The most important news
U.S. cities have long struggled to reform their police – but isolated success stories suggest community and officer buy-in may be key
Engaging the police and the community in reforms is essential for success. Stephen Maturen / Getty Images The guilty verdicts against Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021 were a historic moment – but court justice cannot make the sweeping changes most Americans deem necessary to improve policing in the United States As America continues to fight racism and police killings, federal action on police reform has stalled in Congress. But at the state level, there is movement and reform measures are underway in many American cities, including Philadelphia, Oakland and Portland, Oregon. Many of these efforts are aimed at ending specific practices, such as the granting of qualified immunity, whereby officers are protected from civil prosecution, and the use of certain police holds and warrants. prohibition to strike. Mayors and city councils across the country have also pushed for reforms emphasizing accountability and transparency, many striving to create independent oversight commissions. It is too early to expect any substantial improvement from these recently proposed remedies. But as criminal justice scholars – a 10-year former police officer – we know America has been here before. From Ferguson to Baltimore and Oakland to Chicago, many of the city’s police departments have undergone transformational efforts in the wake of controversial police killings. But these reform movements and others have not kept their promises. Resist Change After unarmed teenager Michael Brown was shot dead in Missouri in 2014, Ferguson police agreed to a reform program that included anti-bias training and an agreement to end screening practices, discriminatory search and arrest on the basis of race. But five years after the process began, a report from the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson found that the reforms had done little to change the culture or practice of policing. This was supported by a report from the Ferguson Civilian Review Board in July 2020 which found that “the disparity in traffic stops between black and white residents appears to be widening.” Likewise, concerns about the quality of Baltimore’s policing persist despite federal oversight and reforms introduced after Freddie Gray’s death in custody in 2015. Commentators noted resistance to change among officers and an incapacity to gain community buy-in. reasons for the current downturn in Baltimore. Part of the problem, as seen with Baltimore, is that federal intervention does not seem to guarantee lasting change. Research shows that Department of Justice reform regulations only slightly reduce police misconduct. There is also no evidence that national efforts to use force alone mitigate police killings. Community-Led Reform One silver lining is the Cincinnati Police Department. Twenty years ago, the people of Cincinnati experienced events similar to those that many cities have faced in recent years. An unarmed black man, Timothy Thomas, was shot dead by officers in 2001, causing widespread unrest. This led Cincinnati to enter another model of reform: a collaborative agreement. After the death of Timothy Thomas in 2001, Cincinnati broke up. Mike Simons / Newsmakers via Getty Images Featured by former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch as a national model for community-led policing reform, the collaborative agreement saw the police department, civic government, labor unions Police and local civil rights groups act in partnership for program reform supported by court oversight. The resulting changes in use of force policies, a focus on community-based solutions to crime, and strong oversight have resulted in improved policing. A 2009 Rand assessment of the collaboration agreement found that it had resulted in reduced crime, positive changes in citizens’ attitudes towards the police, and fewer racist traffic stops. There were also fewer incidents of use of force and injuries among officers and those arrested under the collaboration agreement. But it’s not perfect. Black residents of Cincinnati continue to be disproportionately arrested – likely due to the concentration of crime, calls for service, and police deployments in predominantly black neighborhoods. Figures from 2018 show that black residents of Cincinnati were about three times more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts. The Cincinnati Collaborative Agreement contained a number of elements that experts say are necessary for successful policing reforms: strong leadership, flexible and goal-oriented approaches, effective oversight, and transparency. regulated from the outside. In addition, it depended on the ability of police officers to cultivate community investment and overcome resistance from police officers and police unions. Community trust is essential to police reform and community safety. When citizens view the police as legitimate and trustworthy, they are more likely to report crimes, cooperate during police investigations, comply with directives, and work with police to find solutions to crime. Beyond Collaboration Efforts like the one in Cincinnati that put community engagement at the heart of police reform are undoubtedly steps in the right direction. But they can only go very far. A notable shortcoming of most police reform programs is their focus on what to do when confronting the public, rather than trying to avoid these situations in the first place. Fatal shootings often occur during police stops and arrests – situations that carry increased risks of citizen resistance and violent police backlash. Reduce low-level law enforcement, such as vagrancy and loitering arrests – most of which have little public safety benefit – and have a partnership between police and civilian mental health responders, the homelessness, and drug-related calls, could mean fewer opportunities for violent encounters with the police. [You’re smart and curious about the world. So are The Conversation’s authors and editors. You can get our highlights each weekend.] Some ministries have started to modify their enforcement policies in this direction. The Gwinnett County Police Department in Georgia, for example, has stopped making arrests and issuing citations for possession of misdemeanor marijuana. A 2018 study of traffic stops in Fayetteville, North Carolina, found that shifting law enforcement away from minor infractions – such as broken tail lights and expired labels – toward the most violations. Severe speed and traffic lights resulted in a reduction in crime and a reduction in the racial gap, stops and searches. Eliminate the trigger Low-level offenses have often been the triggers for police interventions that result in the death of citizens. Eric Garner – who died in 2014 after a New York police officer put him in a banned strangulation – has been arrested for selling cigarettes in bulk. Spending less time on this policing activity would also allow officers to focus on activities such as analyzing crime trends, performing health checks on elderly residents, and mentoring youth in the community. I (Thaddeus Johnson) felt this as a police officer on the streets, and now I see him as a criminal justice specialist. The examples of Cincinnati, Ferguson and Baltimore show that community buy-in is crucial for successful police improvement attempts. We believe that evaluating the performance of officers and rewarding them on the basis of community-based activities – rather than simply the number of stops and arrests – could foster the support needed for sustainable reform. share ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Thaddeus L. Johnson, Georgia State University and Natasha N. Johnson. Read more: Why this trial was different: Experts respond to Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict Militarization has fostered a police culture that makes protesters the ‘enemy’ Thaddeus L. Johnson is affiliated with the Council on Criminal Justice ( Senior Research Fellow). Natasha N. Johnson does not work, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliation beyond her academic appointment. .