersey, didn’t fire a single shot last year after its officers underwent this training. Use-of-force incidents showed significant drops after de-escalation instruction in San Francisco (down 24%), Cleveland (down 32%) and Louisville (down 28%). Instead of responding to fraught events by shouting orders and with guns drawn, officers are taught to take cover, talk patiently with the suspect and try to establish a bond to reach a peaceful solution.
This will require a whole new mindset for some cops, but the change means fewer injuries and deaths for both officers and civilians.
“Police are taught you never give up,” Chuck Wexler, a law enforcement consultant, says, but “in some situations, it’s OK to back off.”
Also, more attention and manpower ought to be deployed to known high-crime areas. Crime stats show violence tends to be geographically centralized. In Chicago, New York, St. Louis and other big cities, just a few low-income Black and Hispanic neighborhoods have suffered the brunt of violence and skyrocketing homicides. More undercover intelligence and precise SWAT-like operations to combat this should be a top priority. Residents there don’t support defunding police — quite the contrary.
How to help reduce the stress for officers? Studies show a considerable number of 911 calls are for people suffering a substance abuse or mental health crisis. When a uniformed and armed officer arrives at such a scene, the situation can become inflamed. So Congress has just approved a $1 billion/10-year federal program to help communities create mental health teams who are trained to handle these unpredictable calls for help. This could go a long way in taking the pressure off police who are frequently ill-trained to handle such situations.
Yes, things need to change, and the good news is: They are. Many cities that cut police funding have come to their senses and are restoring it, rethinking police priorities and hoping disillusioned cops will stay on the force.
Now, one of the best things we the public can do is wave off the horrid rhetoric that police are the enemy. They decidedly are not.
— Diane Dimond is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.